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Joey De Leon Jr graduated from the Manhattan School of Music in classical percussion where he also won the conservatory's highest award for outstanding musicianship. Since then he has gained credits with an array of international artists including Justo Almario, Joe De Francesco, Jimmy Smith, Banda Bros, Luckman Jazz Orchestra and is the current percussionist with the Poncho Sanchez Latin jazz band.

The following interview with Joey De Leon Jr was especially conducted for my Master of Philosophy in Music [By Research] thesis titled The Conga Drum: Development, Technique, Styles, Improvisations and the contribution of Master Drummer Ramon ‘Mongo’ Santamaria which I completed in 2008 at the ANU in Canberra. The thesis documents the conga drum’s historical development, investigates basic hand techniques and current technical hand developments, as well as the enormous contribution of master drummer Ramon 'Mongo' Santamaria, arguably the most influential player in the history of the instrument, exploring his percussive output as well as his ensemble, composition and arranging proficiency. I conducted this interview with Joey De Leon Jr via email.

PERTOUT: What type of exercises do you adhere to in your conga development?

DE LEON JR: Singles, doubles, paradiddles, groups of eighth notes, alternating each hand and descending to eventually singles. All kinds of tempos, slow, fast, medium, coming up with diverse stickings to give that idea that is some kind virtual rudiment. And of course I incorporate rudiments one or two at a time, just so I can get a little more involved with it. As far as sound, there is a new template for today's conga player. If we take the period of the 1960s and 1970s in terms of the player who took the slap and revolutionised it, that gave us the reason to slap with more intensity, more heart, you would have to say Tata Güines! Before that there was not the emphasis of technique in general, because the conga still at that time was more of a primal concept. It had not been academically applied into a more cerebral approach. Then another guy who rose to fame with Irakere, took it from where Tata begun and then added not three, four but five congas. He is sorely missed, his name was Jorge ‘El Niño’ Alfonso. His sound took the congas and a concept to new heights, this was in Cuba. In New York, you had guys like the late Frankie Malabe, as well as Tony Jimenez, Eladio Perez, Tommy Lopez, and of course Papo Pepin and Johnny Rodriguez. It is important to note that the West Coast had some formidable figures namely Armando Peraza, my hero, maestro Francisco Aguabella and of course, everyone’s hero, Don Ramon ‘Mongo’ Santamaria. There are so many more names, but I used these guys because of their sound and their impact on me. I think it's important to note that as a player you are judged on certain criteria such as sound, time, musicality, accompanying and supporting skills as well as on soloing technique.

PERTOUT: Did you study with someone in particular who guided you in their particular approach?

DE LEON JR: I guess my first would have to be my father. I'll also say my first conga teacher Rene Lopez Jr whose father is a famous ethnomusicologist specializing in Afro-Cuban music. Two other teachers, Jeff Kraus, Jim Preiss, both classical players although Jeff was more influential for the Cuban stuff and Jim Preiss was influential in terms of sound.

PERTOUT: Do you practice hands on the drum, with sticks, or on a tablita?

DE LEON JR: Both, since I also play timbales frequently, I use both. I like the tablita, but use it sparingly, maybe I'll start.

PERTOUT: Do you incorporate all the drum rudiments?  Do you find them suitable?  Do you incorporating all the conga sounds?  Do you make up your own hand sound variations?

DE LEON JR: I feel that I have, but it's been awhile since I've dissected it. I think they can be suitable, but whether they translate in a musical way, I don't know about all of them. My thought is to be open about it and find a rudiment and break it down. I make my own sound variations and I feel that most of the new generation players are doing that as well.

PERTOUT: Is the method based on a particular player that you have studied?

DE LEON JR: Giovanni without a doubt! Of course Changuito who introduced Giovanni to la mano secreta.

PERTOUT: Could you describe Changuito's la mano secreta?

DE LEON JR: Is it a set of set exercises or ideas of exercises. I work on it all the time. It involves the development of la muñeca. It involves all kinds of exercises and then combining with the other hand to form a linear approach to drumming. If you're familiar with the great Berklee drum Professor Gary Chaffee and his method, then you're familiar with this kind of approach. Melody and constantly connecting one idea with one another, you start to create this kind of language.

PERTOUT: Are there any other approaches in evidence in terms of hand techniques?

DE LEON JR: Many countries have incredible versions of hand technique. In Brazil, there is a new movement of playing the pandeiro which now the thumb is not the dominating force, but rather  the whole hand and twisting the instrument with your other hand creating this heel-toe effect, but with both hands.

PERTOUT: Who are the players do you feel that have changed the conga drum technique spectrum?

DE LEON JR: Giovanni, Changuito, Anthony Carillo, Richie Flores, Paoli Mejias, Javier Oquendo, Bobby Allende, Marc Quiñones and of course the late Miguel ‘Anga’ Diaz, may he rests in peace.

Email Interview. 5 Febuary 2007.

© Alex Pertout. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without prior written permission from the author. This article forms part of the thesis ‘The Conga Drum: Development, Technique, Styles, Improvisations and the contribution of Master Drummer Ramon ‘Mongo’ Santamaria’ which was submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of the degree of Master of Philosophy in Music [by Research] Faculty of Arts, Australian National University.

© Alex Pertout. All Rights Reserved.