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CONGA STYLES Ramon 'Mongo' Santamaria
The conga drum or tumbadora as it is known in Spanish is a Congolese instrument that developed in Cuba and is now popular worldwide, taking part in numerous musical settings. You cannot mention this particular drum without discussing the enormous contribution of master drummer Mongo Santamaria, arguably the most influential player in the history of the instrument.

Mongo Santamaria's development and contribution as a hand drummer is closely tied to not only important changes in musical directions in contemporary musical styles but also to important changes in the musical function, role and playing style of the conga drums. Apart from his artistic influence Santamaria, had an enormous impact in extending the popularity of the instrument outside strictly traditional Afro-Cuban musical forms. He also engaged many musicians in cross-cultural musical collaborations encompassing styles such as Afro, Latin American, jazz, rhythm and blues and folk. This short article focuses on some trademark patterns as played by Mongo documenting his outstanding drumming work and lasting influence.

One of the most celebrated compositions in the Latin-jazz genre is without doubt Afro Blue, a beautifully crafted piece based on an Afro-Cuban 6/8 style known as abakua. The piece written by Mongo in the late 1950s has been also recorded by numerous artists including the legendary saxophonist John Coltrane, singer Dianne Reeves and timbalero Tito Puente to name a few. The Afro-Cuban abakua pattern is characterised by an intricately placed open tone played by the low drum on beat five — at times giving the listener a difficult down beat aural experience — and the melodic combination played by this drum along with middle drum. The following examples showcase this combination. Focus on the open tone on the lower drum which is played on beat 5 of every bar and the open tones on the middle drum which are played on beats 1, 5 of the first bar and on beat 3 of the second bar. You could think of the open tones of the middle part  as minim triplets in one bar of 4/4.

conga legend:  O=Open Tone  M=Muffled Tone  P=Palm  F=Fingers  S=Slap  (S)= Muffled Slap

Mongo’s abakua inspired pattern played in the original version of Afro Blue makes use of some of that melodic combination as played by one player on two congas. 

For further research refer to the original recording on Mongo Santamaria’s Afro Roots release on the Prestige label [PCD-24018-2]. Practice slowly and develop all the patterns presented at different tempi.

For further information and some conga patterns please refer to the following articles CLAVE CONCEPTS Afro-Cuban Rhythms, CLAVE CONCEPTS Tito Puente's Para Los Rumberos, GUAGUANCO Afro-Cuban Rumba, BOMBA Afro-Puerto Rican Treasure and MOZAMBIQUE The Manny Oquendo Touch.

© Alex Pertout. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without prior written permission from the author. This article was first published in Drumscene magazine.

© Alex Pertout. All Rights Reserved.