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Michael Spiro is a percussionist, recording artist, and educator based in San Francisco. He has performed on many records, has co-produced and performed on several instructional videos and produced cd releases for ensembles such as Orquesta Batachanga, Grupo Bata-Ketu, Mark Levine & The Latin Tinge, and Grupo Ilu-Aña. As an author he released The Conga Drummer’s Guidebook in 2006.

The following interview with Michael Spiro 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 Michael Spiro via telephone.

PERTOUT: I wanted to start by asking your opinions on the development of conga drum technique and in particular the mano secreta system designed by Changuito, in your experience what does the mano secreta aim to achieve?

SPIRO: I think the point of the exercises is to do two things: to obviously develop your left hand but more specifically to help you develop the playing of double strokes.

PERTOUT: And how does the mano secreta exercises approach double strokes?

SPIRO: There are sort of two approaches to this. Changuito’s approach is that the double stroke is not two open tones, its heel-toe. Meaning that where you put the heel-toe is what gives you the double stroke. As opposed to for example the way Anga used to play his double strokes which were basically as two open tone strokes, just played very fast. And so I think the whole point for Changuito was to learn to be able to get the heel-toe to become a double stroke.

PERTOUT: So do you feel that Changuito is the person responsible for the development of the double stroke open tones by playing them in the heel-toe style on the edge of the drum?

SPIRO: Well I would say it was certainly more Changuito than others. Giovanni was Changuito’s student. I think the real question here is whether you could say that Tata Güines was the guy that first created it and Changuito took it to another level. I think that the first guy to do it was Tata Güines, it was just Changuito that took it to a whole new place. If you look at videos of Tata’s playing he always tended to play his heel-toes in the middle of the drum but every once in a while he would move it back towards the edge. In other words my presumption is that Changuito might have looked at that and gone well if you are going to go that close to the edge you might as well go a bit further and get an open tone out of it.

PERTOUT: And would you say that after Changuito, Giovanni took it further?

SPIRO: Yes. I don’t think at this point you can say that Giovanni created any of this work. You can say that Giovanni took it to a level that nobody had ever done so. Changuito really developed this and made an entire technique out of this, but it was Giovanni that then because he was younger and had nothing to do but practice twelve hours a day, took it to the next level. Giovanni for example took the heel-toe technique and applied it to both hands.

PERTOUT: Do you feel that drum rudiments have become part of the conga drum repertoire and development nowadays?

SPIRO: Yes I think that in today’s world, contemporary conga players basically are playing drum rudiments and need to be playing drum rudiments on conga drums.

PERTOUT: In terms of the way Changuito teaches, does he incorporate drum rudiments?

SPIRO: Yes. One of the things I never understood though is that Changuito’s thing was that the heel-toe was for the left hand. I can’t explain why he looked at it this way, because in reality every drummer in the world really works hard on developing both hands equally. That’s a question that I can’t answer for you.

PERTOUT: In seems to me that nowadays if you are going to play the conga drum you are going to incorporate all these techniques, how do you approach teaching these days?

SPIRO: Yes, that’s it, that is all there is now. When I teach I tell my students if you want to play contemporary conga drums you are going to need to know all this, but as I state in my book you will need eight hours a day to practice it. I can show you what they are doing but you have to remember that your hands don’t bounce and so to make your hands bounce, to actually make this a possibility you can’t do it by practising an hour a day, you have to practice eight hours a day.

PERTOUT: And so how did you develop this, practising eight hours a day?

SPIRO: No because I didn’t discover this until I was thirty-five years old. By then you are trying to make a living, doing gigs, rehearse and raise a family and so I incorporate all this stuff to varying degrees in my playing but by no means is my playing at that level of speed and facility. I am unfortunately at age fifty-five of a generation that came after Mongo but before Giovanni, which puts me in that ‘no man’s land’ territory of trying to play catch up but never succeeding.

PERTOUT: I know Raul Rekow quite well and I would say that he feels like that as well, I mean he was playing fast and incorporating impressive rolls around the drums but then this new technique came up.

SPIRO: Yes Raul and I are very close in this generation and his rolls and stuff in essence come from an old school of ‘muscle the drum’, which is very different from this double strokes at a thousand miles an hour.

PERTOUT: So who do you feel is leading this movement, is it Giovanni in your eyes?

SPIRO: Well I think Giovanni is the most famous right now but if you go to Cuba there are six hundred thousand kids playing that stuff. It’s a new era and that’s what it is now. Giovanni may be the most famous but by no means is he unique anymore.

Telephone Interview. 18 July 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.