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Tommy Saito is a Japanese born conga player who was a personal friend of Mongo Santamaria. On one of Santamaria’s trips to Cuba he bought Saito three Vergara congas. When Santamaria’s own pair of Vergara congas were stolen outside a recording studio in the 1960s, he borrowed the ones he bought for Saito for the next thirty years! He currently resides in California.

The following interview with Tommy Saito 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 Tommy Saito via telephone.

PERTOUT: When did you start playing congas?

SAITO: I started in the 1950s. I was an eighteen year old kid, a young Japanese-American playing congas, it was never heard of (laughs). I was hired by a Puerto Rican band simply because a friend of mine told the leader "you see this Japanese kid here? he plays congas" and the guy said "you got to be kidding, come out and play." I was very shy, no experience playing and was a tad reluctant but the guy wanted me to play all the time, so we ended up playing ballroom dances and clubs. I learned by watching the great players like Mongo and Wilfredito Vicente. Whatever New York band came I was at the club sitting right in front of the band. I got to learn by watching these great guys.

PERTOUT: I wanted to ask you about your long friendship with Mongo Santamaria and the Vergara congas he bought for you in Cuba.

SAITO: Oh you know about the Vergara congas! (laughs). When I first met Mongo Santamaria, he and Wille Bobo were sideman in the Tito Puente Orchestra. We became friends and every time he came from New York, he would give me a call and so we became very good friends. Every time he went to Cuba he would go to the trouble of bringing me these 78 rpm records as he knew that I was serious about learning the music. Then when he joined Cal Tjader's band and moved to California I saw him even more, visiting each other's homes and meeting all the family members. That was my friendship with Mongo.

PERTOUT: What congas were you playing in those days?

SAITO: There was a company that was just starting out here run by Mariano Bobadilla. The company which was small was to become Gon Bops. This was running in Mariano's garage in the 1950s. The hardware was a bit rough, not as nice looking as they make today. He wasn't interested in big mass production or great looking hardware, he was just making custom congas. I was really interested in congas, every time Mongo came to town I was just blown away. I was a big jazz fan, you know Dizzy Gillespie and all that, until a radio program that was playing Latin music came in and I was just hooked. I saw Mongo, I introduced myself, told him I really liked the music. I liked the congas he was playing and so I asked whether I could get them somewhere. He then somehow told me that if I really wanted a pair he could get them for me. A few months went by and then I got a call from Mongo telling me that there were some congas which were going to be sent directly to my house by the guy who makes them, Gonzalo Vergara. And that is how I got a pair of Vergaras, because of Mongo in the mid 1950s.

PERTOUT: And then he borrowed them from you?

SAITO: Yes. Mongo had a set with fibreglass coating on top, they are the red ones on many album covers. He got some guy in Oakland to apply the fibreglass so they would hold better, because he was constantly on the road. He played those for several years. They were in New York City on a recording date and they were moving the equipment from the place to the car. Obviously someone was watching them and not only the congas, but everything they were bringing out from the place and they stole everything. Then he called me in a panic and in Spanish, as I speak the language fluently said “me robaron mis congas ayudame” (“they stole my congas help me”). He then asked if he could borrow my set and how could I say no. My congas had the natural look, he then borrowed them for the next thirty years! The Vergara congas were based on Spanish wine barrels cut down, all the Vergara congas are Spanish wine barrels, they still smell of wine too. The congas and the hardware were made by Gonzalo Vergara and I believe his brother. His wife and sister use to make the covers, I still have the original covers for them. I still have the original cases as well. I have two which Mongo returned to me and one of the red fibreglass ones he had, he gave me one of those. The fibreglass is peeling off and I have it in my garage completely stripped of the fibreglass, but some of the staves are open so it needs to be reglued, someday I will get to do that. I love them around. When Gon Bops started I recall Wilfredo Vicente who played congas for Tito Rodriguez had Vergara congas and used to go to Mariano's garage to show him how those congas were made out of cut down barrels. Gong Bops made everything from brand new wood. It had to be dry and sometimes it took a whole year just to dry some wood up.

PERTOUT: Did you see Mongo Santamaria towards the end of his life?

SAITO: Yes as a matter of fact I went to visit him in Miami two months before he passed away. I didn't know he was going to pass. Mongo was very good to me, to my parents. I had lots of respect for him.

Telephone Interview. 3 February 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.