"For me, becoming isn't about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. The journey doesn't end."
― Michelle Obama
Back in the 1970s, when I first took up the study of conga playing in the States, the route to proficiency was: (1) learn the five main notes that you could produce from a conga (bass, open tone, slap, muff, and rim) and, (2) build up your rhythm repertoire. Conga players then practiced the vast range of grooves from Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and various African countries - mainly Nigeria.
Once you got your tones strong and clear, you'd enter a rumba drum ensemble by either playing the clave or holding the tumbao beat on the bass conga/Tumbadora. Moving up to play the Segundo ("Tres Golpes") on conga was a progressive step, demonstrating a more profound knowledge of the entire rumba drum ensemble. And, it used to be (and usually still is!) that the cat with the best tones and slap chops was the Quinto player.
In this context, soloing wasn't as much about speed as strategic, creative note placement and swing. This detail is significant because we're never just playing just for ourselves. When we play in a rumba ensemble, we play for people to dance and have fun! Tito Puente wisely stated, "If there is no dance, there is no music."
Since Carlos "Patato" Valdés took two congas to the stage for his gigs with the Sonora Matanzera and the Conjunto Casino in the 1940s, congueros have always played (at least!) two congas when accompanying bands. In the early 1960s, Patato again expanded this concept by playing tree congas on his gigs - Tumba, Conga, and Quinto - further developing his signature melodic approach to conga playing. Other major Cuban conga players such as Mongo Santamaria, Armando Peraza, Tata Güines, and Francisco Aguabella rapidly followed suit.
In the mid-70s, as the evolution of conga playing continued, the late Jorge "el Niño" Alfonso (a founding member of the Irakere band from Cuba) is credited with being the pioneer in developing a functional style using four and eventually five congas at the same time.
Around this time, the experimentations by José Luis Quintana (aka, "Changuito") began to change how congueros used their hands on their drums. Much like the concept that Tabla players apply in dividing their strong hand into two parts horizontally (index + thumb on one side - pinky, ring, and middle fingers on the other), Changuito divided both hands vertically. Now, the "heel-toe" strokes (palm-fingertip), once considered solely soft "ghost strokes," became musically accentuated conga notes which expanded isolated licks.
This "heel-toe" accentuation, when performed fast, is subtly invisible to the eye. A layperson will observe the hand motion expecting to hear one sound, while the hand will surprisingly produce two! Because of this optical illusion, Changuito baptized his innovative technique as "the secret hand" - "la mano secreta."
A younger generation of players, most notably Puertorican🇵🇷 Giovanni Hidalgo and Cuban🇨🇺 Miguel "Angá" Diaz (mentored by legendary conguero Federico Arístides Soto Alejo, aka Tata Güines) seized upon Changuito's concept and further evolved it into using your hands for double-strokes on the conga head. Using your hands in this way, similar to how sticks bounce off of drum heads, you could now reproduce all of the snare drum rudiment exercises with your hands, vastly amplifying the mechanical range of what you could play on a conga!
Contemporary conga playing by today's gifted elite players - cats like Richie Flores, Pedrito Martinez, Pedro Pablo Rodriguez Mireles, Paoli Mejias, Pakito Baeza, and Yaroldi Abreu (to name a few friends) is mostly about double-stroke speed. It takes a special dedication to put in the long hours necessary for training in this style. And I believe it was especially difficult for players from my generation and the generation before me to acquire this particular skill.
I had been playing professionally for at least fifteen years when Changuito and Giovanni produced their groundbreaking videos teaching the world how to execute their double-stroke rudiments on congas. Until then, I hadn't understood what I had been hearing on the records where they were featured. I couldn't see it in my mind - their quick notes were evident to my ears but a blur in my head!
So, those videos truly opened up this dimension in conga playing! But, I soon found out that, even though you see how the technique goes, you can't just immediately apply the procedure to your playing, expecting it to sound good or authentic. I can't tell you how frustrating it was to train these techniques for days and months and not be able to transition smoothly to using them on my gigs! But, while you CAN teach an old dog a new trick, it WILL take a kind of religious consistency and patience!
Patience is paying off, as presently, I (at least!) understand the concept of obtaining the same bounce with your hands as you'd automatically get using drumsticks. It's a unique skill that doesn't happen naturally as you hit the conga skin. It's a skill that you need to develop independently and in an isolated manner. Similar to using drumsticks applying the Moelher technique, it's insufficient to understand the concept intellectually. You've got to put in the time and work to automatize the method as a habit!
Today's conga students approach these "advanced" techniques as simply part of the contemporary Conga drum curriculum. Unlike the cats from my generation, they're not "re-training" their physical chops or "re-programming" their minds. Approaching conga playing with young, enthusiastic fresh, and open minds, the present and coming generation embraces this (what to me still is!) advanced technique as one in the sequence of progressive steps to learn in their journey towards mastery.
And, I'm sure that these "young'uns" will continue to evolve this art even further! Even as I persist in refining the double-stroke technique for open solos, some of the young players I've mentioned are perfecting their triple-stroke rolls! Whew!
Learning is art without bias - keep learning! When your mind is open to learning, you realize that there's no power like the power of youth. They are unstoppable! It is a wise elder who learns from the youngster to show that true wisdom comes from learning from one another.