Carlos 'Patato' Valdes: King of jazz conga drummers


Carlos Valds, conga drummer: born Havana 4 November 1926; married (two daughters); died Cleveland, Ohio 4 December 2007.

The Cuban-American Carlos Valds, better known in the music world as "Patato", revolutionised the Afro-Cuban conga drum by fine-tuning its skin to create melodies as well as rhythms and introducing it into the world of jazz. When he died at the age of 81, on the way back from a gig, he was perhaps the world's best-known conguero, or conga drummer, having played with American jazz greats including Art Blakey, Herbie Mann and Dizzy Gillespie.

Although he was more or less of the same generation as the famous Buena Vista Social Club, Valds left the Caribbean island of Cuba when he was a young man, in 1954, five years before Fidel Castro's revolution. Sucked into the world of jazz in Manhattan, he became known as much for his showmanship as for his pulsating rhythms. He was diminutive in stature ("patato" is Havana street slang for "shorty") and audiences could see only his head, under a trademark cloth cap matching the colours of his instrument, if he sat down. So he tended to stand up, and was wont to dance, even on top of his drums, while keeping a perfect beat, often a rumba.

After he was spotted playing in a club by a member of the French film director Roger Vadim's production team, Valds quickly found a few minutes of fame playing the congas and teaching Brigitte Bardot how to dance her unforgettable, buttock-swinging mambo in her breakthrough movie And God Created Woman (1956).

One of Valds's greatest legacies is the fact that he redefined the conga drum, not least by playing more than one at once, often four or more to achieve a wider range of notes, and turning it into a potential solo instrument. When he started playing the conga in the barrios of Havana, he, like drummers before him, tuned the skins by heating them with an open flame from below. Daunted by the fact that the skin's tone lowered as it cooled down, Valds added a metal ring and keys he could screw to alter the pitch and produce intricate melodies intertwined with his rhythms. The system remains in standard use today and the Patato Model range of conga drums, made by the Latin Percussion company, is among the most popular, used by musicians from Santana to the Rolling Stones.

Carlos Valds was born in the Los Sitios district of Havana in 1926 to a family who, like most black Cubans, worshipped the African-rooted spirits of santería, which became crudely known in the US as black magic, as much as the icons of the Catholic Church. The African beats of santería ceremonies became the basis for Valds's music and his 50-year career.

After he gave up hope of being a boxer or dancer, both careers aimed at earning fortune and fame in the United States, he was spotted playing a conga on Havana's seafront promenade, the Malecó*, and was given slots on some of Cuba's first-ever television programmes in the early 1950s. That won him widespread fame around the island for his "penguin dance" performed while tapping his congas.

Once in Manhattan, where he started out at Count Basie's club in Harlem, he was quickly snapped up first by Latin bandleaders such as Tito Puente, Machito and Benny Mor, and later by Gillespie, Mann, Blakey (from 1959-72) and Quincy Jones, often touring Europe with their bands.

In 2002, Valds received a Latin Grammy award, along with the Bebo Valds trio, for their album El Arte del Sabor ("The Art of Taste").

During his latter years, Valds performed first with his own band Afrojazzia and later the 11-piece Conga Kings. He had played with the Kings at the San Francisco Jazz Festival last month and was on a flight east for a gig at George Washington University in Washington, DC, when he was taken ill. His plane was diverted to Cleveland in Ohio so that he could be treated, but he did not recover. A friend by his bedside said his last words were "Changó, I'm going with you", a reference to a santería deity.

Phil Davison

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Books should be for everyone, says Els, 8. Publisher Scholastic now agrees
booksAn eight-year-old saw a pirate book was ‘for boys’ and took on the publishers
Life and Style
Mary Beard received abuse after speaking positively on 'Question Time' about immigrant workers: 'When people say ridiculous, untrue and hurtful things, then I think you should call them out'
tech
Life and Style
Most mail-order brides are thought to come from Thailand, the Philippines and Romania
life
News
i100
Life and Style
tech
Voices
Margaret Thatcher, with her director of publicity Sir Gordon Reece, who helped her and the Tory Party to victory in 1979
voicesThe subject is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for former PR man DJ Taylor
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Ashdown Group: Head of IT - Hertfordshire - £90,000

£70000 - £90000 per annum + bonus + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: H...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions