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

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