Tata Guines: Cuban 'King of the Congas'

Tata Güines was one of the finest, most original and best-loved percussionists in the history of Cuban music, whose rousing playing made him a celebrity for followers of both jazz and then world music, in a remarkable career that lasted for six decades. He specialised in playing the conga drums, the tall, barrel-like instruments that had originally been brought to Cuba by African slaves, and which brought Güines his inevitable nickname, "King of the Congas".

He played with an astonishing array of musicians, from Frank Sinatra through to Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and many of the finest musicians in Cuba, including the trumpeter Jesús Alemañy and the pianist Bebo Valdés. And he was still an impressive performer towards the end of his life. In one of his final great recordings, released four years ago, he added delicate conga work to the title track of the Grammy-winning Lágrimas Negras, in which his old friend Valdés collaborated with the young Spanish flamenco star Diego El Cigala.

Born Federico Soto Alejo in a poor black neighbourhood in Güines, the town from which he was to take his stage name, "Tata" had started out as a drum-obsessed shoe-maker, who had created his own home-made percussion instruments as a boy, and began his musical career playing first the double-bass and then percussion in local dance bands. Moving to Havana in 1948 in an attempt to become a full-time musician, he managed to find occasional work in bands led by Bebo Valdés and others, before finally becoming a professional full-time musician in 1952, when he joined the band Fajardo Y Sus Estrellas, with whom he toured South America.

In 1957, his career took a new direction after he moved to New York, where his conga work made him something of a hero among jazz musicians, and where he made a celebrated appearance at the plush Waldorf Astoria, reportedly singing and playing five congas at once, in a solo spot that both boosted the popularity of Afro-Cuban rhythms in the United States and helped to transform the percussionist into a star.

In New York he was invited to play with many of the jazz greats, added his congas to Sinatra recordings, and he also played on the highly influential Cuban Jam Sessions In Miniature set with the bass player Cachao López.

All of which could have been the start of a highly successful, lucrative career in the States, but history and his own political views were to transform Tata Güines' life. The Cuban revolution in 1959 quite literally divided the island's musicians. Many moved to America, where they enjoyed successful careers, but Güines decided to move in the other direction and return back home. He had supported Castro's revolution, and claimed that he had never fully enjoyed life in America because he suffered from racial discrimination as a black Cuban. "Fame did not exist beyond the stage," he said in an interview published last year. "Once you left the stage, it was like the signs said 'whites only'."

Returning to Cuba meant a considerable loss of earnings, and sudden isolation from the Western jazz scene in which he was such a rising star. But he kept playing, of course, working with a variety of bands in a variety of styles, but now restricted to touring only in those countries in Eastern Europe or Latin America that enjoyed good relations with Castro. By now, it had become hard for Western fans to hear Güines' recordings, though this was slowly to change.

In 1979 he was one of over 30 leading Cuban musicians who got together to record five albums for Egrem, the Cuban state recording company. Nearly two decades later, in 1998, those now-celebrated sessions by Estrellas de Areito were finally released on the World Circuit label in the UK, and Güines could be heard playing alongside musicians such as the pianist Rubé* González, who was by then becoming an international star thanks to the success of the Buena Vista Social Club.

Güines never took part in the Buena Vista's best-selling recordings, but he was involved in other projects that marked the rediscovery of Cuban music by a new generation of Western fans. In 1996 he began his association with the band Cubanismo!, in which he played and recorded alongside the trumpeter Jesús Alemañy and the pianist Alfredo Rodríguez. The photo on the band's first album shows Tata in a typical pose, seated behind the congas, wearing his trademark flat cap, and grinning in delight at the music.

Robin Denselow

Federico Soto Alejo (Tata Güines), percussionist: born Güines, Cuba 30 June 1930; died Havana 4 February 2008.

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