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Give The Drummer Some: Conga/Timbal Duos

Tito Puente, above playing in London, was one of the best percussionists of any era.
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Tito Puente, above playing in London, was one of the best percussionists of any era.

Want a great conversation-starter with a jazz fan? Ask, "What's your favorite pairing of bass and drums?" Count Basie's Walter Page (bass) and Jo Jones (drums)? Miles Davis' Jimmy Cobb and Paul Chambers? John Coltrane's Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison?

There's an equally intriguing query for fans of Latin jazz: favorite pairings of conga and timbal players. Congas have become ubiquitous in popular music since the late 1960s, after Santana famously made 500,000 people sway their hips at Woodstock. Timbales, the two snare-drum-looking instruments usually mounted with an array of cowbells, recall the big bands of the famous Palladium Ballroom in New York, the epicenter of Latin popular music in the late 1950s. Together, they're the one-two punch of Afro-Cuban rhythm making.

Many long-standing percussion duos display seemingly telepathic interplay — the intensity of a runaway train mixed with the kind of swing that makes hips move by themselves. Picking five was a chore, but here they are.

Note: Traditional Afro-Cuban rhythm sections also include bongos, and a few are mentioned below as Honorable Mentions.

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Give The Drummer Some: Conga/Timbal Duos

Machito And Mario Bauza

"The Afro Cuban Jazz Suite"

From 'The Original Mambo Kings: An Introduction to Afro-Cubop 1948-1954'

In the late 1940s, Machito (Frank Grillo) and his Afro Cubans were the cutting edge of Latin music. Music director Mario Bauza came of age playing in American big bands, and the jazz sensibilities he brought to vocalist Machito's orchestra placed it head-and-shoulders above other Latin dance bands of the era. Conguero Luis Miranda had just the right mix of jazz and Afro-Cuban feeling. Timbalero Ubaldo Nieto had what it took to put this magnificent band through its paces. Together, they met the challenge of Bauza's groundbreaking "Afro Cuban Jazz Suite," which moves from the sultry Afro rhythm to fast mambo to guaguanco, to bolero, to mambo again. A flawless performance. Honorable mention to the great Jose Mangual on bongo. (Note: Extra-credit points to those who noticed Charlie Parker on the alto solo, Flip Phillips on the tenor and Buddy Rich on drums.)

Tito Puente And Mongo Santamaria

"Ti Mon Bo"

From 'Top Percussion'

Sometimes you just have to give the drummers some. "Ti" refers to Tito Puente on timbales, "Mon" is Mongo Santamaria and "Bo" is Willie Bobo on bongos. This cut is a blowing session. Three of the best percussionists of that (or any) era let loose along with a simple, now-classic bass line. The steady groove provides the inspiration for improvisation, but the genius lies in the way each drummer plays with that simple beat. These solos have become the stuff of legend. Even with late-1950s technology, it's easy to feel the power of Santamaria's tone. Puente makes it clear why he was the one who brought the timbales from the back of the band to front and center. And Bobo plays like a jazz drummer born with the clave ticking inside him.

Mongo Santamaria And Willie Bobo

"Tumbao"

From 'Monterey Concerts'

West Coast vibraphonist Cal Tjader said he was introduced to Afro-Cuban music by hearing Machito and Tito Puente during a trip to New York in the late '40s. Soon afterward, he started a small-group version of what he heard in the East. The most successful and influential of these small bands was the one that included Mongo Santamaria on congas and Willie Bobo on timbales. The two had just departed Tito Puente's big band. Not having to compete with trumpets and saxophones allowed for the quintet to showcase the interlocking beats of traditional conga and timbales patterns. The result is the definitive sound of small-group Latin jazz. Santamaria's congas sound loud, crisp and powerful, while Bobo's timbales work has a light touch that responded to every nuance of Santamaria's genius. Pay particular attention to Santamaria's solo near the end: Despite all the creative ways in which he breaks up the rhythm, Bobo never loses the groove — not even for half a beat.

Pancho Sanchez And Ramon Banda

"Peruchín"

From 'Sonando'

Poncho Sanchez paid homage to Cuban piano legend Pedro Justiz — better known as "Percuchin" — on his second album back in 1982, in a very stripped-down format: piano, bass, conga, bongo, timbales. Sanchez started his band with two guys he grew up with — brothers Tony Banda on bass and Ramon Banda on timbales — and in this cut, you can feel the deep groove they developed after so many nights on the bandstand. The five musicians seem to play as one, digging deep into interlocking rhythms with mucho swing. When Sanchez launches into his solo, Ramon Banda has his back by laying down a funky groove on cowbell that gives the conguero something to react to, and to drive him along. Honorable Mention to Jose "Papo" Rodriguez on bongo.

Jerry Gonzalez And Steve Berrios

"Bye-Ya"

From 'Rumba Para Monk'

How do you play congas and trumpet in the same band? Jerry Gonzalez has been doing that since a loose collective of like-minded musicians became the Fort Apache Band in the mid-1980s. Fort Apache is different in the use of a full drum set in place of timbales. Steve Berrios has been the band's only drummer, and he simultaneously lays down driving Afro-Cuban rhythms along with an Elvin Jones-like drum sensibility. On this cut, we hear Gonzalez's Bronx-via-Havana approach to a Cuban songo beat while Berrios answers with an African-derived cowbell pattern. His timbales solo echoes the late innovator Manny Oquendo. Honorable mention to Jerry's brother Andy Gonzales on bass; he plays like a very melodic third drummer.

Felix Contreras is co-creator and host of Alt.Latino, NPR's pioneering radio show and podcast celebrating Latin music and culture since 2010.
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