How to Use The Site

I think the key to using this site is to know how you personally go about becoming a better conga player on a day to day basis. My own daily approach to improving has always followed a pretty strict format, so let me share that with you first, and then suggest specific topics and videos on the site to plug into your practicing.

  1. Warm up - I feel very strongly that every practice session has to begin with technique. The conga drum is very much an athletic event, and so I need to warm up slowly and deliberately, and get the muscles and tendons stretched and warm.  Once I have “broken a sweat” playing my favorite warm up exercises, then I take them to the next level (faster tempo and/or for longer duration) and try to increase both my speed and my endurance. I don’t want to go so fast as to injure myself or to play sloppily, but I want push my muscles to where there is definitely some lactic acid built up in them before I stop. Little by little this will increase my stamina. This may seem unnecessary as first glance, but we need to be able to play for long periods of time in either popular or folkloric settings, without letting our sound diminish, or having our muscles start to cramp.
  2. Technique - Then I try to work on whatever technical issues I am facing at this point in time. It might be smoothing out and making my heel-toe patterns more even and regular, including playing them with either hand. It might be trying to improve my double strokes, or playing left hand lead patterns to balance my sound and my brain (since I am right handed). But in any event, I am trying to improve my sound, facility and accuracy, not be creative yet, or necessarily trying to “groove” really hard.
  3. Grooves - I generally follow that by working on rhythmic patterns, grooves or styles that I am learning, creating, writing or studying. They might be played on as few as one drum  or as many as five, they might include different instruments at the same time (congas and cajones, congas and timbales, congas and foot pedals, drumset), and they almost always include playing and singing at the same time. Now is my time to work on solid time and creating strong grooves, while I also try to bring my creativity to bear in terms of making up rhythms and textures.
  4. Improvising - Now is when I finally turn to the task of improvising. Luckily it’s the most fun part of the routine, so even if I’m tired it gives me something to look forward to. It doesn’t really matter which style I am working on. This is my chance to see if I can develop my licks, hear new things, actually execute what I hear in my head, and so forth. So whether it’s caja on bembe, bongo on a traditional son, or timbales on the latest timba recording, now is when I turn my attention to soloing.
  5. Texts - Finally, there is the issue of studying “texts”—By this I mean the words melodies and phrasing of the songs that we are accompanying as percussionists. If you are studying makuta at the moment, but you’re not learning the songs that the rhythms are meant to accompany, you’ll never be a good makuta player. How can you be a good timbalero if you don’t know the song forms and melodies you’re playing? So as often as I can, I study lyrics, melodies and song structures (all the time clapping clave and tapping my foot!).

So using my routine as a possible practice template, let’s suggest how to specifically go about using the site.

BEGINNERS

a) Of course begin with the clave and bell videos. But from there, start each day with the most basic hand to hand exercises that Jesus and I have filmed (fill this in?). Don’t be in a hurry, and use a metronome! Focus on making even and consistent sounds and tones. Little by little you can start to push your tempos, but not until you are happy with the sound you’re hearing back.

b) Then pick some simple heel-toe videos to try to develop your left hand (fill this in?). Try to make sure your hands are balanced when you do these, so remember to work both your left and right sides.

c) Then look at some simple patterns. If you want to learn popular forms, start with the basic tumbao videos from the salsa or timba videos, and work your way up to two drum patterns and then variations. You may also want to get started on the bongo videos of the basic martillo, and/or how to play cascara on timbales. If you want to learn folkloric stuff, start with simple salidor videos from guaguanco, or the basic bembe patterns. Make sure you can play clave or the bell to each style, and study the videos of the guagua patterns and even some chekere videos. Little by little you can expand into the other sections, but start with the yambu, guaguanco and bembe videos first.

d) Improvising can wait for now. But studying songs can never come too early. Go to any of the song videos, and try to learn the song(s) while you clap the clave. The sooner you start to ingrain this into your brain/body/nervous system, the better! It’s kind of like sight reading music for melody players—if you do it every day, it will get easier and easier, and start to become second nature to you.

INTERMEDIATE PLAYERS

  1. After you’ve warmed up, go to the more difficult technique videos on the site (fill in here?)—there are all kinds of heel-toe exercises (Jesus has some fantastic ones!) that can keep you busy for years to come, especially if you make sure to do them on both sides. Obviously work on your endurance, and now is the time to start “traveling”. So set up three drums, and as you work both sides, move across all three surfaces. This will open up your melodic capabilities, as well as stretch your brain. Also, now is the time to begin to develop your double strokes—Go to the videos that show you how to do this, study them carefully, and then lock yourself away for a few hours every day!
  2. What rhythms are you working on right now?—If you’re working on folkloric stuff, go to our loops section and play all the guaguanco patterns along with me or Jesus. Make sure you check out the videos for both provinces (Havana and Matanzas), and specifically look at the segundo patterns for both. If it’s bembe, try to play caja along with one of the bembe videos, as if you were playing with us when we filmed it. Can you stay within the feel and structure? Little by little you can stretch out into other styles like abakua, palo, arara, etc.

If you’re working on popular styles, then go to some of the salsa videos with timbales, bongo and conga and play along with us. Start to get comfortable on all three instruments (which means studying the videos from all three instruments), and don’t forget the videos of the campana from the bongo chair! Find any of the drumset videos and play along with whoever the artist is that you’re watching that day (Berroa, Jesus, Bombon, Garibaldi, me, etc.). Check out the two and three drum variations on the congas, especially for timba, and look carefully at the videos showing you how the three drummers work together as a team, so you can develop a methodical approach to your patterns. Also, don’t forget to study the guiro and maraca sections.

  1. Now go look at the dozens of rhythmic cell/quinto videos that will help you to get started improvising. Try to incorporate what Jesus and I are doing in your playing, and then do the same for the 12/8 rhythms (bembe, abakua, etc.).
  2. And finally, make sure you are working on your songs—Go to any of the song videos from any of the styles, and learn how to sing them, while you play, clap clave, step with your feet, etc.

ADVANCED PLAYERS

Obviously this is open season. But I would say that our site has stuff on it that you simply can’t find anywhere else—The entire Oro Seco from the bata tradition is on this site, along with MANY different forms of bembe, palo, yuka, abakua, and maybe even most compelling—Arara. There are songs to be learned to go with all of these, so check out those videos.

GROOVES OF THE MONTH - Finally, our grooves of the month may be most inviting to you—They certainly are for me as I try to learn what Jesus is doing and how he puts his content together. I cannot tell how much studying his material has made me a better musician-- He is such a creative musician, and my mind is always expanded after I spend some time learning his stuff from the grooves of the month. We will be students for our entire lives, so just like the guy in the hair piece commercial—“I’m not only the President, I’m also a client!" - Michael Spiro