Introduction - drum set player but new to Congas and Bongos

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Introduction - drum set player but new to Congas and Bongos

Postby Barryabko » Thu Feb 26, 2015 10:33 pm

Hi All,

I've been playing drums since the early 1970s including a wide variety of percussion instruments, but mostly those that are shaken or struck - not hit by hand. Over the past couple of years I have been playing many more hand percussion only gigs and have recently added Congas and Bongos to my collection.

My recent hand percussion evolution:

A number of months ago I saw a blow out price on a new Remo 12” fiberglass djembe so I purchased it on impulse as I thought it would be a good addition to the mix. It did turn out to be quite worthwhile so when I saw a new LP 10” City conga (also at a blow out price) I picked it up. I realized pretty quickly that it was not that great so I purchased a new set of Gon Bops Tumbao Pro congas in the Burnt Toast Burst finish. Even though many of you consider them mid level, they are very nice congas and more than good enough for me as I am still learning. I also bought an LP 209B stand to support them. Even before tuning or playing them I came to the conclusion that lifting, transporting, setting them up, etc. was going to be far more work than I had in mind. My solution was to purchase a new set of 11.75” and 12.5” Pearl Travel Congas. I also purchased a new set of LP Matador bongos. I have the congas and bongos (plus a variety of other percussion items) mounted in rather innovative ways on a rack made up of Gibraltar and Roland tubes and hardware. I will be making a separate post with photos about the rack set up.

Other percussion instruments I have: Tambourines with open frames or with goat or synthetic heads, brass or steel jingles, plus stick style and foot controlled. Lots of various shakers made of leather, wood or plastic, maracas, afuche, rosewood and aluminum claves, wood block, jam block, LP Prestige and Mambo cowbells, guiro, various scrapers, 12” and 28” frame drums with natural heads, sleigh bells, medium and small wind chimes, bell chimes, agogo bells, etc.

I have already read through most of the info on this site and have learned quite a bit from your posts. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience. I hope to also make some worthwhile posts in the future.

I live in Los Angeles and would like to meet other members in the area.

Best,

Barry


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Last edited by Barryabko on Fri Feb 27, 2015 6:07 pm, edited 3 times in total.
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Re: Introduction - drum set player but new to Congas and Bon

Postby Mike » Fri Feb 27, 2015 9:58 am

Welcome, Barry,
and that sounds like a good and promising start with percussion,
you got some decents instruments there.
Peace & drum
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Re: Introduction - drum set player but new to Congas and Bon

Postby Barryabko » Fri Feb 27, 2015 6:03 pm

Thank you, Mike.
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Re: Introduction - drum set player but new to Congas and Bon

Postby Thomas Altmann » Sat Feb 28, 2015 1:46 pm

Hi Barry,

another post from Germany; Hamburg this time.

I have played drum set since 1971, and it has been, and still is, mostly jazz. I decided to pick up percussion (with congas at the core) at an early stage, eight years later. The reasons were (1) that I refused to embark on disco and pop drumming, and (2) I was seriously in quest of the basis of drumming in general, and African musical concepts in particular, while I found that in the jazz circles over here both points were dismissed. By studying Latin American and Brazilian percussionists I hoped to approach both the goal of better understanding all Afro-American music, as well as finding some paid studio work in pop productions on the long run.

Since then, the most musically rewarding gigs, live and in recording, have been on percussion, while the bulk of my (pretty moderate) income is generated from the drumset.

I have never managed to combine both chairs at a satisfactory level. It's definitely like I am two different persons depending on whether I play hand percussion or drumset. To me, the congas demand the most input of practice time, because you have to keep that hand "embouchure" up to be able to produce the proper sound of the instrument. I find that a lot of that practice leaks over to other hand drums I play, like bongos and batá; although all of these instruments are altogether different animals, of course. Djembe is another drum on its own. I never aspired to play djembe. I did try to play the Brazilian timba(l), but it hurt my hands so I decided to never touch it again.

I like sitting down playing percussion, because that gives me more control. The only reason to play standing up is when I have to incorporate timbales. (You might need timbales sooner or later!) The big setup with timbales, congas, bongos, chimes and a percussion table would take me about twice as long as setting up my jazz kit. Such a percussion setup may be made up of a different selection of instruments for each separate gig, which conflicts my preference for a constand, stable keyboard of sounds that I could play blindfolded. I also find it hard to read when I have to move around a lot.

Selection of instruments is also critical for studio engagements. Besides the fact that I specialized in a selection of instruments while avoiding others, I need to evaluate any advance information on the genre of music and any ideas on what instruments might be required. On the one hand, it's always better to bring as many instruments as possible in order to offer several options; on the other hand, I do not own a truck to load up everything I have, only to learn on the session that it's going to be either the green or the blue shaker ...

In closing, I like to quote Airto in the Modern Drummer magazine from August 1983:

"Even congas, I don't play that well. I know how to play them - I get the sound - but I never really got into the congas because Patato Valdez and Mongo Santameria are still alive [1983] and they are the real thing. In order for me to play the congas, I have to play just congas, because you use both of your hands. The way I ike to play percussion is to play two or three different sounds at the same time. I also lose the touch for the small instruments - the very sensitive things that I have to play. When you are a conga player, you are a conga player. You aren't kidding about it."

Greetings,

Thomas
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Re: Introduction - drum set player but new to Congas and Bon

Postby CongaTick » Sun Mar 01, 2015 1:22 pm

Welcome Barry. The pros on this forum will continue to be a key resource, and their willingness to offer their experience, advice and lessons ( Johnny "JC" Conga's online lessons are legendary, and well worth exploring) will help immensely. Thomas, what a great post. What excellent insights you have revealed. So much of what you've stated rings a strong bell within me, though I have never been a kit player. Thank you for being available to answer Barry in such depth and with such gentle wisdom.
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Re: Introduction - drum set player but new to Congas and Bon

Postby Thomas Altmann » Sun Mar 01, 2015 9:36 pm

Hi CongaTick,

if there was any wisdom involved, it was rather on the practical side. And it was strictly subjective. I just wanted to share my personal experience, because I came on a similar path as Barry. Somebody with a more open, playful mind might be able to approach this double (or multiple) task much better than I.

I forgot to mention yet another objective of mine to study Latin American music; the general ignorance of jazz musicians about this subject. Jazz musicians love to use "Latin" rhythms, but whenever I asked them to specify their ideas, I would receive disoriented reactions. I always knew there is a myriad of possibilities to play "Latin", and I wanted to build enough knowledge to offer appropriate options. Oftentimes jazz drummers have proven great creativity inventing their own "Latin" rhythms. Someday I'm going to study some of these, but so far I have strived to play a mambo as a mambo and a samba as a real samba.

Thomas
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Re: Introduction - drum set player but new to Congas and Bon

Postby Barryabko » Thu Mar 05, 2015 7:33 am

Hi Thomas,

Thank you for your thoughtful reply. Like you, I have also found that playing hand percussion requires a different skill set than playing a drum kit. Choosing which hand percussion instrument(s) and playing them in the way that bests suits the song is my goal.

When playing hand percussion I usually approach a song with a "Less Is More" philosophy and of course, not stepping on what the drummer is doing is paramount. Leaving a lot of space and often playing very softly or not playing at all during verses and pre-choruses while playing more in the intro, choruses and the outro seems to work well. I'm also very conscious of using micro and macro dynamics such as playing a passage progressively louder each time it comes around and peak volume during the outro or sometimes even louder and softer during the same passage. I think all of that makes a song more interesting and conveys more depth to its presentation.

I do have quite a bit of experience working with dynamic levels and volume. I started playing professionally at fifteen and for the next twelve years was in a very popular Southern California band playing "casual" gigs - formal parties, weddings, corporate and organization gatherings, and various other events including a concert at UCLA's Royce Hall quad, etc. We performed many hundreds of gigs in a very wide variety of musical styles in every kind of large and small venue which required everything from playing very softly for acoustic background all the way up to full tilt amplification for audiences up to five thousand people. During this time I accumulated a lot of my percussion instruments which helped give me more sonic choices and colors.

Over the past fifteen years I've been playing with a very extensive network of musicians and I again have the good fortune to be able to play many different musical styles along with many different types of instruments, both acoustic and electric. I am rather well known for being able to blend in and not overwhelm other instruments or voices no matter how soft or loud the performance. This all carries over when I play hand percussion.

Best,

Barry
Last edited by Barryabko on Thu Mar 05, 2015 7:51 am, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: Introduction - drum set player but new to Congas and Bon

Postby Barryabko » Thu Mar 05, 2015 7:48 am

Hi CongaTick,

Thank you for your reply. I do look forward to gaining more insight from members of My Conga Place. It's a unique forum.

Best,

Barry
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Re: Introduction - drum set player but new to Congas and Bon

Postby Thomas Altmann » Thu Mar 05, 2015 3:08 pm

Hi Barry,

thanks for your reply. I can hear you have a truly professional mindset and quite a bit of experience under your belt. I have never made it to a 5000 piece audience!

Yes, the drumset player is usually and regularly the dominant person in the percussion section, at least as far as backbeat-oriented music (rock/pop/funk etc) is concerned. The additional percussionist then covers just what is left over to him/her. Like you, I carefully pick and choose each tiny implement, going by the form structure, and constantly questioning whether what I could play in a given situation is really needed for the benefit of the music and its groove or not. Neither am I afraid of laying out for a longer tacet passage, even if I get funny glances from other musicians. In a recording process, the percussionist is usally one of the last to add his track(s), and here is where the primary position of the kit drummer is most obvious.

Lately, however, I was a few times positively surprised to find myself in situations where I was encouraged to contribute more and raising my part up to par with the drummer's, thus becoming equal, and less subdued in the creative process. So it's all negotiable; there are no hard rules, and it's not wrong to step out and bring elements to the forefront that are oftentimes regarded as dispensable add-ons. Anyway, there is also another class of percussionists who I can see constantly moving and grabbing something to rattle or to hit, and incessantly producing various sounds throughout a number; but the sounds are right, and there is nothing disturbing in their playing! I cannot understand how they do that, and as with most things which I could not do, I admire them for that.

Dynamics are surely important. At one point, however, I have found that in percussion, just playing softer is not always the answer. There are instruments that lose their sound when played under a certain level of volume, and the effect on the music is not really what you would want to hear. Some instruments are even impossible to play under a minimum volume, technically. Like on the drumset, the solution can be to just play less, because from the arranger's (and listener's) standpoint, less percussion in the music amounts to softer dynamics in the orchestration as a whole. On stage you can move away from the mic to lower the volume of, say, a bell or a shaker; but you can't do that with congas, bongos, or timbales. Vice versa, playing more, busier or more dense drums and percussion would result in a forte in the arrangement.

Well, you have probably known all this for a long time already. I learned these things only in recent years. I really never stop learning ...

Thomas
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Re: Introduction - drum set player but new to Congas and Bon

Postby CongaTick » Thu Mar 05, 2015 3:47 pm

Wonderful observations, Barry and Thomas. So much of what you say resonates strongly in my experience. One minor additional point: It is difficult to find kit drummers who know or understand how to play with a percussionist. Of course most would feel it is the percussionist's responsibility to know how to play with a kit drummer, but I have worked with a few kit drummers that have an open sensitivity to what we do and play with a sense of inclusion.
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Re: Introduction - drum set player but new to Congas and Bon

Postby Barryabko » Thu Mar 05, 2015 10:12 pm

Hi Thomas,

Thomas Altmann wrote:I can hear you have a truly professional mindset and quite a bit of experience under your belt.


Even though I've probably played around 700-800 gigs at this point, and have been paid for a large percentage of those, I've never really thought of myself as a "professional" musician as it has never been my primary source of income. I always had a "real" job to earn a living.

Growing up in Los Angeles at the height of the music scene (1960s to 1970s) there seemed to be amazing musicians all around all the time who were far better players than me. I've never had any formal training or instruction so I always felt at somewhat of a disadvantage. I did not have any desire to go “on the road” and cringed at the horror stories I would hear about playing in bars or clubs (for very little money as well) so it seemed the fantasy of making it big in music was to remain just a fantasy. The reality is that only the very smallest percentage of the top players ever really “made it big” and of those, their active careers were usually relatively short lived.

Until I started my own business in 1989 creating and designing high performance audio equipment, I was the general manager of a chain of retail audio stores selling high end stereo gear for home systems. While doing that I'd usually play anywhere from one to three paying gigs on the weekends with the “casual” band until I started my own company. At that point I was getting somewhat burned out on playing live anyway and needed to devote myself to building and running my business as I had now had a factory and employees. I did play in a few bands doing originals which was musically fulfilling but did not generate a lot of gigs which was actually fine by me. As my business grew I was playing less and less with other people but still keeping a drum kit set up and practicing a few times a week.

About fifteen years ago the "bug" returned and I was ready to start playing again. I started a band with a few friends to play music (pop and rock with amplification) and also accidentally met a few people who were part of a large network of acoustic players. This opened up a whole new musical world for me as I was exposed to a fantastic variety of instruments* and quality players. I also seem to have a natural talent to blend in well and I’m the only drummer which with they are comfortable. About two years ago I became involved with a different network of absolutely amazing musicians who already had a number of phenomenal drummers on hand so I play hand percussion with them and have since become the primary percussionist. I feel privileged every time I play with them (three to four times per month). I play with the acoustic network once or twice a month. My pop/rock band practices once a week and we gig about once every six to eight weeks. I feel like I'm a pretty active player at this point and I'm having a lot of fun! I fortunately have the flexibility to choose to play a gig based on the quality of the other players and how interesting the music is - not about whether I'm getting paid or not - but I still get paid for certain a percentage of the gigs that I play.


Thomas Altmann wrote:I have never made it to a 5000 piece audience!


Just to clarify: I've only played to an audience that large once, which was the UCLA Royce Hall quad gig. Most of the gigs with that "casual" band were between 200 - 300 people but we did play a fair amount of gigs to audiences of up to 1,000 people. The first time we played to a 1,000+ audience was at the Grand Ballroom at The Beverly Hilton hotel for an organization's event. This was about six months after we started doing gigs and less than a year since I had started playing drums. I was SO nervous that I literally couldn't hear ANYTHING for the first sixty seconds after the downbeat! I came back to reality and realized that I must have been playing on auto-pilot because no one thought anything was amiss. :-)


Thomas Altmann wrote:there is also another class of percussionists who I can see constantly moving and grabbing something to rattle or to hit, and incessantly producing various sounds throughout a number; but the sounds are right, and there is nothing disturbing in their playing! I cannot understand how they do that, and as with most things which I could not do, I admire them for that.


In the vast majority of cases I find that most people tend to overplay percussion instruments - especially non-percussionists. Singers are typically at the top of that list starting to shake a tambourine at the downbeat and hitting every accent on the two and the four until the song is over. No change in emphasis or volume and, heaven forbid, not playing at all during particular sections of a song! The same seems to be true when they have some type of shaker in their hand. Unfortunately, even many people that are the percussionist in the band feel it's their duty to always be playing "something" throughout the song. IMHO, the song is not very well served in those cases. The song needs to "breathe".

Your example of percussionists that do play throughout but still serve the song well is much more rare and shows the great talent and sensibilities of that musician. Ray Cooper is one of my percussionist heroes. He always plays with such exuberance and joy yet he still manages to serve the song very well.


Thomas Altmann wrote:Dynamics are surely important. At one point, however, I have found that in percussion, just playing softer is not always the answer. There are instruments that lose their sound when played under a certain level of volume


I agree but tend to think about it from the opposite direction. Many hand percussion instruments have a fundamentally different sound when played at higher volumes compared to lower volumes so I often treat them as two different instruments depending on how I play them.


Thomas Altmann wrote:I really never stop learning ...


I absolutely agree and also feel that I am constantly learning and discovering.

Best,

Barry


*Again, my time spent with the "casual" band was musically formative as that band had acoustic guitar and violin as staple instruments and for for a few years also had a horn section (sax, trumpet and flute) in various combinations.
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Re: Introduction - drum set player but new to Congas and Bon

Postby Barryabko » Thu Mar 05, 2015 10:26 pm

CongaTick wrote:Wonderful observations, Barry and Thomas. So much of what you say resonates strongly in my experience. One minor additional point: It is difficult to find kit drummers who know or understand how to play with a percussionist. Of course most would feel it is the percussionist's responsibility to know how to play with a kit drummer, but I have worked with a few kit drummers that have an open sensitivity to what we do and play with a sense of inclusion.


Hi CongaTick,

Yes. The better the drummer, the more fun and fulfilling it is to play hand percussion!

Barry
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Re: Introduction - drum set player but new to Congas and Bon

Postby Thomas Altmann » Thu Mar 05, 2015 11:14 pm

CongaTick,

you are totally right! There are precious few kit drummers who have percussionists on their screen! I once left a band because the drummer did not stop playing his toms too loudly while I was playing congas, repeatedly doubled and overpowered my part, or used to rush the tempo under my solos until my off-beats would land flat on the beats. The most ridiculous experience was a drummer who started playing enormously loud and busy each time I was signaled to play a conga solo!

In the school where I am teaching, percussion and Latin drumset are part of the curriculum. I am in charge of the Latin drumset. Although the main emphasis is on pop/rock/funk drumming rather than anything else, I make sure to raise the awareness of the aspiring drummers for group drumming - not only in a strict Latin context. The problem is about the same as with sound engineers: Most people don't listen carefully enough to other kinds of music than just the one that is marketed and propagated, which is by nature pop music. Consequently,they cannot handle anything else, or they are unable to work off a new and unfamiliar working basis (collective drumming => task sharing + mutual support).

Thomas
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Re: Introduction - drum set player but new to Congas and Bon

Postby Thomas Altmann » Fri Mar 06, 2015 12:01 am

Barryabko:

Singers are typically at the top of that list starting to shake a tambourine at the downbeat and hitting every accent on the two and the four until the song is over. No change in emphasis or volume and, heaven forbid, not playing at all during particular sections of a song!


Man, that's the worst. They start shaking a tambourine randomly and stop and put the darn thing back down anywhere in the song, creating a huge acoustic hole with no musical meaning! That annihilates a percussionist's efforts to fashion and structure the music. Especially a tambourine can be something like a secret weapon or an ace in the hole. I often use it to highlite a particular passage in a song.

Singers really should stay away from our stuff unless they have been educated accordingly. There are other ways for singers to have some fun. If they have extra capacities, that's fine; but they have to co-operate with the rest of the percussion section then.

An especially nice variant is singers who snatch instruments from our table and scatter them over the stage, so when we need them at a specific point, they are no longer there!

Thomas
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Re: Introduction - drum set player but new to Congas and Bon

Postby Barryabko » Fri Mar 06, 2015 12:37 am

Thomas Altmann wrote:An especially nice variant is singers who snatch instruments from our table and scatter them over the stage, so when we need them at a specific point, they are not there!


I am absolutely amazed when someone comes over and picks up one of my instruments without even asking - as though I'm a lending library! First of all, I'm not comfortable with anyone else playing any of my instruments but it is especially rude not to even ask.

At a music party last December I was behind the drum kit for five hours straight as the house drummer. I covered my kit with a large towel and took a two minute bathroom break. I came back to find one of the guitarists sitting behind my kit and playing it!! I was really beside myself but kept it together and nicely asked him to stop playing. He looked at me like I was from Mars and was being totally unreasonable! I said "What did you think when you saw they were covered?" He didn't have an answer but was still not getting off of the throne. I had to ask him again to let me get back behind my instrument but this time not quite as nicely. He then did get up and went over to a guy playing congas (who wasn't terrible on them but literally played through every song from start to finish - whether it needed congas or not - and also kept banging on them in between songs!). The two of them proceeded to have a private conversation about how unreasonable I was being. I was far to upset to speak with either of them after that but I should have asked the guitar player "How would you feel if someone just walked up to your beautiful Martin guitar, picked it up and started strumming away on it? How would you feel if someone picked up you car keys and went for drive without asking you?" For some reason, many people are under the impression that any percussion instrument or drum set is there for public use. They wouldn't even dream of picking up someone's sax and blowing into it or picking up someone's violin and start scratching away at it with the bow!

I now not only cover my gear when I step away, I have a "Please do not touch" sign as well. So far, that seems to work.

Okay, rant over! :-)
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