Candido: Father Of Modern Conga Drumming

Essential Candido

The Billy Taylor Trio With Candido. This 1954 Prestige Records recording by bebop piano master Billy Taylor, featuring Candido, was the recording that began to document the Candi man’s prowess in the jazz world. Of note are the up-tempo burners, “A Live One,” and “Love For Sale.” Here Candido plays the bongo and conga parts to the bolero rhythm simultaneously, showing off his coordinated independence skills.

Candido. Originally released on April 1, 1956 on ABC/Paramount, and recently re-released on Verve, this recording was Candido’s first date as a leader and it’s no April Fool’s joke. A stellar cast of jazzers including Dick Katz on piano, Joe Puma on guitar, and Al Cohen on tenor accompany the Thousand Finger Man through memorable renditions of “Broadway,” “Poinciana,” as well as originals like “Candido’s Camera” and “Candi Bar.” Candido gives a virtual clinic on how to adapt the conga tumbao to a jazz swing feel with unique variations, and his solo breaks are so musical that they can be considered miniature compositions unto themselves.

The Conga Kings. The brainchild of David Chesky, and facilitated by legendary arranger and conductor Ray Santos, The Conga Kings brings together two old schoolers, Candido and Carlos “Patato” Valdéz, with the young virtuoso Giovanni Hidalgo. Recorded with few microphones, the set features a rootsy band that has some stellar players, like the late Mauricio Smith on flute, Joe Gonzalez on bongo, Nelson Gonzalez on tres, and Guillermo Edgehill on bass. Between Candido, Patato, and Giovanni, more than ten congas are played, but you can hear each player clearly in his stylistic glory.

Hands Of Fire. Director Ivan Acosta’s beautiful documentary tribute to Candido features rare photos, footage, and the man himself talking about his incredible life, along with commentary by Tony Bennett, Randy Weston, Ray Santos, Dr. Billy Taylor, Andy Gonzalez, and many others. The duet between Candido and master bassist Andy Gonzalez on Candido’s composition, “Conga Jam,” is alone worth the price of this 68-minute DVD.

50 Years Of Mambo. Released on Mambomaniacs and nominated for a Latin Grammy in 2003, this two-CD set is a document of a concert at New York’s famed Town Hall paying tribute to the legendary pianist, composer, arranger, and Mambo King, Damaso Perez Prado. This all-star band (you’ll recognize the drummer) was made up of NYC’s elite, and faithfully re-created Prado’s music, giving it new life under the baton of maestro German Pifferer. The finale, featuring Candido on Prado’s never-before performed “Concierto Para Bongo,” brought the house down and is a good document of Candido°¶s showmanship in a live setting.

Candido Anthology: The Salsoul And Blue Note Years. During the ’60s and ’70s, Candido did literally thousands of sessions as a first-call studio percussionist for jingles, record dates, and movie soundtracks. During this time he was approached to do his own recordings in an unfortunately overtly commercial way. Despite the obvious money-making setting, his artistry always yielded creative, hard-driving tumbaos (repetitive patterns), impeccable time, and very melodic playing. That period of his life is represented on this compilation released by Toshiba, especially on the disco-era cover he was called upon to do on Olatunji’s classic, “Jingo,” which had been covered by Santana. Candido’s cover of this tune became a hit with dancers both here and in Europe, and the percussion tracks he recorded on it became a model for disco-era DJs who constantly sampled them. Check out this disc and you’ll be very surprised as Candido demonstrates his versatility and how he can make anything sound good.

Pionero Del Son. Originally released on the Caiman label, this recording features one of Cuba’s treasured vocal icons, Alfredo Valdés, and brings Candido full circle to his roots in the musical style that is at the root of what today we call salsa, el son. But Candido is not playing any percussion at all on this disc. He’s the tres player! After not playing the instrument for years, Candido was approached to do this session by Valdés, who found him a tres to practice on. “I practiced for about a month before the recording,” Candido says. “I’m happy because a lot of people didn’t know I played tres. It was like going back in time for me.” The result is a classic recording that swings like hell, and that most people don°¶t know about.

The Beat Of My Heart. Recorded for the Columbia label in 1957, this classic shows Tony Bennett’s love for the drum. Candido along with Sabú Martinez, Chico Hamilton, Art Blakey, Papa Joe Jones, and the long-underappreciated Billy Exiner, are all featured on this recording, which proves the saying: Sin ritmo no hay na (without rhythm there is nothing).

A Drum Is A Woman. This Columbia release is indeed a rarity. Copies of the original LP are hard to find, but well worth the effort. Ellington’s tone-poem tribute to the drum begins with Candido, and he is featured throughout this masterwork, which besides being documented on wax, was also broadcast on TV.

Inolvidable. Recorded in 2004 for Chesky, an 82-year-old Candido Camero collaborates with 88-year-old vocalist Graciela, a legend in Afro-Cuban music for more than half a century, having been the lead vocalist for both Machito’s Jazz Orchestra and Mario Bauza’s Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra. This disc was nominated for a Grammy.

Brujeria’s De Candido. The album that Giovanni Hidalgo says he practiced with as a youth by learning Candi’s solos note for note, and an essential disc for any drummer and percussionist, features arrangements by none other than maestro Tito Puente, who also plays timbales on the session. Bass icon, Israel “Cachao” Lôpez and the father of modern bongo bell playing, Francisco “Chino Pozo,” are also featured.

Afro-Cuban Dream — Live And In Clave. Nominated for a mainstream Grammy in 2001, this Arabesque release is my 19-piece big band giving a 21st century update to the tradition with adventurous, forward thinking arrangements and compositions. Candido was 78 years old at the time — but as I like to say, he was the youngest person on stage. He tears the roof off of the 13-minute version of “Manteca” as the Birdland crowd goes nuts.

The Art Of Romance. Tony Bennett won a Grammy in 2006 for this masterpiece embraced by Johnny Mandel’s lush arrangements and the help of his longtime friend, Candido.

Candido On Tuning

Candido was the first to tune conga drums to specific pitches in order to play melodies. He always plays while standing, and uses three congas/llamadoras (the middle-sized drum) of the same size. His lowest drum, to his left, is tuned to a D, his middle drum to a C, and the highest drum, on his right, to an A — so that his drums are positioned like notes on a piano, with the lowest to the left and the ascending ones to the right. He has experimented with up to six tuned drums in concert.

When asked why he uses the same size drum, Candido wryly answers, “It’s simple, because they fit in the trunk of my car! If I was to use a tumbadora [the largest drum], they wouldn’t fit.” How does the “Thousand Finger Man” (a sobriquet given to him by jazz writers in the 1950s) tune up? “I always carry a pitch pipe with me. It’s made by a company called Master Key, and I’ve had it for years. I always check the tuning of the drums before I play."

Candido also always tapes his fingers with white medical latex-free adhesive tape available in any pharmacy. “It protects your fingers, but also when the lights go down in a show, you get to see the movement of the hands, which is a crowd-pleaser.”

If you’re utilizing just the standard two drum setup in a contemporary salsa band, a standard tuning is G for the tumbadora and C for the conga. As far as the timbales and bongo? That’s another article.

See what Candido started?!

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