There are so many reasons why we can feel lucky to be alive at the turn of the century. Not the least of which is that we all can see Giovanni Hidalgo play conga in person. You’d better believe that it’s an opportunity that shouldn’t be squandered. Some people got the chance to see Jimi Hendrix play guitar in the ’60s, others didn’t. Some saw Jaco Pastorius, Miles Davis, Buddy Rich and Andres Segovia. Only the unlucky ones waited a bit too long.
His friends call him Gio, and like Hendrix, Pastorius, Davis, Rich or Segovia, he has taken his instrument into uncharted territories. Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1963, the son of legendary conguero Jose “Manengue” Hildalgo started out learning the folkloric rhythms of Puerto Rico, like the plena and bomba, “to pay respect to my roots,” he says. But he was soon listening to salsa and jazz drummers, trying to interpret their style by playing their LPs over and over again.
While still in his teens, Hidalgo was recruited by Dizzy Gillespie to fill the percussion chair in his United Nations All-Star Orchestra. His unique style brought elements of the snare drum to the conga, and soon made him a respected session player, known for his innate musicality and innovative approach. Work with Cameo, Dave Valentin, Paquito D’Rivera, Airto Moreira, Paul Simon, Juan Luis Guerra, Tito Puente and Sammy Hagar boosted Hidalgo’s reputation to an international level.
While he has enjoyed the constant touring and recording projects he’s worked on, these days Hidalgo’s passion is more focused on his work with Mickey Hart’s Planet Drum troupe and his own band. “The goal is to expand my music, to incorporate as many sounds and styles as possible. I’d like to work on soundtracks for the movies and TV, do sound design. I want to keep moving; I don’t want to get stuck in one genre.”
DRUM!: How has the role of the conga changed in the
Hidalgo: The conga today is more solid, more respected. You see the tumbas – which is the correct name for the instrument – in all kinds of music: classical, pop, Latin, jazz, fusion – in places you don’t expect to see a conga, today you see two or three. I thank God for the opportunities I’ve had to share my music with my brother and sister percussionists, to help put the legacy of the tumbadora on a solid footing. To me, the role of percussion is always expanding. It’s like perfume, the aroma keeps expanding and filling space. It’s a pure medicine that helps you to pull out the bad moments in your soul and body.
DRUM!: How about the percussionist’s role in more
general terms? Did that change much during the
Hidalgo: There are a lot of different approaches you can take. Digital technology and drum machines can take percussion to another level. You can program sounds that you think you’ll never be able to duplicate, but if you work on it, you’ll find you can do it with just the hands and the drum. But it’s always an instrument, be it digital or natural.
DRUM!: Did you get into electronics during the
Hidalgo: I have a Yamaha drum machine. I combine it with natural acoustic sounds to reach another dimension. You can get better time by playing with machines, but you have to put it together with natural drums. You need to feel the kick drum in your leg, the hiss of the hi-hat in your arms. You can do a good album with the correct machines; it can help your imagination to jump to a higher level, maybe magnify the emotions on a subliminal level.
DRUM!: Do you think more percussionists will begin to use
electronic percussion during the next decade?
Hidalgo: Yeah, but it’s better combined, the digital and natural together. We want to bridge those sounds, because you can always find a natural way to make the same sounds. Say you want to add applause to a record and you don’t have the right machine. You can drop potatoes into a deep fryer and it sounds the same.
DRUM!: Are there any drummers you especially admired during
Hidalgo: Shelia E is a great conga player – that’s my mommie, on the conga. From the pioneers, there’s my father, Chano Pozo, Mongo Santamaria, Patato, Candido, Tato Quines, Armando Peraza, Francisco Aguabella, Willie Bobo, Tito Punete. And there are the persons like Chanquito [Jose Quintana of Los Van Van], people that put the instrument on a higher level, and that helps me to keep going in the battle.
DRUM!: The ’90s saw a surge of interest in hand
drumming. What was it about the last decade that inspired such
Hidalgo: All over the world there are cultures that do meditation and relaxation with drumming, or that do cures with drumming. The vibration of life is in our souls, in music, in love and in breath. It’s good therapy, if it’s done in a genuine way. I think people drumming together would help humanity find a better way of life, it would make for better communication in the family, it can teach us about harmony, about working together.