Giovanni Hidalgo: The Hand Drumming Explosion
DRUM!: Is it possible for conga technique to become faster
and more intricate than it is today?
Hidalgo: Of course. You put energy into each beat, and if you do it honestly, you’re always going to keep evolving. And technology will help too. When I was six or seven, I didn’t have music on file. Now we have CDs, computers, DVDs, cell phones, the Internet – you can get so much information, and that means more and more roads open to you. You have to sort through and learn to develop your own style. But it’s still better to learn with a person in front of you, so you can talk and question, and learn the secrets. When you listen [to a CD], the human isn’t there. When you copy from a record, it’s always the same; but with a teacher, it’ll always be different, never the same. That’s how you develop your own style. In 20 years, I think you’ll see musicians applying percussion technique to keys and other instruments. It’s going to create rhythms that are very complex.
DRUM!: Do you think percussion will play a bigger or smaller
role in popular music during the next decade?
Hidalgo: Percussion is ancient, and the past is the future. Drums were the first machines. In the 19th Century they invented Morse Code, but the drums were there first. Drumming is amazing, and now we can combine all the things we’ve learned in the past with what we know today. It’ll cause a chain reaction.
DRUM!: An increasing number of artists have used drum loops
and machines in the studio during the last few years. Has that had any
effect on the way you approach the drums?
Hidalgo: No. I know there is always something new, but in the long range, always you have to use the past, the methods of the pioneers. You can use a computer, but it doesn’t talk back to you. If you program it, it always says the same thing, like learning from a record. The amazing discoveries all come from humans. For example, you make a mistake, and that happens to take you in a new direction, so you keep going forward. Without that mistake, you stay in the same place. I think our bodies and minds are the best machines, and nobody’s going to take me out of that way of thinking.
DRUM!: Were you ever asked to record percussion loops during
Hidalgo: I like loops, as long as I can put them to my own use. I just finished building a library of loops – patterns I’ve done by sampling myself. I didn’t have the chance to do this before now, with all the traveling I do. I’m using them on my own project, an album I’ll probably call Wave of Percussion. I started with a pattern for a foundation and overdubbed myself onto it. With samples you can put them in different clothes and reuse them. I want to stay versatile, not only live, but in the studio. And I want to expand my music, to work on soundtracks for the movies and TV, do sound design. I don’t want to get stuck in one genre. Wave is my own group, my own compositions, my own recordings. I’m mixing and mastering it on my own. Eventually, I want to have my own studio, but for now I’ll see where this takes me.
DRUM!: Has studio technology changed the way you record
drums, or set up drums for recording?
Hidalgo: Before there were bad and good studios. You had to create your own space in the room. Today, there is less variation, fewer bad situations. You still have to set up to get a good feel, but we are going forward. There are a few people who don’t know what they’re doing, but most people want a good session, with good mikes and a good atmosphere, so you can work comfortably. When you play drums, it’s like the relationship between women and men – sometimes there’s harmony, sometimes there’s no communication.
DRUM!: Many young percussionists emerged in the last ten
years. Were there any who you particularly liked?
Hidalgo: There are a lot of good drummers, but I think you should listen to their work, and see for yourself if you like them. There’s Shelia E, a Puerto Rican guy named Antony Carrillo who played with Eddie Palmieri and Bata Cumbele, a folkloric group from Puerto Rico. Willie Lopez who plays with Bobby Valentine, Jerry Rivera, who plays Latin folkloric music, Tito Degracia, Roberto Rohena from Fania All Stars, David Rosado who’s with Gilberto Santa Rosa, Cachete Maldonaldo, who plays conga for Gato Barbieri. Then there’s Tommy Campbell, Omar Hakim, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, Amin Robbie Gonzalez, Cliff Almond, William Kennedy, Rodney Thomas, a skinny guy that really plays his ass off, he’s with Santana now, Tiki Pasillas. In 1979, when I went to Venezuela with Charlie Palmeri, I met a drummer who was ahead of his time, Cristoble Pitalua, he was from Panama, and unbelievable. And in Puerto Rico when I was a kid, there were great drummers like Walter Rodriquez, Sr., Tony Sanchez, Jr., George Camacho, who was my godfather, and the first one to give me a drum when I was five years old, and Alex Acuña. They’re are all part of drum history people should know. Then there’s Montito Muñoz, Raphael Cortijo, Jimmy Rivera, who played traps with Mongo, Walfredo de los Reyes, Sr., Orestes Vilato and a lot more. I grew up watching them, and when people read this they’ll know I remember them, and they deserve recognition for the years of sacrifice they made to the music. They’re all good people and respect their audience. If I forgot anyone, I’m sorry. All drummers have my respect.
DRUM!: You’ve been so busy this decade with sessions,
concerts and workshops. How do you manage your schedule? Is it difficult
working with so many different kinds of music and different
Hidalgo: I like to do my thing in as many situations as possible. I go in with a positive attitude, do the job and say bye bye. Each person is different in style and mood. It’s not a matter of working with the exterior, you have to keep the audience in mind, and stay in the moment. Some experiences are good, some regular and some bad. You learn to choose as you go, but the reason I play is to bring a message through the music and you tell a different story every time you play.
DRUM!: Since you played on so many projects during the
’90s, did you reach a point where you just didn’t need to
Hidalgo: I try to do six to nine hours a day, when I’m not on tour. I try to give myself some days off between working, to refresh myself, but I have to be serious. I know there are people are out there who would like to knock me out, so I have to put in the time, but with humility, with love, and respect for those who taught me, like my step grandfather Hernando Hernandez, my grandmother Maizonet Marrero and my father, Jose “Manengue” Hildalgo.
DRUM!: You performed with artists from many different
cultures and styles in the last decade. Did that help you to integrate
any new musical ideas into your own style?
Hidalgo: When drummers from around the world play together, like in Planet Drum with Mickey Hart and Olatunji, it’s great. Hart likes to analyze the music, but then he steps back and lets it flow like the breeze, like the perfume of the flowers. He has the will to sacrifice himself to put the world of percussion on a new level. He’s the leader, but he leaves us totally free when we work together. You know when you get hot and stand in front of the air conditioning? That’s the feeling you get when you work with him. He’s a great gentleman, honest and loyal, and a great drummer. I’m proud to be a member of the group, ever since 1990. When Mickey wants me, I’m there, and like me, he’s always in search of the future, he has a futurist view, and the strength to take us there, because no matter how music changes, percussion remains at the root. I like to play with drummers from other traditions. I thank God and say let’s keep going on, because the more you play in different countries and different styles, the more you grow your technique, your control, and your love for life. This is the gift you receive from God in the instrument. Planet Drum is the music of the future, and while I have respect for other groups, nobody sounds like us. It’s what I hope to do with my own percussion group. Right now it’s the Giovanni Hildalgo Percussion Group – we’ll find a name later on. Planet Drum is the genuine music of the future, that’s what I listen to for inspiration. That music is going to be here in 2100, 2263, a long time after I’m gone, the same as we listen to music from 1910 or 1960. I’m proud that I’m part of this era, proud of being from Puerto Rico, proud of my instrument, the conga, which I play with a lot of love – love for my family and the people in the world and the universe.