Fingers or Toe
(Fig. 6) Now the fingers are raised, and the wrist is still forcing the palm down. Raise the wrist quickly straight up bringing the palm back up. The fingers will hit fully on the head, not just the fingertips. Next, force the wrist down driving the palm back, raising the fingers back up. Repeat the “Palm/Finger” combination focusing on the wrist driving straight up and down. Try this exercise — play one combination of Palm/Fingers with your right hand then alternate to the left hand. Repeat this while really focusing on the wrist movement. This is the basis for Mano Secreta, or Secret Hand, which can enable you to play fast double stokes and rudiments fluidly and effortlessly.
(Fig. 7) This technique is probably the most difficult. Before doing this, remember how we started: relaxed, fingers together, imaginary pane of glass 6-8" off the surface of the head. Return to that starting position with the “open tone,” and your hand resting on the conga head. Slide your hand in about 1" towards the center, and cup your hand slightly. Keep your thumb tucked into your forefinger. This is the ending position for the slap. Now raise your hand, still in that “cupped” position and remember that “wave” like motion from your wrist to your fingertips. Now strike the conga head, returning to that first position. This technique is not easy, but stay focused and relaxed and it will come. Try this exercise — slowly play one “open tone,” then one “slap tone” with the same hand, then switch to the other. Practice in front of a mirror and make sure your fundamentals are there – back straight, forearm parallel to the floor, and stay nice and relaxed.
The tumbao (pronounced toom-bow) is, as J.R. Robinson says for drum set, the “money beat.” This pattern is as common as eighth-notes on the hi-hat, 1 and 3 on the bass drum, and 2 and 4 on the snare. You will find as you progress in your playing that there will always be elements of this tumbao (see Ex. 1).
Let us break this down, by thinking of that common drum set pattern I just mentioned. Look how the left hand is doing the bulk of the work, and notice what happens on beats 1 and 3. The “palm” technique used here is the equivalent of the bass drum beats. This actually can drive the tempo. Think of the “fingers” like the hi-hat providing the eighth-note subdivision. Look at the “slap” on beat 2. Picture that as the snare drum with your right hand. Then there are the two open tones at the end of the pattern that provide the feel of conclusion to the rhythm, and may remind you of a tom-tom. Play this repeatedly at different tempos, maybe even swing it a bit. You should start to hear that “money beat,” and realize the true roots of where the modern day drum set groove came from.
This is only the beginning of your conga-playing journey. Like any musical instrument, it’s important to learn the basic rules, then venture off on your own ideas and experimentation. There is a three-step philosophy that I follow: Practice, listen, and play. No matter what level of musician you are, you always need to follow those three steps, and most importantly, make them fun. Enjoy your congas, and now you can take your break!