It sounded like fun, at least at first. My assignment was to compile a list of the best conga albums ever recorded. No problem. Two seconds later, I was asking myself how the heck I was going to pull this off? Sure, I have hundreds of recordings by legendary percussionists both from the past and present. But there are also literally thousands that I don’t have. Help?
Before the letters to the editor start flowing about the CDs that didn’t make the cut, let me first explain my criteria on how I arrived at my final list. First, I wrote down some players and groups that are household names in the conga community — originators like Aguabella, Barretto, Güines, Patato, and Santamaria, as well as newer generation icons such as Allende, Conte, Flores, and of course the current king of the crop, Giovanni Hidalgo.
Since the conga drum has evolved from solely an Afro-Cuban instrument, I wanted to assemble an array of styles, not just Latin. So I added examples from the rock, jazz, and fusion world, and came up with Alias, Badrena, Figueroa, and Rekow.
Then I looked for recordings that best exemplified conga playing, and identified the ones that are still available in the United States. I also considered a mix of “old-school” recordings and more recent albums to get a real sense of the evolution of sound and techniques from our forefathers to today’s players.
And that was it. By all means, enjoy your current album collection, and please don’t be offended if I left out your favorite one, but consider fortifying your collection with these titles if you are an aficionado of the conga drum. The albums are listed chronologically according to their release date.
(Congas: Francisco Aguabella, Mongo Santamaria, Willie Bobo, Julito Collazo, Enrique Marti’)
Michito Sanchez called Top Percussion “the Afro-Cuban percussion bible.” Who can argue with him? Tito Puente assembled the top Afro-Cuban percussionists of that era for this classic, and the recording superbly captures that great “room sound.” Francisco Aguabella, Mongo Santamaria, and Willie Bobo are legends, and their conga playing represents the true traditional sound of the conga drums. More than half the album is authentic percussion, vocals, and chants, but in addition, the ensemble pieces are so groovin’! Listen to “Ti Mon Bo” and just try to sit still. A little side note — I know this article is about conga records, but listen to “Four By Two,” and you’ll get a great introductory dose of the greatest timbalero of all time, Tito Puente.
(Congas: Tata Güines)
Released in 1957, this is a superior recording by one of the originators of mambo, Cachao. All of these short “jams” of rumba and son styles are classically awesome. Tata Güines is a pioneer of this style, and his influence has touched any conga player of serious merit today. Eddie Palmeri’s percussionist Jose Claussell put it this way: “Tata’s participation on this landmark recording, along with two other greats, Guillermo Barreto (pailas/timbales) and Rogelio ’Yeyito’ Iglesias (bongos), mark the beginning of a dramatic change in the ideas and practices concerning Afro-Caribbean percussion, especially the conga drum.”
(Congas: Ray Barretto)
We’re kind of finessing it here, since Carnaval is actual two classic records on one reissue. Barretto was a pioneer of injecting the conga into American jazz. You get his early ’60s Pachanga dance style music (that he made popular with “El Watusi”) from the record Pachanga With Barretto and his more descarga/jam oriented album Latino! Both albums feature his band Charanga Moderna and showcase America’s founding father of Latin jazz.
(Congas: Manolo Badrena, Alex Acuña)
This was a landmark fusion record released in early 1977. Alex Acuña mainly played drum set on Heavy Weather, but lent his hands for a fast guaguanco rhythm on the famous live track “Rumba Mama.” Manolo Badrena’s pattern-less conga accompaniment on “Palladium” is flawlessly executed, and should be required study for any conga player wishing to perform in this genre of music.
(Congas: Giovanni Hidalgo, Richie Flores)
Giovanni shines within this legendary Afro-Cuban big band on this live album. A young Richie Flores played on some tracks that did not make the record, for the band had to make room for the extended jams on the limited 12 tracks, but they are all great and well recorded. Gio’s solo on the fourth track is another gut-check on your conga chops.