Giovanni Hidalgo: The Hand Drumming Explosion

giovanni hidalgo

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 ’90s?
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 ’90s?
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 ’90s?
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 the ’90s?
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 interest?
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.


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 the ’90s?
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 musicians?
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 practice anymore?
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.