When the boss handed me this one I couldn’t help but giggle. On the cover sit the three kings of conga, Giovanni Hidalgo, Candido, and Patato Valdes, posed around a drum just exactly how my grandfather would have asked them to. His normal set of directions: straigten that spine, slide your butt up to the edge of the seat, and just when you think you can’t possibly be more uncomfortable, smile as wide as you can. Smile so hard that your eyebrows go up whether you told them to or not.
Each Conga King is labelled, which is handy since I do not know my Patato Valdez from my Patato Au Gratin. Candido and Patato appear the veterans of the group, while young Giovanni seizes the opportunity to quickly establish himself as the best-dressed conga king. The sleeve makes a special “audiophile note” informing me that Giovanni will appear in my left speaker, Candido in the middle, and Patato in the right. As a special “postmodern note” I would like to inform you that this is also the precise order in which the Conga Kings are seated on the cover. Self-reflexivity is rare in the world of music and must be acknowledged whenever present.
I press the biggest button on the CD player and wait for my butt to commence wigglin.’ The Conga Kings do not disappoint. Involuntary spasms of the gluteus maximus are inevitable and highly enjoyable, if I do say so myself. At this most primal level the music of the Conga Kings will speak to anyone.
Myself, unfamiliar with the language of the conga drum, discovered that this album proved suprisingly didactic. The heart of the record is three duets, one for each King. Each duet pairs one conguero with another instrument. Giovanni is featured with a tres, Patato with a flute, and Candido with a bass. Playing off the other instruments, responding as though in conversation, the versatile, expressive nature of the conga is communicated clearly. Each duet is masterful, particularly Patato with Mauricio Smith on the flute. This is the kind of music that floods your mind with images, bringing inanimate objects to life.
Those of you who collect Chesky Records are no doubt familiar with St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Mr. Chesky’s favourite recording venue. It is interesting to hear the percussion react to its surroundings, with ten separate drums all being recorded on a single microphone. Producer and liner-note-scribe Ray Santos declares the end result “a masterpiece of sound,” but then again he must have also given the cover the green-light.
In closing, each time I look at the cover of my Conga Kings album, I will giggle. Each time I read the ridiculous, childish liner notes I will guffaw. And each time I press the bigest button on my CD player I will only smile, for I have been once again taught one of life’s great lessons: you cannot judge a book by it’s cover.