Carlos “Patato” Valdés: Remembering The Cuban Conga King

A fixture on the New York Latin music scene for over fifty years, Carlos “Patato” Valdés, who along with Mongo Santamaría brought the conga drums into mainstream jazz, died nine years ago on December 4, 2008. He was 81.
 Flying home to New York on November 12th, after a gig in San Francisco with his band the Conga Kings, Valdés became short of breath, forcing the plane to make an emergency landing in Cleveland, where he was hospitalized. A heavy life-long smoker, Valdés succumbed to emphysema.


Jessie Ramírez, Patato’s manager claimed his doctor said shortly before he passed that Valdés “raised his arms” and invoked the Santería deity of thunder, drumming and dance known as Changó, saying “I’m joining you, Changó.” It just so happened that December 4th was also the annual celebratory praise day for Changó.


Born November 4, 1926 in Los Sitios, a port neighborhood of Havana, “Patato” (a Cuban nickname for his dimunitive size) rose to fame during the forties as a member of La Sonora Matancera with Celia Cruz and Conjunto Casino, with whom he performed his signature song, “El Baile del Pingino” (“The Penguin Dance”).


Moving to New York City in 1954, he soon joined the ranks of reigning Manhattan mamboniks including Tito Puente, Ismael Rivera, Beny Moré, and Machito. 
 “Patato was easily one of the leading icons of Cuban drumming. He was a repository of modern rumba soloing and came up with incredibly innovative solos within the three-drum structure,” explained the late/great Music Educator/Musician/WBAI radio host Ibrahim Gonzalez.


“He got into all sorts of different types of meter, fitting a 6/8 time signature into a walking jazz beat. Patato didn’t bring the conga to jazz,” Gonzalez stressed. “Jazz comes from the conga, the African drum. He reunited the conga with jazz and took it to another level. In 1964 Patato brought together an ensemble of Cuban musicians with [the great bassist Israel “Cachao” López and blind tres virtuoso] Arsenio Rodriguez and cut an album called Patato Y Totico that brought the Havana feel of rumba not just to New York but to the rest of the world. It really brought that down-home style of Cuban drumming to a broader audience. Not only did he help make this music more popular but he showed its spiritual side as well.”


“Patato was one of the handfuls of masters from Cuba along with Cándido Camero 
 and composer Mario Bauza and Machito that kept the flame of traditional Afro-Cuban drumming alive,”

~ Composer/multi-instrumentalist/author David Amram


“We played together countless times at concerts and jam sessions since I met him with Ray Barretto in 1955,” Amram recalled. “Ray said that Patato was the most important influence in his life. He could play with jazz musicians, anybody and never lost those roots, no matter what the musical setting was. He was a great performer who played and danced at the same time. And unlike Chano Pozo, who died in ’49, Patato was here long enough to see the music he loved accepted, appreciated and studied.”
“He expanded the language of the drums through melodic multi-drum playing,” percussionist/Composer Adam Rudolph said. “He made the conga a melodic instrument. Like Lester Young or John Coltrane, he had his own voice. Within the first ten seconds you knew it was Patato, you could recognize him instantly.”


Valdés was a beloved figure in the music who brought a genuine joyousness to the stage as anyone who witnessed his showmanship can attest to. Patato’s infectious groove added sonic spice and new dimensions to the music of Herbie Mann [who wrote “The Cuban Potato Chip” for him], Art Blakey, Max Roach and Quincy Jones, among others.
“Patato spoke in an inimitable mélange of Spanish, English, Eulipion (Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s term for musicians, writers and artists) and a language solely of his own device that no average human being could ever understand, but somehow the musicians could perfectly decipher,” Latin jazz producer Todd Barkan eulogized.


“Later in his life, after the mambo craze of the fifties and the popularity of salsa, a lot of musicians wanted to study with him to understand his special gift and sound and learn the old-school style of playing,” David Amram explained. “He always said with the drum you don’t hit it anymore than you would the woman you love. The drum was meant to be played lovingly.”


Valdés won a Grammy for El Arte Del Sabor, for the best Latin album in 2002, which featured the Bebo Valdés Trio. He is survived by his wife, Julia, their two children Yvonne and Regla and two grandchildren.