New York Times
December 6, 2007
Carlos Valdés, a Conga King of Jazz, Dies at 81
By BEN SISARIO
Carlos Valdés, better known as Patato, whose melodic conga playing made him a giant of Latin jazz in Cuba and then for more than half a century in America, died on Tuesday in Cleveland. He was 81 and lived in Manhattan.
The cause was respiratory failure, said his manager, Charles Carlini.
Born in Havana, Patato (a reference from Cuban slang to his diminutive size) played in the 1940s and early ’50s with important groups like Sonora Matancera and Conjunto Casino. He became a star in the early days of Cuban television for his virtuosic playing and for his showmanship; his signature song was “El Baile del Pingüino” (“The Penguin Dance”), which he illustrated with side-to-side, penguinlike movement in perfect time.
He came to the United States in the early 1950s and settled in New York, where he quickly established himself as an indispensable player, performing and recording with some of the top names in jazz and Latin music. In the ’50s and ’60s he worked with Dizzy Gillespie, Tito Puente, Machito, Kenny Dorham, Art Blakey and Elvin Jones; he played with Herbie Mann from 1959 to 1972.
Known for his fluid, improvisatory melodies, Mr. Valdés tuned his drums tightly to produce clear, precise tones, and he popularized the playing of multiple conga drums; when he began his career, conga players, or congueros, typically used only one or two drums, but Mr. Valdés played three, four or more to allow a wider range of tones.
He is also associated with using a key to tune the congas instead of heating the skins with a flame. Latin Percussion, the leading Latin drum company, makes a Patato line of conga drums.
Mr. Valdés had an influential role in expanding the rumba form. His 1968 album “Patato & Totico,” recorded with Eugenio (Totico) Arango, a singer who was a boyhood friend from Havana, was particularly inventive. Instead of sticking to the usual format of drums and vocals, the album added several other instruments played by star musicians like Israel (Cachao) López on bass and Arsenio Rodríguez on tres, a six-string Cuban guitar. It is said to be Mr. Rodríguez’s last recording session, and its innovations had a lasting effect on Latin jazz.
“I had these ideas and wanted to advance them through jazz,” Mr. Valdés said in an interview with Latin Beat magazine in 1997. “I wanted something progressive.”
He was also a flamboyant performer who knew how to work a crowd. One of his performance hallmarks was jumping atop his drums and dancing while keeping the beat. In the 1956 film “And God Created Woman,” he is briefly seen teaching Brigitte Bardot to dance the mambo.
He is survived by his wife, Julia; two daughters, Yvonne and Regla; and two grandchildren, Jose Valdes and Mayra Garcia.
Mr. Valdés never stopped touring, recently working with his group the Conga Kings, which also includes Giovanni Hidalgo and Candido Camero, a fellow octogenarian. While flying back a few weeks ago from concerts in California — including one at the San Francisco Jazz Festival on Nov. 9 — he had trouble breathing, and the plane made an emergency landing for him in Cleveland. He had been hospitalized since then.