The Kingston Trio brought many kinds of percussion instruments into their music they wrote or played and particularly ones associated with Latin sounds. In this blog I’ll focus on Nick Reynolds and his incorporating the conga drums into his repertoire of instruments.
Nick, having grown up in Coronado, California, lived only 20 minutes from Tijuana, where he and his friends would head down to listen to Mexican musicians and drink a few rounds at a local bar. During these trips Nick met Jaime Moran who became a friend and teacher. Moran was born in Mazatlan and grew up in Tijuana, both places influencing him to become a composer with a rich musical background. It was common to walk into a Tijuana bar in the 60s-70s and hear Jaime singing his songs and playing the congas. The Jaime Moran and his Latin Jazz Band had gigs around San Diego and in Coronado through the 1980s-1990s playing in Coronado’s Spreckels Park during the Summer Concert in the Park series. Eventually, during the 2000s Jaime became a central figure with the team who produced the Concert series as their sound man.
After contacting Jaime who still lives in San Diego, I asked him if he had some memories of Nick. Jaime’s mind is still very sharp for a gentleman in his 80s and through email he sent me this note: “Nick was a talented musician and artist, a fun and dear friend to many. I have fond memories of the times he came to visit while I was performing at The Capri Lounge in Tijuana in the mid 50’s (before the Kingston Trio was formed), he was interested in the conga drums and how I fused Latin rhythm beats of the congas with Jazz (Latin Jazz). Decades later we continued our friendship, shared fun memories and a life-long zest for live music when I produced their concerts in Coronado and other special events the Kingston Trio performed at.”
Originally the conga was played primarily in Africa (Congolese) and came to Cuba through the African slave trade. By the 1930s the congas were used in Brazilian and Cuban musical traditions. Popular in Cuba’s carnival street bands, it is thought by some that the word conga came from the rhythm, La conga, and later this word became used for not only the rhythm but as the instrument’s name. In Cuba the conga is also known as the tumbadora. La conga’s rhythm was intricate in the dance, the rumba, and as an instrument, it was one of three drums used for rumba dancing, the Quinto (smallest and highest pitch with the thickest skin), the conga (pitched in the middle), and the tumba (largest of the three, lowest in pitch with the thinnest skin).
See below for sample of a basic tumbao pattern, an even pattern of 1/8th notes played on the conga
The conga is a handsome instrument. It’s tall (28-30”), narrow, and single-headed. Like barrels, congas are staved wood or fiberglass shell and a tensioned drumhead of a type of skin, mule, water buffalo or steer.
It can be played standing, while seated or even mounted on a rack. Sometimes Nick used a stand in which the conga was mounted and usually played while standing. There are five basic strokes for bringing sound to the tension of the pulled hide. Those methods are described as slaps, bass tones, muffs or muted sounds, and open tones. Nick seemed to use several techniques. He would play the Bass tone (tono bajo) with the full palm on the drumhead. It produces a low muted sound. Open tone is played with the four fingers near the rim of the head, producing a clear resonant tone with a distinct pitch, muffled or mute tone (tono ahogado like the open tone, is made by striking the drum with the four fingers, but holding the fingers against the head to muffle the tone), and the Glisssando or “moose call,” rubbing a moistened third finger and thumb across the head. See YouTube’s video of a Kingston Trio and Friends Reunion concert in 1981 (14:34-16:39).
Your comments are encouraged. Please send other videos you find with Nick playing the congas to share.