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Conga Drummer's Guidebook
by Michael Spiro
review by Eric Stuer, Dec 2006

We found out about Michael Spiro approximately ten years ago when he came through the Guitar Center in Dallas with David Garibaldi and Jesus Diaz, the trio known as Talking Drums. Upon watching him play for 45 seconds, it was already obvious that here was a guy who knew the real secrets to making the conga drum speak with the ancient voices..never mind that his left foot, seemingly unattended, was nailing clave with a Gajate pedal the whole time; it was the way that he phrased, the exact sounds and spaces in time that he chose, that said he was one of those who KNEW..he sounded a thousand years old.

Mr.Spiro's studies include a long time student/teacher association with Fransisco Aguabella , and study with Changuito and a long list of other illustrious master drummers. He has traveled extensively to Cuba and South America, and he is fortunate to be based in the San Fransisco Bay area, home to some of the best percussion teachers and players, within an elite group of which he is wholeheartedly accepted...

So it comes as no surprise to us that this is no ordinary conga book.

As promised in the preface, the book contains a little of everything. It is for intermediate and advanced students, and uses standard music notation throughout; Michael spends time talking about the art of reconciling the actual FEEL of Afro-Caribbean music with what is normally written on paper. He uses ties to indicate the true phrasing, which seldom starts or ends at the beginning of a written measure.

He also accounts for the slight shift in time we often find in these musics, a 'swing', of sorts, where the rhythm actually falls between 3 and 4. Without the ability to play this way, one is doomed to play stiffly, with an 'accent', as it were. ..he calls the adjustment 'fix', as in halfway between four and six, and he includes examples to develop the sense of it.

The section on clave is one of the best I have seen so far.

There are plenty of exercises to develop the heel toe [or palm/tip] 'Mano Secreto' technique so thoroughly developed by Changuito and his students..(All due respect to Tata Guines, who paved the way for Changuito's work.) Included are excersises for stamina and agility.

An interesting approach to improvisation appears in the book, using the concept of Rhythmic 'cells' or patterns that over and over form the building blocks of improvisation; when revoicing is applied to these permutations, infinite variety becomes possible. There are revoicing exercises included...

There is a great section on 12/8, including some crucial cell coordination excercises against the short bell part I wish I had seen and wrestled with 30 years ago. Time now to do so. He stresses the need to be able to truly hear and feel the 12/8 figures as four groups of triplets, instead of as a waltz, and to be able to tap one's feet in four while playing these various rhythmic cells against the short bell part, one in each limb. Mr. Spiro also pays serious attention to the middle triplet, the more subtle and difficult one so important to Afro-Caribbean music. Listen to a three minute exercise , in mp3 format, running the 12/8 rhythmic cells (common possibilities)against the short bell part, from the CD.

I have not managed to mention everything in the book, by any means..Suffice it to say here that it is now a classic work for the conga drum (tumbadora) . As Rebecca Mauleon wrote, the 12/8 coordination exercises alone are worth the price of the book. The Conga Drummer's Guidebook can be purchased directly from Sher Music Co.



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