top of page
THE SIX CORE MOTIONS

I have stated that the exercises in this book are purely “abstract”, and unrelated to any specific style; nevertheless, it is precisely in the idiomatic legacy of the conga drums, and in the way it naturally evolved, that these studies are firmly rooted and built upon. The playing technique of the conga, and even its morphology, are inextricable from the musical styles which it has been employed on during the course of its evolution, and represent its core lexicon, its raison d'être in terms of aesthetics. To ignore that would be comparable to deciding to play tablas with a pair of mallets: yes, they are drums, and yes, you can get some sort of sound out of that; you might even like the result, and find a sensible musical application. But you’d not be playing tablas; what you’re doing is making music with a found object. On the basis of this consideration, I have set out to break down the language of conga drums into its basic constructional elements, and build the main chunk of studies in this method around these - an operation vaguely comparable to that of rationalising the snare drum rudiments.

The single and most distinctive element of the conga drums lexicon, the one idiomatic factor that defines it and sets it apart from most other hand drums, is the extensive and pervading use of the palm-tip motion, often called “manoteo”. There’s hardly a rhythm in the whole Afro-Cuban wealth of genres and styles which doesn’t make use of it, in one combination or another. These combinations, in the way they present themselves in the living and past examples, are finite in number, and relatively easy to single out. I have called them CORE MOTIONS, and ordered them in a list of six.

These are, so to speak (and if I may be excused for borrowing the concept), the “archetypes” of conga drumming, and similarly to the Jungian collective unconscious’ archetypes they are devoid of content. They are implicit in all the manifest expressions of conga drumming, but are somehow antecedent to these, possess a life independent from them, and hold therefore the potentiality of branching out in any direction, however unexpected and removed from the orthodoxy, yet still remaining faithful to the nature of the instrument.

 

Despite them consisting of short non-melodic tones, the palm-tip sequences are not comparable to the “ghosting” you may find in other percussion instruments, like djembe or drum kit. Particularly in the rhythms of the “ballroom” family, like salsa, bolero, chachacha and so on, they form a mighty solid grid of subdivisions, indispensable and complementary to the various configurations of the “singing” tones of the drums - the open and the slaps. So what we have here is again a useful parallel with the basic rhythmic construction of the drum kit, where the palm is comparable to the bass drum, the open and slap to the snare, and the tip to the hi-hat. In conclusion, the palm-tip alternation, far from being an even grid-filler, is in many rhythms an out-and-out leading pulse, compensating the danceability and the upbeat thrust of the open tones and slaps with a heavy grounding on the downbeat.

 

 

In the most basic and representative of all congas rhythms - what is generally called tumbao - the manifest principle is that of the “strong” hand performing the main defining accents by replacing what is an otherwise regular and uninterrupted series of alternating palm-tip divisions, played by the other hand.

This principle can be easily clarified in the following diagram, where, for schematisation, the left hand (the “palm-tip” hand) is placed on an imaginary third drum on the upper line, while the right hand and the two main drums are on the lower two lines:

(fig. 1)

In fig. 2, the notes in brackets are replaced:

Resulting in fig. 3:

Which is obviously fig. 4:

The low-end pulse on the downbeat is maintained whenever it’s possible; it is not an understated element of the rhythmic construction, and it is as fundamental and prominent as a bass drum in a drum kit groove.

One creative way to keep the palm-pulse going throughout, on the first and third beat (and a first step into "organic" playing), is for example:

There are cases, in the traditional repertoire, where the bass of the palm stroke remains constant, as this doesn’t interfere with the “singing” tones. An old style Son Montuno for example:

Or the classic Chachacha:

These last two are examples of relatively early styles, and as such they can help us understand where modern conga playing was originated.

 

 

The example on fig. 5 can give us a first hint of what it can mean playing congas in a non-linear way that doesn’t necessarily resort on “independence”, or on the idea of an ostinato running independently from the other parts. This idea is taken to further length in some of the studies on this method - although to do justice to it would demand a dedicated work, which may or may not be published at some point in the future. The basic idea of linear versus non-linear, or “organic”, playing, on the other hand, is dealt with in depth in the chapter LINEAR VS ORGANIC PLAYING, and it is employed extensively throughout this method.

 

The principle intrinsic in the construction of the Tumbao, which we have analysed earlier in this chapter, is that of an underlaying pulse - a constant grid of palm-tip subdivisions over which the “singing” tones are superimposed, by way of replacing the equivalent unit in the grid.

This principle is expanded in great length in most of the studies dealing with Core Motion B, C and F, and the more attention is paid to performing each exercise note by note exactly as written, the more this principle will become clear, and musically valid. For now, to clarify this idea, let me bring as an example two very elemental variations for three congas on an underlying Core Motion B pulse; these are the lines number 4 and number 33 from the study ‘core B - 5.1’:

bottom of page