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The "Stradivarius" of conga makers

Profile: Natalio Tirado Ruiz "Junior" Master Drum-Maker

by Eddie Bobé

After a ten year absence from the music scene, the renowned master conga drum craftsman Natalio Tirado Ruiz, AKA Junior, has reappeared and brought a set of conga drums into existence.

I have known Junior for twenty years. I can tell you that, in his mind, heart and soul, he truly believes that his drums are his children and not just a compilation of wood, iron and cueró. And, as a player, I can assure you that they are alive.

Junior's genius began in Puerto Rico. At the age of fourteen he would borrow his brother-in-law's drum. His brother-in-law, Raul Beltran, played with Puerto Rican conjuntos like Farona-X and El Taune and also had a gig on a radio program on Saturdays. Typically, Raul would hunt for his drum, usually finding it at the corner jam session, and scold Junior for making off with it. "One day I'll have my own drum!" Junior would say.

The answer, for Junior, was the town woodworking factory. Junior spied on a wood-worker shaving a plank of wood, and waited patiently until the worker left to go to the bathroom. Junior was a full two street blocks away - with the block of wood, before screams of anger filled the town of Quintana, Alto Rey. By now Junior was home, and out of breath, with a block of wood under his arm. He had received a shaving blade as a gift and had borrowed tools to replicate the dimensions of Raul's drum. Soon Junior gave birth to the first of what many consider to be the Stradivarius of conga drums. He branded it with his initials using a hot wire.

In 1960, Arsenio Rodriguez came to Puerto Rico and Junior became a member of his conjunto as a back-up singer. He came to New York with Arsenio's band and he's been here ever since. He opened up his drum making shop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. A friend brought him to Manny's Music store (a large instrument store in Manhattan). Manny was astonished to learn that the drums were not made in Cuba, but at a small secluded operation in Brooklyn.

Junior's reputation as a drum-maker began to be acknowledged worldwide. His congas and bongos can be found from Europe to the Middle East. His drums appeared on the cover of the classic record Concepts In Unity by Grupo Folklorico Experimental Nuevayorkino. Last year, when Conjunto Folklorico de Cuba toured the U.S., they came to Junior to repair their drums. Among the many artists who have had the good fortune to own Junior's drums are Mongo Santamaria, Jerry Gonzalez, Ray Barretto, Steve Berrios and the late, great, Frankie Malabe, Alberto Serrano, and Frankie Rodriguez, who had a custom set made that were as light as a feather. Recently added to the list is yours truly, Eddie Bobé. Junior's address is 97 Havemeyer Street, #1, Brooklyn, NY 11211. His telephone number is (718)388-3158.

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