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Review: Instructional Material, Part 2: Audio & Video Tapes

by David Peñalosa

This is the second of a three-part review concerning instructional materials available in the Descarga Catalog.The subject of this installment covers instructional audio and video tapes of Afro-Cuban rhythms played on the drum set and typical Cuban band percussion instruments. So far, to my knowledge, there are no instructional videos dealing strictly with Afro-Cuban folkloric percussion.

Instructional video tapes offer an obvious advantage over instructional books: you can observe the teacher demonstrating the material. I would like to suggest that you acquire more than just one source of instructional material because there is no one book, audio or video tape that will have everything you need to know. I'd also like to suggest that you a) find a real flesh and blood teacher (if you don't already have one), b) listen to the type of music you are studying as much as possible, and c) see live performances frequently as well.

A master percussionist is certainly the most qualified to speak on the subject of percussion. However, the best teachers are the ones who can take complex concepts and present them in ways that are comprehensible to their students. The best performer is not necessarily the best teacher, and even a good teacher may not feel very comfortable in front of the video camera.

I hope that my following observations will help you in your decision as to which videos may best serve you.

Latin American Percussion
Birger Sülsbruck - Video

Sülsbruck's accompanying book was reviewed in the first part of my instructional materials series. This is a good introduction to Cuban musical instruments and rhythms. Sure, this is a Danish man explaining Afro-Cuban music in the English language, and some may find this juxtaposition amusing, but the point is that it works.

Sülsbruck's explanation of clave is one of the best I've come across. He demonstrates in a very accessible way, the most fundamental of African rhythmic concepts. This is a good video for beginning and intermediate students.

Conga Drumming and Afro-Caribbean Rhythms
Jerry Gonzalez - Video

Conga Drumming & Afro-Caribbean Rhythms will have more value to someone who already has a handle on conga drum technique and basic patterns. Jerry Gonzalez is certainly qualified to speak on the subject of band conga drumming. He has played with many of the biggest names in both jazz and salsa, but is best known for his group, The Fort Apache Band, and long tenure in Manny Oquendo's Libre.

The instruction is not as thorough as in Sülsbruck's Latin American Percussion, but the viewer gets the treat of observing Gonzalez playing "out" up-close. Joining Jerry in these demonstrations are his brother Andy on bass and Steve Berrios on traps and timbales. This is one of the best Latin jazz rhythm sections of all time, the backbone of The Fort Apache Band.

Adventures in Rhythm: Vol. 1, Close Up On Congas
Richie Gajate Garcia - Video
Adventures In Rhythm: Vol. 2, Close Up On Bongos and Timbales
Richie Gajate Garcia - Video

Richie Gajate Garcia is LP's star clinician and on these videos makes good use of a great array of LP gear. I recommend these videos to percussion students who are interested in playing in situations other than typical Latin bands such as fusion or pop groups.

Richie demonstrates the basics in a straightforward manner. He also shows the technique of doing roles and playing timbales and congas at the same time. These are attractive concepts, but at times he appears to not be all that comfortable in their execution. Anyone who has seen Cuban masters such as "Changuito" or Roberto Vizcaino play congas and timbales simultaneously knows what a master of these techniques can do. Be that as it may, Richie Gajate Garcia gets his point across.

Understanding Latin Rhythms
Latin Percussion - Book/Cassettes

This set of two audio cassettes and book came out long before there were any instructional videos available. The advent of percussion instructional videos has made instructional audio cassettes practically obsolete today.

However, one advantage to this package is the part where we hear straight-ahead, clean performances by Carlos "Patato" Valdes (congas, quinto on guaguanco, and bomba), José Mangual Sr. (bongos), Manny Oquendo (timbales), and Bobby Rodriguez (bass). Beginning percussion students have often had difficulty hearing what percussionists are doing on recordings of salsa bands. Understanding Latin Rhythms provides the listener with some prime examples of rhythms played by a bare-bones rhythm section consisting of percussion and bass only.

All timbale students should check out Manny Oquendo's solo on the tune "Mambo." It's very common for timbale students to hear only the flashy roles in a timbale solo, while missing the skeletal structure which lies behind it.

The roles and other flashy demonstrations of technique should embellish the fundamental structure which is the drum language. The nice thing about Manny Oquendo is that he plays his solos in a very sparse, skeletal manner. Study Oquendo first.

Latin Percussion: Drum Solos Vol. 1
Latin Percussion: Drum Solos Vol. 2
Latin Percussion: Drum Solos Vol. 3
Latin Percussion - Audio Cassette

This is a great audio tape series. The format is basically this: On side A we hear the rhythm section play various songs with conga, bongo and timbale solos throughout. The other side has the same tracks minus the solos. You solo along with the music on this side. This is an enjoyable way to practice drum solos.

Latin Rhythms Applied to the Drum Set
Steve Berrios - Video

Steve Berrios is one of the most qualified musicians to speak about the application of Latin rhythms to the drum set. Berrios played traps in Mongo Santamaria's band for years, and was vital in the creation of Mongo's blend of jazz, funk and Cuban music during the 1970s. For the past decade he has been making his contribution to the cutting-edge Latin jazz sounds of The Fort Apache Band.

After a lengthy drum solo, Berrios begins his instruction by introducing the viewer to the conga drum parts for guaguancó. He says that trap drummers must understand this folkloric rhythm before they begin to learn parts on the traps. I don't disagree with this at all, but the demonstration of guaguancó is not the clearest and the more important issue of clave is all but ignored. There are several performances in the video where Steve Berrios demonstrates the patterns in context with a full band. Members of this band include "Patato" Valdez on congas, and Fort Apache Band member Larry Willis on piano — two outstanding musicians.The material played by the band is intriguing but whenever I watch this part of the video I always wish that they tried some more "takes." The performances just don't seem well rehearsed or relaxed. The best performance is at the end of the tape where Berrios and conguero Jerry Gonzalez do an exciting percussion duet.

Practical Applications of Afro-Caribbean Rhythms to the Drumset
Chuck Silverman - Video

Practical Applications of Afro-Caribbean Rhythms to the Drumset is the most thorough video on the subject available. The accompanying set of three instructional books (which are sold separately) was reviewed in the first installment of this review. If you are going to get just one drumset video, I would recommend this one. Chuck Siverman begins with the concept of clave then proceeds to demonstrate patterns in a methodical manner. One nice touch is the picture-within-a-picture in the corner of the screen where you see what Silverman's feet are doing.

Drums and Percussion
South American, Caribbean, African and American Jazz
Alex Acuña - Video

Alex Acuña is one of the most experienced percussionists/trap drummers around. His musical sensitivity has enabled him to play percussion in a great variety of settings. Acuña does not appear to be as steeped in the traditions as Steve Berrios or Chuck Silverman. These videos will be useful to those wishing to play percussion in pop or fusion music.

Drums and Percussion: Working it Out Part 1
Drums and Percussion: Working it Out Part 2
Dave Weckl and Walfredo de Los Reyes Sr. - Video

Here we have one of the most outstanding fusion trap drummers working with one of the great innovators of Cuban style trap drumming. On these videos Dave Weckl plays the traps, while Walfredo de los Reyes Sr. plays the other percussion.

In my opinion, the best part of this video is Weckl's tips to trap drummers on how to blend with percussionists. It is also essential for percussionists to know where trap drummers are coming from. This is because it's easy for percussionists and set drummers to step on each other if they aren't careful. Consider this another useful video for those percussionists interested in playing pop and fusion music. I personally would have preferred to see a video where Cuban born Walfredo de Los Reyes Sr. played traps. Walfredo is one of those unsung heroes of Latin music. He played on some early descarga recordings with "Cachao." Nothing is worse than someone who claims they know something when they actually don't. You don't have to worry about this being the case with Dave Weckl, though. He comes right out and confesses his ignorance of Afro-Latin music. It seems Weckl could benefit from viewing some of the other instructional material covered in this review.

Afro-Cuban Rhythms for Drumset
Frank Malabe & Bob Weiner - Book/Cassette

The book which accompanies this audio tape was reviewed in the first part of this series. It's hard for an instructional audeio tape to compete with an instructional video. Being able to see the teacher demonstrate the parts as opposed to just being able to hear the demonstration is a great advantage. There are some rhythms on this tape, though, that are not seen in any of the videos. (Now also available in a Book/CD package.)

Funkifying the Clave: Afro-Cuban Grooves for Bass and Drums
Lincoln Goines and Robby Ameen - Book/CD

This is a great book-cassette package. It makes sense to combine the bass and drums because these two instruments need to work together in order to create a cohesive effect in the rhythm section. The typical timbale basics are demonstrated, followed by trap drum adaptations. Robby Ameen then offers his own ideas on the topic. This book once and for all puts to rest the idea that one needs to put a simple rock back-beat over Afro-Cuban rhythms in order to make them palatable to American audiences. These drum set patterns are very funky and very danceable, while not compromising their grounding in clave. For the bass portion of this book-cassette package, we are introduced to patterns played by some of the heavies: Cachao, Bobby Rodriguez, Andy Gonzalez, Juan Formell and Sal Cuevas. Lincoln Goines himself has some hip ideas about playing funky bass within the context of clave. Afro-Cuban Grooves for Bass and Drums is a must for any bass player or drummer wishing to expand their understanding of Latin rhythms. (Also available in video.)

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