Are you in love with Salsa and Latin Music? Meet Giovanni Hidalgo – the man who took conga to the next level.

Standing in the tradition of Tata Güines, Candido, Changuito and Chano Pozo, Giovanni has not only performed with most Latin Super Stars, he also has developed deep wisdom and love that he now shares with world. It is a true honor to have Giovanni Hidalgo performing live on my podcast – thank you hermano!

„The drumming is our pulse, it’s our life, our love and harmony. It’s joy and it brings happiness and health, not only for you, but for the masses.“

Watch the interview with Giovanni Hildago on YouTube:

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Transcript of this Episode

REINHARD
Ladies and gentlemen, here he is, one of the greatest conga players of our time: Giovanni Hidalgo! Welcome to my podcast.

GIOVANNI
Thank you Reinhard, thank you very much for inviting me to your podcast!

REINHARD
Today I want to dig a little bit deeper into the wisdom that you have been developing in your beautiful life.
My first question to you is how you would describe “groove”, like being in the groove, to someone who does not play music?

GIOVANNI
Well, first of all, what a great honor! Thank you!
The groove is so important! We call it in spanish “Marcha”, like a march, a marching. So the groove is so important because as more simple you play it, much better, more interesting, harder, deeper. It’s very important when you play with a group, you cannot play just by yourself and follow the tune… No no. You have to follow the whole structure. Remember…

We are like a couple of them in one: We are scientists, we are architects, chemists, we are painters, graphic artists and that’s what we do. When you play with a group you have to follow everyone. The piano, the horns, the brass section, the bass, the singer, the guitarist. That helps you to put some beautiful colors and that’s Giovanni, all my life. I say “Go ahead, I let you guys put everything first, leave me for the last”. So then when I come in, I love to go between all you guys putting the best I can, the good colors. Like a perfume, like a painter, you know what I mean?

You have to go with the flow and the groove. [Giovanni plays congas] Colors, simple.

REINHARD
Giovanni, being the master of the conga, if there is the young guy who tries to get his first conga lesson and he’s really like “I want to learn conga!”, what would be your advice? How should this person start? With one conga, two congas, three congas?

GIOVANNI
I always like to start with one conga and then I jump to the second conga. That’s the main thing. After that gonna come the third, that’s the pyramid that I work, that’s the triangle.
One, two and three, right? After that you can put four, five or six. I’m used to work with five or six congas for colors, not to say like “Oh I’m playing five and six congas, and four congas…” No no no, it’s not that. It’s the colors. But one of the first things I show to my students and the young guys, the kids, is to be and grow up humble. To be humble always because in music you cannot follow the ego trip. For example if I say “No I’m Giovanni …” No no no.

Right now at my age of 57, I’m still learning of the conga, I don’t know anything about the conga, Reinhard. And the people say “Giovanni you are the best”. I say, “No no no, thanks but no”. I’m not the best one of the world, I’m not the best of Puerto Rico. I know how I play and how much I play, and when I’m going to play, I’m going to play. But we need to be humble because that gives you more space to analyze where you are, how you do your things, how you show to the other people and share to the other percussionists, musicians, artists, and it’s beautiful, I mean, for us, myself, you, all the conga players in the past…

We cannot forget the pioneers. That’s number one.Thanks to them we are here. But it’s a very vast and beautiful universe of all of us the musicians, the artists, the percussionists. Each instrument is so beautiful and so deep. With the respect of all of them, but nothing like the drums, nothing like the hand drums involving the conga, bongó, djembe, batá, tablas, then came the timbales and the drum set, a talking drum, etc. From Bali, from Korea, from Japan, China… Nothing like the drum. In Spanish: “Nada como el tambor”.

REINHARD
I agree with you but explain why is the drum for you so special. What is the reason?
I have my own reasons but I want to hear your reasons.

GIOVANNI
Okay. First of all, it brings you joy, health, spiritual growth, creativity, composing… You know, it is a trunk, a piece of wood from a tree and a membrane from an animal, and the sound that you get from that, the projection, the radial extension of that sound, the beat… Its amazing! Starting from that because the first instrument ever, percussive, is your body.

REINHARD
Exactly, yes. That’s true.

GIOVANNI
Your voice… From there everything starts. And then comes the wood. A wood with a membrane and then comes the stones… Its amazing! And for me the tambor, the drum, the drumming is our pulse, is our life, is our glory, our love and harmony, joy. You know, a very deep, huge passion for what we do. And that brings some happiness and health, not only for you, but for the masses.

REINHARD
Yeah! And also you said something very important that it’s very humble for me to say. “I’m still learning, I’m not the best conga player”. Of course you are this big exponent. But if we forget about “I’m good or I’m not good”, we are always going into this wonderful bliss state, into this state where nothing is about “me and my story and I”, but it’s just music and it’s together.

GIOVANNI
I play conga since I was three years old and I knew this already. I said “Wow” when I saw my name written even in my elementary school. When I wrote my name Giovanni Hidalgo, I always said to me like “Wow, that’s gonna be a huge name, a big name”. I always have inside of me, to be honest, “I have to be the best in my instrument, in what I do”. But always being a person, being a humble person, a human being. Because it’s like that.

If the musicians that are growing up and learning, if they jump to the ego thing, forget it, they are lost. Because that’s not the way. The way has to be very pure, with clarity, with harmony and love papá, that’s all! And that’s what I have done all my life.

REINHARD
I totally agree to that and of course I can feel it from your playing and from your person.
Now when I teach, I’m teaching mainly TaKeTiNa, which is body, and as you said this is the main instrument. But then when I teach congas, many times the people don’t want to tune their drums or they’re not used to tune. I love to tune my drums. Tell us what your approach is.

GIOVANNI
Okay. My approach of that is, for example… When I was a kid and we went to the Rumba on the street in San Juan – where you’ve been and met my father – everybody there, they brought seven, eight, ten congas and then three of those congas, or four, were in the same tune. And I just stopped right away: “Let’s tune, if not i’ll go. If we’re going to play Rumba, we’re going to do the things the way they are. Let’s tune the congas”. The tune is very important.

Look at Patato Valdez, Tata Güines, Candido… All of them…Mongo, Barretto… The tuning is very important. For example Patato used G natural, A sharp, C natural and F natural down. Tata Güines used two congas and tuned A and D. And Candido A, B, E.

REINHARD
Giovanni, do you know why Tata Güines and Candido have chosen this specific tuning?

GIOVANNI
Because it’s the middle, the center, that’s the center. Sometimes I do alter that like in half a tone. I do G sharp, B natural, C sharp and F sharp in the low.

REINHARD
Okay, and the quinto goes on what?

GIOVANNI
The quinto is going to be in C sharp or if you do like the other ones, it’s C, G natural, A sharp, C natural. That’s the quinto. Some people tune in G and C which is good. But I love to put like G sharp and C sharp, I love it.

REINHARD
Giovanni, if you would sit and start to play… I mean, i’m talking for people who don’t have an experience of drumming let’s say, and they’re also listening. So when they see you, what happens within you? How do you start your playing and how do you get into more and more elaboration just if you would play now alone?

GIOVANNI
Well that depends because remember, each time you wake up, every day, it’s a different mood. Every time you go to play in any place it’s a different mood and you start in the way that you feel in your mind, in your heart, and that’s what I do always. Sometimes I start fast, sometimes medium, sometimes slow… It depends.

REINHARD
I understand that.
You have actually shown the world that you can go through a lot of tough times and come out with victory. You had your problems with the fingers and all of that and you’re still stronger than ever. Explain us how you do that, how you go through that things.

GIOVANNI
Okay. First of all I have to thanks God, I have to thanks the Eternal Father for giving me the strength and the knowledge to be more healthy. This started when I was 53 with my amputations. In the very beginning when this thing started, of course I was like “oh my Lord, no, no”. But in three, four or five seconds, I said “Lord, you know something, nothing happened, I have good health, I have stability, creativity, happiness, spirituality”. This can be an example. I don’t wish this to nobody but if some people have it and they pass through this situation, amputations and things like that…

Nothing happens, you guys have to keep going on because the life is still going on and you can put this beyond. This is my example now – I play with the stick, I play with the hand – for the people that have this kind of disabilities, that kind of conditions. Don’t you think that when I wake up I look my hand and I say “Oh Lord…, well it is what it is, but nothing happens. Come on, let’s go”. Being and keeping going helped me with my creativity and my happiness because that never changed in me. I just keep going on, it doesn’t matter. Maybe I have to play with a bat or a tube. Laughters.

REINHARD
What amazes me so much, Giovanni, is that if you play this congas and I don’t see you I would never think that you have less fingers. I mean, you sound like always. How do you do that?

GIOVANNI
Because that’s the way that I am. That’s my stability. Let me tell you this Reinhard: I was ready for all this thing that happened to me now since I was eight years old, nine years old.
From the hospital in 2015, I knew already the position that I would have to play if this thing happened. I knew it already. Of course I’m missing these little parts of these fingers, but it is what it is. You have to manage that the best you can.

For example I managed to play with my hand and with the stick to do a couple of things that involve independence and the rudiments.
In September 1977 my uncle Tito Garcia – I have to thank him for my career – brought me to California, when I was nine years old. I grew up in San Francisco too. So one day I was practicing with my pad and my books the rudiments and I remember that I put the stick aside and played the exercises with my hands.

REINHARD
The stick control goes to hand control. The paradiddles from the sticks go to the hands.

GIOVANNI
Syncopation, stick control… Books by Louie Bellson, Paul Hindemith, William Kessler.
All those books helped me a lot and also when I took piano lessons, when I was eight years old, because the developing of my reading wasn’t in school, it was on the street with all the musicians and I write my music like that. When I went to the conservatory I was reading music by ear, but I said by ear because I didn’t have the age to be at the conservatory. But my friend Pablito Rosario, he told me one day: “Are you reading music?” I say “Yeah, a little bit”.

I was reading but I always like to be humble. So Pablito told me: “Read this book for me, this is a syncopation”. He opened it and said “Read this page for me” and I read it. He looked at me, he closed it, he took another book, opened the page and said “Read this for me”. I read it and he told me very serious “You know something Giovanni, I would like to see you every Monday and Thursday at four o’clock at the conservatory of music”.

So after the school at three o’clock, I took the bus to go to Puerto Nuevo. I remember I took the bus number eight to go over there and I was at four o’clock every Monday and Thursday. I’m talking about 1979. I was over there and when I got in that room, and I saw those teachers… I mean there were like almost 15 of them. All of them were friends of my father. That was like a jubilee, like a party. That was my entrance, my introduction. So since then I keep on doing my rudiments, my reading… Because the real school is the street, Reinhard. But the academic part, to go to the school, is very important.

REINHARD
Yes, I think that that helped you to play like you play now. If you wouldn’t have done all these paradiddles or all this intense training every day, I guess for many many hours, you couldn’t cope like this…

GIOVANNI
Honestly, eight to nine hours a day. From eight o’clock in the morning until five or six almost every day. Now I do two, three, five, six, which is good. I start to practice here at home sometimes at six o’clock in the morning, 6:30 in the morning, and when I look the clock its already one, two or three o’clock.

REINHARD
You played with Dizzy Gillespie, you played with Tito Puente, you played with so many music legends. Where did you meet them mostly, in New York or in San Francisco?

GIOVANNI
In San Francisco I met a lot of them. For me, they are like my parents too. I met over there a very good friend of my uncle Tito Garcia, Benny Velarde. Also Francisco Aguabella, Mongo Santamaría, Chepito Areas, Armando Peraza, Jorge Santana, Willie Bobo. All great people.

REINHARD
When you have been there, was this Mission Cultural Center in the 24th street already there?

GIOVANNI
21st street. I was nine years old and Rebeca Mauleon saw me, Joe Santos saw me, when I was a little kid like that.

REINHARD
Giovanni, you told me that you are currently playing for free for people who have problems. So I want to ask you about your take. How is rhythm healing, mentally, physically, emotionally? How is the healing power of rhythm? How do you see that?

GIOVANNI
Well, first of all, you know that the music is the medicine, doesn’t matter which instrument. And second is your way, your manner to guide and put that in different ways, different paths. So for example this condition that happened to me is an example for all the kids, all the people that have these situations. Please don’t get frustrated.

I went to different schools to play – that’s the only thing that I don’t charge because I cannot charge that – for the people that have conditions like autism, blindness, deafness, etc. And the directors came to me like “Mr. Hidalgo, please accept this for you” and I said “No, no, please. I cannot charge this because I just came to play for them and that’s the medicine from me to them. You want to pay me? Invite me to lunch”.

I saw many things. I mean screaming, crying because of the movements they had to do like stretching. And when I started playing they got very mellow. That happened to me many times. That’s something very deep, that’s very therapeutic, that’s the best therapy. The rhythm, the pulse, the drumming…

REINHARD
Can I ask you a favor? Would you play a little bit for our audience?

GIOVANNI
Of course Papá! And i’m with you because you made my day papá!
Giovanni Hidalgo plays a conga solo

REINHARD
Wow Giovanni, pure magic! I thank you so much for this gift to our listeners! It’s incredible. How many arms do you have?
Now, the Conga drum and the Batá in Latin America are very closely related to Santería. For people who have never heard this word, how would you describe Santería?

GIOVANNI
As far as I concern, Santería is for Los Santos. It comes from Africa. That’s the thing, Africa. That’s the Yoruba. It’s a huge tree, a big super giant tree…Swahili, bantu, yoruba, congo etc etc.

REINHARD
We have a common friend that has been very intensely involved in Santería, Milton Cardona.

GIOVANNI
Milton was the first one who put manteca de corojo on my hands when I was 10 years old. I miss him, let me tell you. Rest in peace.

REINHARD
He played several times in MegaDrums. I want to play this in memory of Milton. This is pure Santería. It was 1990 when we recorded this.
The song Elegua by MegaDrums sounds

GIOVANNI
You know something Reinhard? Milton was the first one that said “Giovanni, I would like to bring you with me… I’m playing with this group called MegaDrums! It was in 1985 that he talked to me about that and look, I’m talking with the founder of the group! Thank you, what an honor, what a pleasure!

REINHARD
Likewise to you! The situation is a little bit problematic right now in the world but this will clear up again and when it clears up, we will certainly revive MegaDrums and I really hope that you are then part of this group.

GIOVANNI
Oh! My pleasure, anytime.

REINHARD
I do believe in the light and in the good energy coming through, helping humanity. Because we are people who need to communicate, we need concerts, we need to dance, we need to play, we need to eat together!

This brings me to my last question. If you had all the resources you needed, what would you do with them? If you had to put together a group, a concert, a project, anything, and you have enough money… What would you do?

GIOVANNI
Well I can put that together to do a big tour of about maybe 40 performances. Hopefully now is moment to take my productions out to the world. I have many of them that I did myself. I believe now is the moment for that and we’re ready to travel, we are ready to go out following the correct steps concerning this pandemic thing. And you have to follow the law so then you can march properly. That’s the first thing I would do, a good tour. And a very few drum circles but in my way.

I would like to open – I’m on my way now to do that – my Giovanni Hidalgo International Music Academy. Involving everything, people with conditions, with disabilities, normal people, all ages…Remember the longevity starts after 80 or 85 years old. That’s the real longevity. When you are at the seven, six or five you’re still young.

REINHARD
Oh yeah! I’m 70 but I feel like 30.

GIOVANNI
Oh! Good health for you and your family!
To be honest with you, I believe now is my moment to put all the ideas that I can right there, all the things that I have recorded. Ideas that nobody has. Just myself.

REINHARD
I’m so curious of what you put together. I will pray for you, I will cross my fingers for you, that you get everything you want to achieve in your lifetime and bring out everything you have collected over the times. Don’t forget that MegaDrums waits for you.

GIOVANNI
Perhaps Giovanni Hidalgo and Mr Reinhard put something together. I’m ready over here and I know you’re ready there. The thing is to get together and make it possible.

REINHARD
Absolutely and let’s groove together. Thank you so much!

Please leave a comment below, and let me know what you think!
I’m curious about your sharings, thoughts and feedback.

Thanks, Reinhard

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