Johnny Conga – Breaking Skin (Independent 2009)


Johnny Conga comes from a long line of illustrious tumbadores, too many to mention, but suffice it to say that from the musical evidence on Breaking Skin, the genealogy may well include the likes of Chano Pozo, Mongo Santamaria, Tata Güines, Candido, Armando Peraza, Francisco Aguabella and a host of others. Lest anyone out there scream, “Blasphemy!” it bears mention that Johnny Conga stylistically connects ancient with modern from the challenging rhythms of West Africa – the beating heart of ritmo – to the son and danzon, timba, bembe, charanga, rumba, mambo and so on.

Conga’s exclusively rhythm tracks – the “Conga Solo” series, which feature 2 and 3 congas, “Bembe Ochun,” “Conganation,” “Congobel Part II” and “Congarobics – 3 Congas” are all stunning displays not only of virtuoso tumbadora work, but inspired emotional homecoming. The hypnotic edge suggests a conjuring of the spirit world, a call to prayer that is primitive and powerfully modern. It suggests that the drum connection with musical spirituality is vibrantly alive.

Johnny Conga may be making a very important statement here. He is not only establishing his pedigree with this record, nor displaying a flashy skill. There is something greater than dexterity on display here. Johnny Conga is re-establishing the spirit connection with musical journeying. To suggest anything else would be silly. Jack DeJohnette had once lamented that spirituality had left music after John Coltrane died. Musicians it seemed were no longer probing, looking for the tonal centers of song and dance, while entertaining at the same time. But as civilizations spiral uncontrollably into the future, bereft a spirit the world spins darkly. Music like that on Breaking Skin is a constant reminder that there is an alternative, a seeking for the ebullience that can only come with a search for the deeper connection with the roots of humanity, the ritmo of the soul.

So can this record be really enjoyed without this mumbo jumbo? It can and in many more ways than one. True that there is an innocuous start to the record, with Chick Corea’s early chart, “Guajira,” but that only sets the stage for the musical heat that is to follow. There is also a superb display of transcendent interplay between Conga, piano and vibes player, Mario “Del Barrio” Marrero, and rhythmic counterpoint with timbalero, Edwin Bonilla together with the bongocero, Ronnie Loreto. “Seattle Bembe” is a fine example of ritualistic drumming, the rumbling incantation and Bembe raining, blended with a bubbling in the barrio as the maestro of the Yoruba worship calls upon the spirits up above to bless all songs.

“Siempre me va Bien” blends sassy melody with the raining of seemingly mambo coconuts and a delightfully drunken hypnotic clave laughter conjoined with piano con clave. But Johnny Conga does not stop at celebrating merely the Afro-Cuban, or the Afro-Caribbean – as on “Caribe Madness”. There is also some superb deconstruction of the Brasilian rhythms, featured on intense samba tracks such as “Mariel,” which rocks from a sensuous piano and vibes introduction to a swaggering bolero, before skipping with heart-stopping motion back to a samba. “Afro-Samba” is no less wonderful, though completely different from its fluttering counterpart. And, of course, “Midnight Mambo” is a sexy confluence of brass woodwinds and percussion – the highlights are the tenor saxophone work of Tom McCormick with Johnny Padilla on soprano doing svelte pirouettes in counterpoint.

Throughout the record, Johnny Conga’s effortless method of creating memorable ritmo is always on. The rhythmic splatters he creates are non pareil. His left hand patterns and a variety of right hand slaps both open toned and flat slapping is inspired and memorable. Add to that the compositional abilities and the recasting of older work in a modern context and this makes Breaking Skin a record that is pretty close to perfect.

Tracks: Guajira; Seattle Bembe; Siempre Me Va Bien; Conga Solo – 2 congas; Mariel; Conganation; Midnight Mambo; Congobel Part II; Kathy’s Theme; Afro-Samba; Conga Solo No. 2 – 3 Congas; Bembe Ochun; JC’s Revenge; Congarobics – 3 Congas; Comparsa Con Campanas; Afro-Dixie 6; Rumba Pa’ La Ocha; Caribe Madness.

Personnel: Johnny Conga: Congas; Juan Pablo Torres: trombone; Eddie “Guagua” Rivera: bass; Edwin Bonilla: timbales; Mario “Del Barrio” Marrero: piano, vibes; Ronnie Loreto: bongo, bell; Doug Michaels: trumpet; Tom McCormick: tenor saxophone (solo 1,3, 7); Johnny Padilla: tenor saxophone (solo: 5, 12), soprano saxophone (solo 7); Jose "Juanito" Martinez: drums; Guests Sammy Alamillo: drums, handclaps and background vocals; Jeff Woods: congas, guitars, handclaps and background vocals.

Johnny Conga on the web:

Review written by: Raul da Gama

Danilo Navas
Danilo Navas
Founder, Editor, Webmaster: Latin Jazz Network, World Music Report, Toronto Music Report. A passionate and committed communicator with a sensibility for the arts based in Toronto, Canada.

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