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Johnny Conga: Breaking Skin

Raul d'Gama Rose By

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Johnny Conga comes from a long line of illustrious tumbadora (conga) players. From the musical evidence on Breaking Skin, this genealogy may begin with the likes of Chano Pozo, Mongo Santamaria, Tata Guines, Candido Camero, Armando Peraza and Francisco Aguabella. Lest there be a scream of "blasphemy," it bears mention that Conga stylistically connects the ancient with the modern, from the challenging rhythms of West Africa—the beating heart of ritmo—to the son and danzon, timba, bembe, charanga, rumba, mambo and more.

Conga's exclusively rhythm section tracks—the "Conga Solo" series consisting of "Bembe Ochun," "Conganation," "Congobel Part II" and "Congarobics - 3 Congas" contain pure tumbadora virtuosity. The hypnotic beating of warm skin suggests a conjuring of the spirit world, a call to prayer that is both primitive and powerfully modern. It suggests that the drum connection with musical spirituality is vibrantly alive.

Jack DeJohnette once lamented that spirituality had left music after John Coltrane died. Musicians, it seemed, were no longer probing and looking for the tonal centers of song and dance, while entertaining at the same time. Breaking Skin, however, is a constant reminder that there are still musicians seeking out a deeper connection with the ritmo of the soul.

Can this record be really enjoyed without this mumbo jumbo? The answer sounds off in many more ways than one. True, there is an innocuous start to the record, with Chick Corea early chart, "Guagira," but that only sets the stage for the heat that is to follow. There is a transcendent interplay between Conga and pianist/vibraphonist Mario "Del Barrio" Marrero, with rhythmic counterpoint from timbalist Edwin Bonilla. "Seattle Bembe" is a fine example of ritual drumming, the rumbling incantation and bembe blended with a bubbling in the barrio as the maestro of the Yoruba worship calls upon the spirits up above to bless all song.

"Siempre me va Bien" blends sassy melody and a shower of mambo with a delightfully drunken hypnotic clave, conjoined with piano con clave. There is also some superb deconstruction of the Brazilian rhythms, featured on intense samba tracks such as "Mariel," with a sensuous piano and vibes introduction melting into a swaggering bolero before skipping back to a samba. "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 creating svelte pirouettes.

Conga's effortless method of creating memorable ritmo is always on. His left hand patterns and a variety of right hand slaps, both open toned and flat, are inspired and memorable. Add to that his compositional abilities and Breaking Skin is pretty close to perfect.

Track Listing: Guagira; 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, tenor saxophone solo (1, 3, 7); Johnny Padilla: tenor saxophone, tenor saxophone solo (5, 12), soprano saxophone, soprano saxophone solo (7); Jose "Junito" Martinez: drums; Sammy Alamillo: drums, handclaps and background vocals; Jeff Woods: congas, guitars, handclaps and background vocals.

Title: Breaking Skin | Year Released: 2009 | Record Label: Self Produced

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