There is a great difference between a drum set drummer playing timbales and an actual timbalero when he plays the timbales. Most drum set drummers try doing immense rolls, thinking that doing that is very impressive.
I, as well as others that have many years of experience playing timbales, can pick out an actual timbal drummer vs. a drum set drummer playing timbales.
Because drum set players are given the opportunity to bang on a drum and the audience roars, does not mean that they actually know their timbales chops. This is not in all cases. The late Mike Collazo was a drum set drummer for Tito Puente Orchestra and also one of the best timbales players ever.
Timbales or conga drumming is not about the ability of how fast you can play, it is about what you are saying with the drum as a percussionist. I have a friend from Africa. We are in a mutual club; he is a young guy and he told me he was a drummer in Africa. I knew the answers of what I was asking him, due to the fact that I am a very spiritual individual as well as drummer. I asked him why he drummed and he told me “to call spirits.” In our conversation he was telling me that they used the drums to talk to other villages from a distance.
Now, let me make the comment, when drummers play extra fast, what would the other village say about the extra fast conversations. That is what goes through my mind when I see drummers playing fast.
I used to sit down and talked to conga and batá legend Francisco Aguabella, at my home when he visited me. We would talk about fast playing on the conga drums. Francisco told me that he would play for days some non-batá ceremonies and that the drummers would take turns drumming and sleeping, taking shifts with other drummers and these ceremonies went on for 3 days at a time. Imagine the endurance of not tiring, when playing for days at a time.
As an orchestra leader observing and hearing remarks from conga drummers, today’s conga drummers do not want to do a conga solo on stage for more than 2 minutes duration; they have actually requested such. Endurance is one of the many keys to conga drumming or drumming per se. Playing fast does not impress me. Observing Francisco Aguabella or Mongo Santamaria with the voicing and language they were saying with the conga drum, when they played the conga drum to me is real conga drumming.
Francisco Aguabella would say that it was just a new technique that the drummers were utilizing by playing fast. Francisco Aguabella would tell me that these new drummers were getting bits and pieces and copying the techniques of other drummers or lessons from other drum techniques to try and be different and try to invent their own new style.
I asked Francisco Aguabella what he thought about these new up and coming drummers with fast techniques and he just made a face (smirk), like he always did.
To think in my mind, when I was around Francisco Aguabella, that he played with batalero group leader; “Okilakpa” Pablo Roche, Batalero Trinidad Terregoza, Raúl Diaz, Geraldo Rodriguez, Batalero Jesús Pérez, Julito Collazo and even learned batá from the famed Esteban ‘Cha-Cha’ Vega, plus years of playing with other legends and even playing rhythms that are no longer played in Cuba today that, and he taught his to his students.
Francisco would perform a conga solo on stage for Eddie Palmieri’s Perfecta Orchestra on one tune. Eddie and the whole band left the stage for 10-15 minutes while Francisco soloed alone on stage. In my mind I would say to myself, how could Francisco fear or even have a doubt of his own ability to play congas, when he came from the real actual roots of Matanzas (Cuba) and has played drums, even before some of these cats were born or thought of. And a lot of the new legends can never ever say they played with Trinidad Terregoza or batalero Jesús Pérez, like Francisco Aguabella did..
There has to be respect for some of these master drummers as well as Mongo Santamaria, Cándido etc. as well as the elder and present African drummers and timbal drummers like Manny Oquendo.
In timbal drumming I have personally gotten many tones out of the drums, but after 45 plus years of playing, I guess I also have the ability to do this with the conga drums. This comes with dedication, time, patience and love for the drum.
Manny Oquendo did not play the timbales fast, he was just Manny. Drummers I know wanted and actually did kiss Manny’s hands out of respect for his mastery as a timbal drummer.