Pioneering Cuban conguero Carlos “Patato” Valdés, a Latin jazz giant known for his melodic approach to the instrument and dynamic presence, died on Tuesday of lung failure. It was appropriately the feast day of Changó, the Yoruba deity of the drums. The man who Tito Puente once called “the greatest conguero alive” was 81.
Born in 1926, Valdés left Havana in the early 50s a prominent percussionist with roots in the rumba of the solar. He headed for New York’s burgeoning jazz scene where he quickly established himself as a sought after player, performing and recording with the top musicians of the day, greats such as Dizzy Gillespie, Machito, Kenny Dorham, Art Blakey, and Elvin Jones he played with Herbie Mann from 1959 to 1972.
With his signature beret and sleek barrio look, this king of the quinto drum was known for his showmanship, virtuosity, and innovation. He popularized playing multiple conga drums to allow for a wider range of tones and is credited with developing the world’s first tunable congas, a leap forward from the days of having to heat the skins to achieve the crackling, tight-sounding patter.
On the landmark 1967 Verve album “Patato & Totico” he teamed up with singer Eugenio “Totico” Arango, a boyhood friend from Havana, and layered other instruments to the usual format of voice and conga. The record reflected the vitality of an increasingly important rumba scene that was emerging in New York City and included such giants as Israel "Cachao" López on bass and Arsenio Rodríguez on the small, six-string guitar from the Cuban countryside known as the tres.
Valdés performed to the very end, recently touring with "The Conga Kings," a trio of percussionists that included Cándido Camero, a fellow octogenarian, and Giovanni Hidalgo. On a flight back from concerts in California he had trouble breathing and the plane made an emergency landing in Cleveland, where Valdés remained hospitalized until his passing.
Currently, Cuban filmmaker Mercedes Jimenez Ramirez is working on a documentary on his life titled "Las Manos Magicas de Cuba" (Cuba's Magical Hands), due for release in the Spring of 2008.
He is survived by his wife, Julia two daughters, Yvonne and Regla and two grandchildren, José Valdés and Mayra García.