Conga drummer Carlos Valdés carried his nickname with pride. "Patato" in Cuban slang means "potato," in the sense of something small and low to the ground. Valdés was small in stature, but the Little Spud was a giant in Afro Cuban jazz.
Carlos Patato Valdés became a master percussionist in his hometown of Havana, Cuba and toured New York City with a group called Conjunto Casino in 1952. The group's other drummer, the now legendary Candido Camero, decided to stay in New York. Patato came to back to the U.S. to stay in 1954.
A seasoned entertainer, Valdés often delighted audiences with his "penguin dance" and by jumping up on the conga drums to dance on them. But he was serious about his music, and he played the sacred batá drums and practiced Santería throughout his life.
Patato is also known for developing the tunable conga drum, using a rim and metal key system to tighten or loosen the drum head, thereby adjusting its pitch. Until Patato came up with this system in the 1940s, conga drums were tuned by heating the calfskin drum head, usually with a can of Sterno, and stretching it over the mouth of the drum to attain the desired pitch.
Listen for Carlos "Patato" Valdés playing "Yo Tengo Ritmo" (I Got Rhythm) this week on Saturday Jazz Caliente. In the meantime, watch the master at work in this undated performance with a young Giovanni Hidalgo.
Jazz Caliente airs Saturdays at 5:00 p.m. The show is hosted by Robin Lloyd and produced by KNKX Public Radio.