Celebrating the ‘greatest conga player of his generation’ in Berkeley

Giovanni Hidalgo, the greatest conga player of his generation, will join an illustrious cast of players at the Freight & Salvage tribute for him on Sunday. Photo: Courtesy the artist

In the Book of Job, God allows Satan to test the faith of the righteous man by afflicting his body, striking down his children and destroying his material wealth. Giovanni Hidalgo hasn’t suffered Job’s full onslaught of tribulations, but his situation could easily break the spirit of a lesser person. Revered around the world as the greatest conguero of our times, the Puerto Rican percussionist lost the ring finger on his left hand due to a diabetes-fueled infection two years ago, ending his epochal relationship with the congas. But he’s not bemoaning his plight or searching for answers.

“I’m a lefty so I have a double problem, and when I saw my hand after the operation, oh Lord!” says Hidalgo, 53, from his home in Orlando, Fla. “But I’m doing okay, thanks God. I told the doctor to go ahead and amputate. I’m the one sailing my ship, and the only one who can drive me is God. I’m eating well and controlling my sugar levels. I don’t eat chocolate or cake. Maybe once a year.”

While Job was surrounded by people who encouraged him to curse his fate and renounce the Lord as unjust, Hidalgo is buoyed by a vast circle of people who love him. That abiding respect and affection manifests itself Sunday at Freight & Salvage with a benefit concert spearheaded by Oakland percussion maestro John Santos, a cornucopian event at which Hidalgo will play some timbales.

The lineup includes tabla legend Zakir Hussain, who calls Hidalgo “a brother in rhythm.” They were founding members of Mickey Hart’s Planet Drum ensemble, which earned the first ever world music Grammy Award for their eponymous 1991 album. Venezuelan-born pianist Ed Simon, Cuban vocalists Bobi Céspedes and Fito Reinoso, Berkeley-raised drummer Josh Jones, Mexico City-reared bassist Saul Sierra, San Francisco flutist John Calloway, Cuban percussionist Jesus Diaz and many others immediately signed on when word went out about the concert.


“The list is long,” Santos says. “I invited people with a history with Giovanni. We’ve got a great cast of folks. He’s so widely respected by both elders and the new generation. I’ve had to say no to some people who called me who want to participate so it doesn’t get too crowded on stage. I’m trying not to stress too much.”

While Hidalgo was born in Puerto Rico, he has deep Bay Area ties. His uncle Tito Garcia sang with many of the region’s top Latin acts, including Armando Peraza, Benny Velarde and Francisco Aguabella, and his father was the respected conguero José Manuel “Mañengue” Hidalgo. As a boy Giovanni spent quite a bit of time visiting family in Oakland and San Francisco, which is where Santos first crossed paths with Hidalgo in the mid 1970s. He had recently taken over as director of Orquesta Tipica Cienfuegos when he was setting up for a street fair in Bernal Heights.

Some teenage relatives of Giovanni’s who Santos knew asked if their cousin could sit in, “and I said, maybe, who is he?” Santos recalls. “They pointed to this little dude, about nine years old, this is Mañengue’s son. He was standing there but I didn’t think they were talking about him. He was so small I thought they were pulling my leg. My conga player had two drums and Giovanni said I need more congas, so we rounded up a few more and he played his ass off. Already, he was doing these cross-over rolls, crazy stuff we’d never seen before. We’ve been close ever since then. When he came into prominence with Batacumbele around 1980 we had Batachanga. They were aware of our work, as we were certainly aware of them.”

Hidalgo has performed often in the Bay Area with Hart’s Planet Drum and its successor Global Drum Project. He was a regular at Yoshi’s, performing with Eddie Palmieri, the Cuban flute virtuoso Maraca, and jazz piano giant McCoy Tyner. Peter Williams, who took over as program director at the Freight last October, became an avid fan during his long run booking Yoshi’s from 1999-2011, an appreciation deepened by his own relationship with the drum. “I wouldn’t even call myself a conga player, but I’m a conga owner,” he says. “They did a concert for him in New York in March and I thought we should do something at the Freight. When John brought it up I immediately said let’s do it. If anyone deserves something like this it’s Giovanni.”

While a generation of technically brilliant players came up in Hidalgo’s wake, part of what sets him apart is the breadth of his musical vision. He can set the pace playing timba with Los Van Van, and play the most intricate and sophisticated Latin jazz with Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s Volcan ensemble. But he’s also deeply versed in the foundational traditions. He knows Puerto Rican bomba and plena and the rhythmic practices of the great Cuban and New York Latin dance bands of the 1940s and 50s.


“I’ve seen him play in traditional settings where he’s blown my mind,” Santos says. “The other stuff, technically I can’t comprehend. But when he goes back and plays the rootsy stuff, he can play like Armando and Chano Pozo. I saw him a show in the 1980s at Hunter College on a program with Cachao and Charlie Palmieri when he came out with one conga drum, Chano Pozo style. Everyone excepted him to come out with five. He’s the king of the roll and he didn’t play one roll. He played typico.”

For Hidalgo, losing his primary creative vehicle wasn’t unthinkable. Perhaps contemplating the nature of his gift as a prodigy prepared him for its departure, though he makes it clear that being Giovanni Hidalgo required a tremendous amount of work.

“I was ready by seven, eight, nine or 10, I was ready for an event,” he says. “If something happens I have to think how I’m going to resolve it. For me to play like Giovanni Hidalgo I have to practice my ass off. In Cuba, Puerto Rica, Africa, China, they say you are the best. No, no, no! I know my style and how much I play. Always I say, I’m not the best conguero in the world. I have to do it with loyalty and respect and unity with all the musicians.”

It’s an approach to music and life that flows from his deep and sustaining faith, faith that remains unshaken.

Guitarist Dave Haskell plays Jupiter every Tuesday in July. Photo: Hal McGrath

Recommended gig: Dave Haskell at Jupiter

Guitarist Dave Haskell, a mainstay on the Bay Area jazz scene in the 1970s who left music to become a commercial airline pilot, has spent the past decade or so rebuilding his reputation as a player who infuses jazz rock fusion with a deep feel for funk. He’s playing at Jupiter every Tuesday next month starting July 4, when he’s joined by pianist Allen Leong, ace electric bassist Dewayne Pate, and drummer Rick Alegria.