A conga student asked me recently, “how do I take a solo when I am playing with a band and the band stops, and I am left by myself? No one else is playing, it is just me”? This is a great question and here is how I do it.
This is the routine that I have built up over the years. It is actually based on the structural concepts of how I solo in a djembe kan (drum solo wiht out other drummers present or playing) in West African music.
Conga solos are very personal. If I am playing on two or three congas this is what I do. I start on one drum (only) with the most basic technique possible, this means simply hitting only one note, perhaps an open tone. Then waiting…..then hitting another note, perhaps a slap. I leave lots of space………then I hit a bass tone…Simply expressing the simple and joyful quality of pure sound and tone. Letting people hear the distinct difference of tone, bass and slap as well. Other subtle variations will follow later as well.
So I have made 3 distinct sounds…..then very slowly I start repeating that whole sequence turning that into a little pattern..very slowly building it up..then turning it into a roll or series of rolls..then I stop suddenly, dramatically…BAM..nothing, complete silence. Remember space and silence although unfamiliar and scary at first is our best ally and best friend once we get to know it and use it properly as a balance or counter balance to playing notes.
Next I start playing a particular or favorite conga pattern. It could be a Guaguanco for example..but again the key is starting very slow and building it up..faster and faster..then I slow it down a little and break it down to it’s simplest elements.
By establishing a simple rhymic pattern you are giving the listener or audience a reference point, something to grab on to that gives them the groove and a home base they can relate to easily with out thinking, They can feel it.
At this point I start to solo with myself answering the Guaguanco’s simple melody for a short while…then I change into Rumba Obatala perhaps, by simply slipping into it smoothly and seamlessly. Again I establish the rhythm as a base to jump off or out from. I solo with myself with in that rhythm, then change to a Mozambique and or Cha Cha La Bafoon perhaps.
Part of my focus during this solo time and sequence is on relaxation. The tendency when soloing and all eyes upon you are to play to hard, too fast and try to fill in the notes. By playing a strong groove, not too fast and making a sweet pattern you can allow yourself to relax and settle in to the groove nice and easy.
When I am very relaxed with in this pattern I will break it (the pattern or rhythm I am playing) back down into rolls, or work into rolls again..
A key to the solo by yourself in a band technique is to not start off fast, to build it up and break it down in waves and too not burn out right when you start. You have to save your energy for the end of the solo.
Bolokada Conde my recent drum teacher always tells me it is not what you play at the beginning of the solo that people remember it is the end of the solo. So save some gas for the ride home and pace yourself for a big ending!
When training for your solo I also suggest practicing transitioning back and fourth into and out of several of your favorite 2 or3 drum conga rhythm patterns or pieces. Make sure you can transition seamlessly, using a break or just switching back and fourth.
For most people in an audience just switching from or going through a variety of rhythms is interesting
enough to watch in and of itself..So if you are adding a little bit more to that you are already ahead of the game. Remember it is about grabbing or getting the audiences attention, getting them involved in what you are doing,holding their attention and then in a sense, “finishing them off” with a big bang.
I watched a very skilled player recently who is great at the Giovanni secret hand stuff (El Mano Secreto) and very fast rolls. In his solos he basically just did rolls the whole time .everyone in the audience was very impressed and there was a huge “wow” factor as he starts with slow rolls and moves into faster and faster ones..and there are all different types.
But it was the same thing every solo the whole night and it was not musical. There was no real phrasing or feel..just these super cool rolls and heel tip technique.
But where was the groove and soul? He did not give the audience a reference point or groove to join him in. And eventually it became boring.
I have another friend who is a very advanced drummer. But when he solos by himself, he is playing to something in his head. Perhaps there is a band in a box in there. He goes way off into outer space, again with the rolls and advanced playing and solo techniques. But it is not grounded. He is not giving the
audience any reference to a groove.
You are playing for the audience who for the most part are not trained musicians or percussionists. So you need to give them a groove to feel and hear, then you can jump off that groove or lift off. But you need to land back down in that groove as well once in a while so you keep everybody on the same page as you as well.
As you can see, to me it is about deep groove or “pocket”, feel and spirit. Getting the spirit you are feeling across to the audience again by involving them.
So please do not worry if you have secret hand technique or how fast your rolls are! Experiment with your own patterns, feels and grooves and try out this formula I have mapped out for you, you may find it quite useful as I have1