Carlos “Patato” Valdes is one of the most influential congueros of his generation. Also, he is the inventor (reinventor) of the tunable conga.
He was born November 4, 1926, in Havana, where his father played guitar with the local group Los Apaches. A child prodigy, he mastered instruments and performed professionally as a teenager, earning the nickname “Patato” for his short stature. At 12, Valdes studied congas under local legend La Sultana, honing a melodic style that set him apart from his peers.
In 1946, he replaced Valentin Cane in the group La Sonora Matancera, and one year later signed on with Alberto Ruíz. In 1952 Valdes visited New York City on tour with Conjunto Casino and returned two years later with another soon-to-be legendary conguero, Mongo Santamaria, who recommended him to the bandleader Tito Puente.
His first studio session with the trumpeter Kenny Dorham’s 1955 classic Afro-Cuban, vaulted him to the frontlines of the Latin jazz movement, and the Puente LPs Cuban Carnaval and Puente in Percussion further boosted his career. In the 1956 film And God Created Woman, he taught Brigitte Bardot the mambo.
While most of his peers relied on one or two congas, Valdes expanded his arsenal to include three or even four drums, enabling a wider range of tones. He reached his greatest fame during a decade-long association with flutist Herbie Mann, appearing on best-selling LPs including Flautista!, And The Beat Goes On.
During the ’60s, he appeared as a sideman with the guitarist Grant Green, vibist Cal Tjader and tenorist Charlie Rouse. Patato came into his own when he teamed up with singer Eugene “Totico” Arango (a childhood friend from Havana) for the landmark Patato & Totíco, a groundbreaking rhumba date that abandoned the traditional formula of vocals and drums and included guitarist Arsenio Rodríguez and bassist Israel “Cachao” López.
Valdes worked on tunable conga prototypes as early as the late ’40s. Up to that time, the drums were tuned by heating them over a Sterno can. During the mid-’50s he befriended mechanical engineer when Cohen founded Latin Percussion. He and Valdes collaborated on the pioneering LP Patato Model Congas, tunable fiberglass drums notable for their wide bellies and small bottoms. First released in 1978, the congas are now an industry standard.
After releasing his third LP Masterpiece in 1984, Valdes appeared alongside Puente and jazz greats Art Blakey, Jimmy Heath, and Slide Hampton in a 1986 episode of the hit NBC sitcom The Cosby Show. Five years later, he appeared in The Mambo Kings. During the ’90s he fronted the band Afrojazzia, and in 1995 recorded the first of two albums in the series Ritmo y Candela, with the follow-up appearing a year later. Both sessions received Grammy nominations in the Latin Jazz category.
Throughout his career, Valdes was known by many names including Remache, Tampón de bañera, El Zombie, Zombito, Pequeño Zombie (Little Zombie) and Pinguino (little Penguin). Nevertheless, Patato was the nickname that stuck (often erroneously spelled Potato).
Valdes toured into his 80s, leading the Conga Kings, a group featuring master percussionists Giovanni Hidalgo and Candido Cameró. Valdes died of respiratory failure on December 4, 2007, at 81.