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Eddie Montalvo

When it comes to being a great conga drummer and a dear friend, Eddie Montalvo is at the top of my list. I have known him since 1975; that is almost a quarter of a century. We met when he was just twenty-four years old and thin as a rail and we have many experiences since then.

Eddie grew up on Jackson Avenue in the South Bronx. He was only five years old when he taught himself how to play the bongos by watching and listening to older, more knowledgeable guys play in the park. At the age of nine he began playing conga and was asked to jam with the older guys. At first he was only allowed to play tumbao. The "big guys" would never let him go to the quinto or solo drum "These guys would play for hours and if you couldn't hold that tumbao, you had to get up. You had to stay on tumbao until these guys were tired of playing quinto.

His joy and passion for music, rhythm, and drums compelled him to stay out late at night playing congas. He recalled an incident when the police confronted him and the older guys jamming on the roof. The cops reprimanded young Eddie for being up late on a school night and threatened to take him to jail. Running down the stairs with the officers he begged "Please don't take me to jail. My mother is going to hit me."

As a young kid, Eddie remembers working with small groups doing low-paid gigs such as weddings, clubs, and church affairs. When he was 17 years old, he played with Tony Pabon y La Protesta. Eddie's conga playing was recognized and he went on his first tour to Panama with Joey Pastrana.

While Eddie was playing with Joey Pastrana in Boston, Johnny Rodriguez, Jr. (Dandy) asked him to sit in with Ray Barretto's band.  Johnny played tumbao, Eddie played secunda, Ray played quinto, and Orestes Vilato played clave with two sticks on top of the piano.  It was a great group and from that moment on, the doors opened up for Eddie.

He loved to go to the Hunts Point Palace in the Bronx to look at all the big bands. Eddie dreamed of playing in these bands; reaching that status of stardom; and he did. In the beginning of his career he went to clubs and sat in with big bands like Pacheco and Willie Colón and he was recognized for his conga playing. Eddie said that his most exciting moments on stage were playing with the big bands. One night Eddie got a call to play conga with Mario Ortiz's big band at the Village Gate."I didn't even want the money. It was an honor for me." I am happy to say that as a big fan of Mario Ortiz, I too was at the Village Gate that night.

Eddie is really a dance band drummer, who's style of playing is referred to as afinque or someone who plays the grooves. He thinks it is great to be versatile and play many new rhythms, but when you are playing the music that he has devoted his life to, it is for the dancers that you are performing. In contrast, there are several musicians who want to take a lot of solos, but they're not playing for the dancers. "If you really dance the right way, it's with the conga drum."

It's exciting when the rhythm section locks as one and the dancers are having a ball. "When you're playing tumbao, and you're playing strong, you lock. You lock when the timbale bell and the hand bell sound as one with conga. It's like the locomotive of a train. You are the engine of the train. "One person that Eddie says he shared these magical moments with is timbale great, Orestes Vilato.

Another one of Eddie's favorite bands is the Willie Rosario Band because the band locks. That is why they call Willie "Mr. Afinque."  It is the lock. "The way they play it now," Eddie laments, "everybody takes a solo for the first tune." He believes that it is not about solos; it is about grooving. Willie Rosario learned a lot from Tito Rodriguez who came from that malcha (timekeeper) school.

Although Tito Rodriguez was a singer, he also played timbales. "Before you used to have a musician's market. You played an instrument and you were bandleader. It was very rare for a singer to be the bandleader." Eddie claims that the bandleaders today are not that demanding because it is a singer's market.

Unfortunately, you don't see the old bands anymore. Over the years the music changed from real fast salsa to "laid back" salsa. All those old timers, even though they were soloists, played tumbao, including Tito Rodriguez, Tito Puente, Armando Peraza, Ray Barretto, and Machito.

When Nelson Gonzales introduced Eddie to me in 1975, they were working with Orestes Vilato's band, Los Kimbos. This band was a splinter of Tipica 73 and Ray Barretto's.

In 1978 Eddie recorded many albums for me: My Own Image with Luis Perico Ortiz, Drum Solos Volume 1,2,3, and another with Johnny Rodriguez, Cachete Maldonado, and Nicky Marrero. They were exciting times and good music came out of it. More importantly, a good friendship with Eddie grew.

When Eddie travels around the world, many people asked him about those albums. The concept was very unique. It had just straight rhythms on one side and solos and rhythm on the other side. "What is most rewarding is when I find someone coming out of Puerto Rico who said he got his start with those albums." Though the albums were not a commercial success, by bringing Eddie's gift for playing rhythms to a larger audience, he received worldwide recognition.& In turn, the albums gave me a chance to sell my drums and percussion to a broader audience.
Eddie claims "I've been all over and you've never seen me without an LP® drum. My bread and butter has always come from those drums." Eddie always played fiberglass drums because the wooden ones could easily crack. "Fiberglass was sturdier. The sound was always sharp and it had a brighter tone."

Film star Andy Garcia jams with conga virtuoso Eddie Montalvo.

Eddie's recording of the Siembra album with Willie Colón and Rubén Blades in 1979 was a turning point in everyone's career because it was a big hit.& The tune was called Pedro Navarjo. He did quite a bit of touring with Rubén. Currently, Eddie is working very actively with Tito Nieves.

It's a new generation but salsa will never die out. The tradition of salsa music was born in Cuba though the Cubans didn't call it salsa. The bands that now come here from Cuba have incorporated some of the Puerto Rican style. On the other hand, the Puerto Ricans kept the tradition of the Cuban music alive. Now, if you hear Cuban bands, they sound like they adapted to what's happening out here. In Cuba they listen to all the stuff from Puerto Rico, just like in Puerto Rico they listen to all the stuff from Cuba. It is a symbiotic relationship. "Nobody has a birthright. Like Puente says, 'Salsa Is Salsa; it's not hot sauce but it's salsa.'"

Eddie's life and career in salsa music was featured in City Arts on Public Television. It always amazed me the way Eddie was able to be a musician at night after working full-time during the day for the New York City power company, Con Edison. He started with Con Ed at age 21 in 1973 and continues doing this after 25 years. "It wasn't easy." Sometimes a musical gig ended 4:00 in the morning and at 7:00 in the morning that same day he would be in the Con Edison truck. In the old days there were more than 50 clubs for Eddie to play. He could play music seven nights a week, and he sometimes did just that, but he was moved to get a steady job because he was concerned with security and medical insurance. Eddie believes that if a person disciplines himself, he could do it. "I don't have bad habits and I can function on little sleep," he says.

Many musicians have moved into musical areas outside of Latin music to provide themselves with more work; however, Eddie always was a conga drummer in traditional Latin music. He neither compromised his music nor his excellence.

It is obvious Eddie's priority was for music but he also loved and respected his family and friends. I will never forget the support and comfort Eddie extended to me when I lost my mother. He was there for me. To my delight, Eddie feels so much like family he calls me "Papi."

I must say that when I needed a band for my wedding, I turned to my dear friend Eddie Montalvo. The eleven-piece band was Fascinación. I know I had the best wedding band of anyone who got married. It was a great memory and it was one wedding from which no one wanted to leave.

Listen to some of the rhythms that made Eddie famous as a groove player on the Latin scene. Heard nowhere else but at congahead.com.

To learn more about Eddie Montalvo, CLICK HERE.