Visit With Conga Legend Tommy Lopez

Tommy Lopez

On February 17, 2007 I traveled to Orlando, Florida with my son, Matthew, and my assistant, David Beverly, to visit with the legendary conguero, Tommy Lopez. We were also accompanied by Chembo Corniel, who credits Tommy for his becoming a conguero.

I met Tommy while performing with the early Eddie Palmieri La Perfecta band. It was the early days of LP, around 1971. I was always fascinated with his playing but couldn't put into words what it was that made him so special. I asked my friend, Chembo Corniel, for some insight into his uniqueness. Chembo said that his tumbao was unique; that he led with his left hand and his golpe seco (slap) was emphasized in his tumbao; and that he was rock solid in his time and sparse with his fills. When he made a rhythmic solo statement, it was special. His playing was always precise, concise, and powerful.

According to Tommy, the best band that he ever worked with was that led by Cuban singer Vicentico Valdes, where he worked along side of Manny Oquendo, another pillar of rhythmic strength.

Sometime in the late 1950s Tommy was lured to Brazil from his native Puerto Rico where he spent a year working and learning to perform the rhythms of that country. Few if any Puerto Rican musicians knew how to play Brazilian music, and with the bossa nova craze sweeping America in the early 1960s, Tommy was busy in the studio performing the music he learned in Brazil. It was also a time when African Americans were becoming conscious of their African roots. African dance classes were becoming popular in New York City, and Tommy and other Latinos played conga for these classes. Tommy noticed many black bystanders watching his work at the Palladium dance hall in New York, and it wasn't long afterward that this work was passed to the African American drummers.

By 1981 Tommy was experiencing the effect of the disco era when they were alternating between live bands and a DJ, instead of exclusively live music in clubs. The band would have to skip around town playing in different clubs to make a living. Tommy saw this as the beginning of the end of music as he knew it and when he saw an ad on TV for a tractor trailer school, he responded. For 23 years he drove cross country in a tractor, living in the back of the truck. He loved the road and was quick to point out that in spite of his dark skin, no matter where he traveled in America, his fellow truckers were always kind and helpful. Just four years ago, at the age of 72, Tommy retired to a quiet apartment in Kissimmee, Florida.

I was greatly moved at my first meeting with Tommy in nearly 30 years. This tough guy from Puerto Rico and New York is warm, sensitive and one of the most special people I have ever known. Much of what makes him unique is his almost indescribable aura that reflects his African roots.

After our interview he took me, my son, Chembo, David Beverly, and my friend Victor Hernandez to the stables where he keeps his horse, Stormy. He describes Stormy as a real son-of-a-gun who he had to work out in a circular fenced-in area before allowing Matthew to mount him. It was great seeing someone who lived the hard night life of his musical days in such a serene and wholesome setting.

Share my visit with Tommy through photos and video of this great experience.

To see exclusive photos from this event, please click here.
Click here
to watch a video of an afternoon with Tommy.
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to watch a jam with his former student, Cheombo Corniel.