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Giovanni Hidalgo


Giovanni Hidalgo

An artist some describe as "touched by the hand of God," conguero Giovanni Hidalgo plays a major role in shaping the way the world thinks of hand drumming. With legendary percussionists Tito Puente, Armando Peraza, Patato and the late José Mangual, Sr. topping the list of his most ardent fans, Giovanni and his natural talent are bringing new respect to Latin rhythms as well as to the rhythms of his birthplace, Puerto Rico.

Giovanni prides himself on being "a man of all music," having performed with musicians ranging from Zakir Hussain to Airto Moreira. He has toured with jazz great Art Blakey and continues to tour with Mickey Hart's Planet Drum. For several years he was a member of the Dizzy Gillespie United Nations Jazz Orchestra.

"I consider these artists my inspirations, rather than my idols," says Giovanni. "I don't imitate anyones style. I do let myself be guided by those artists I admire. It is myself that I have to answer to". The result is an original, creative drumming style that, in turn, makes Giovanni an inspiration to drummers of all levels.

The sounds other drummers normally create with sticks, Giovanni creates with his hands—with lightning-fast precision. He is particularly admired by others for his perfection of double and triple stroke rolls, effortlessly implementing drumset stick rudiments with his hands.

Giovanni began playing "congas" on a little wooden barrel his father gave him when he was eight years old. "Knowing how to get a sound out of wood helped me develop my stroke, and made my transition to the conga head easy," he recalls. "The skin surface of the conga has a much more comfortable feel than the solid surface of wood, so I didn't have to work as hard to get the sound I wanted."

Giovanni first learned to play conga by taking the technique of drumming with sticks and applying it to his hands. "Then I sort of went backwards and later played with sticks," he says. And living in a home filled with the bongos, congas, and timbales of his father and grandfather, who were also respected congueros, Giovanni learned to play all the instruments at the same time, rather than in progression.

Giovanni puts no restrictions or limitations on what he can do musically with his hands. His fans credit this phenomenon to Giovanni's remarkable ability to incorporate his imagination, musical wisdom, and life experiences into his work. "This skill comes to me naturally, and helps my music evolve," he explains. "I play the way I feel, and I wake up feeling different every day."

This skill also accounts for why Giovanni can play alongside artists like Blakey, Gillespie, and Changuito and complement their style, rather than overwhelm it. "My goal during a gig is to achieve musical unity and harmony," he says, "so I remain loyal to a person's music instead of influencing it or overpowering it with my own style."

Giovanni first became popular outside his native Puerto Rico in the early '80s during his work with Batacumbele. Playing with this revolutionary group, which Giovanni claims "will always be in my heart," helped launch him into the limelight. With the release of Batacumbele's first album, Giovanni's name and amazing hand drumming techniques became known to musicians throughout the world.

With the evolution of his popularity and style came numerous opportunities in the following years to travel and perform with artists such as Gillespie, Charlie and Eddie Palmieri, Jack Bruce, Dave Valentin, Paquito D'Rivera, Cameo, Paul Simon, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messenger.

>His first trip to Cuba was with Batacumbele in 1981. Little did he know this was to be a turning point in his career, for it was there that he met Changuito. The two were so perfectly in sync with each other that they immediately began creating unique rhythms together. "It was as if this was why I had practiced on that barrel at home for all those years," says Giovanni. "And I was thankful for it."

Giovanni's time in Cuba made a lasting impression on Cuban musicians, who began trying to incorporate Giovanni's original style of conga playing into their own music. Prior to his visit, most of the bands in Puerto Rico were playing salsa. "Then Batacumbele hit the scene playing songo, and the listeners went wild. We brought in a new musical era."

A few years after that, Giovanni forged another life-long relationship with a musical legend who would also teach and inspire him. The artist was Dizzy Gillespie. Giovanni met Dizzy one evening at the Village Gate where he was performing with Eddie Palmieri in the mid-'80s. "It was amazing to meet a man of such talent. I was honored when he suggested we get together in the future and play together." In 1988, Giovanni got the opportunity when Gillespie asked Giovanni to join the Dizzy Gillespie United Nations Jazz Orchestra.  "Playing with Dizzy was a wonderful experience in my life," reflects Giovanni, "but I played differently when I performed with him. I controlled myself onstage. It was like I was being orchestrated by a great conductor."

A few years later, in 1992, Giovanni began a four-year teaching assignment as an adjunct professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston. "I was teaching and learning at the same time," he says. "I put together all types of rhythms—Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, reggae, African, and jazz".

Every country has its own musical essence, and every individual within that country has their own musical style, according to Giovanni. His objective is to capture these whenever he plays. "I am in synchronization with life, with people, with nature. I try to be a part of all the things people do in the world so my music can give them strength, love, and faith. My gift to others is my love of music, and I will give it until I die."

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Giovanni and his son, Ian Manuel.