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.
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
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
Click here to watch a video of an afternoon with Tommy.
Click here to watch a jam with his former student, Cheombo Corniel.