Puerto Rican native Billy Ramirez, lead drummer of Nashville-based Caribbean dance band Revolfusion, plans to teach two apprentices –Rachel Rodriguez and Khe Crutcher – to become congueras, or congas players. Ramirez learned how to play the congas at age 10 from his cousin, and was already playing congas in a band by age 12. After moving to Tennessee in 1999, Ramirez played congas as well as djembe, cajon, and auxiliary percussion for a series of bands, including two he initiated and led: Kaciques in 2008 and Revolfusion in 2011. “These bands play a variety of Caribbean traditional and popular music,” he explains, “and the members are from various parts of the Caribbean.” It is important to train talented local musicians in congas because, he explains, “the congas are being replaced by electronic devices since it takes years to learn them. There are few congueros in Middle TN.” Rodriguez has a strong background in Mexican and Tex Mex music and, since coming to Nashville, has been an avid learner of other genres of Latino music as well. Crutcher, whose roots are in traditional old-time and Kentucky bluegrass, has also expanded her musical interests to Latino music since coming to Nashville. They plan to perform at Latino music club Sambuca in Nashville and Las Fajitas restaurant in Antioch.
Billy Ramirez, Conguero
What traditional art form are you teaching?
I am teaching Puerto Rican congas playing. Congas are originally an African instrument adapted in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and other parts of the Caribbean. They’re used in playing Latino Afro Caribbean music styles such as cumbia, salsa, merengue, bachata, guaguanco, chacha, mambo, rumba clave, bomba and plena.
How did you learn this skill? Who taught you? How long have you been practicing it?
I was introduced to music at age 6 – singing and playing music with my dad in Puerto Rico. I started to learn the congas at age 10 from my cousin Rafael Oyarzabal, who was a soldier. He brought home a pair of congas, and showed me how to play them. He told me, “You better be good at these when I come back in a year. If you aren’t, I’ll whup your ass – if I come back alive. If I’m not alive, I’m going to pull on your feet at night.” So I listened to songs on the radio, picking up the conga sound. I was 12, 13 when my neighbor heard me and I started playing with him and his band, “Arpegio.” When I came to the States in 1999 I continued playing congas, as well as learning drums, djembe, cajon, and auxiliary percussion. I started playing with bands in 2001 in Antioch, I played with Danny Salazar in 2005, formed the band Kaciques in 2008, and then Revolfusion in 2011. These bands play Caribbean traditional and popular music, and all of us are from various parts of the Caribbean for the most part.
Why do you believe that it is important to preserve and pass down this art form?
The congas are being replaced by electronic devices such as octapads and synthetic sounds, because playing them requires years of practice. You have to develop the skin in your hands. You have to learn how to feel the music, to tune and take care of the instruments. So people are in a hurry, they’re not taking time to learn congas. In Tennessee, there are few real congueros. It’s important to pass it down because it’s a trademark of Latin music, and there’s a growing Latino population here. It’s crucial. If you don’t preserve it, people won’t know the difference between congas, bongos and djembe. They need to learn about the difference.
What is the importance or role of this art form in your community? Where do you share your art form with others?
The congas and Caribbean traditional music are important here because the Latino community keeps growing and it’s Music City USA, not just Country Music USA. It’s important to gain recognition for Latino music styles here, it’s growing more popular, and not just with the Latino population. So you need to have congueros for this music to present it authentically.
I play at las Fajitas restaurant, my church, Sambuca restaurant, local festivals from TSU to Gallatin, Música de la Gente, Arrington Vineyards. I give over 100 performances a year, with Revolfusion and other artists, Marcela Pinilla, Luna Morena, Rachel Rodriguez and others.
Have you taught before?
I taught congas to children and teenagers from 2005 to 2007 through “Música de la Gente” programs funded by TAC with Buffy Holton’s organization, American Roots Music. I currently teach djembe for the YMCA “Nashville After School Alliance” program.
Tell us about your apprentices.
They both have a lot of talent as musicians and potential as congueros. Rachel already has a great background in Latino traditional music, and Kata Rhe is learning fast. but he needs to learn a lot about congas, hand techniques. They need to learn to listen and respond. In Puerto Rican bomba, it was the conguero and the dancer, and the conguero had to listen to the dancer and the dancer’s steps and respond to them – it was call and response or repique. There’s a give and take between congueros as they play together, too.
Rachel Rodriguez and Kata Rhe Crutcher, apprentices
What is the traditional art form you are learning? How did you become familiar with it?
Rachel: I’m learning to play the congas. I am familiar with Latin American percussion instruments such as guiro, maracas, tambourine, clave – hand held percussive instruments – which I use often in my performances. I’ve been influenced by my Mexican heritage and Latin music I grew up singing with my father. And I’ve also learned from playing music with master percussionist Billy Ramirez and others in Nashville.
Kata Rhe: Congas playing. I became familiar with it by being a musician myself. I play violin, guitar, piano and vocals. I started to play Latino music with Rachel Rodriguez and have been playing with her for about 10 years. I’m a co-writer on her bilingual children’s CD.
How long have you been practicing this traditional art? Who taught/influenced you?
Rachel: 15-20 years. I have been performing Mexican, Tejano music most of my life. I’ve branched out into salsa, cumbia, bachata and other Latin American traditional music since coming to Nashville. I have been influenced by playing music with Billy Ramirez, Dann Sherrill, Giovanni Rodriguez, John Santos, and Yamil Conga.
Kata Rhe: I am new to the congas but I am a seasoned musician in various instruments (see above) and in other traditional music such as bluegrass and Americana. I’ve been been playing music for 34 years, since I was a child. Both of my parents are musicians, my dad plays bass, my mom plays piano, both are singers. They play and sing bluegrass and country.
What are your goals while working with this master?
Rachel: I would like to use congas in my own performances, when I’m with children sharing my Latin heritage and inspire children to learn and keep this heritage going. I want to work with Billy Ramirez because we have a wonderful friendship, we already play together and have a wonderful musical rapport, he has a fantastic reputation and he’s got great energy. He also works in the community, we have similar goals with sharing with the community and with children.
Kata Rhe: I’ve always loved percussion and I was watching Billy perform and other musicians Rachel works with. Percussion has always spoken to me. I love Latino percussion and want to be a part of it. I’d love to learn more of that culture since I have a lot of friends who are Latino, it would be natural for me to expand my musical knowledge through them.
Why do you believe it is important to pass this tradition on?
Rachel: It is important for my own family and my kids, who are learning from me. I think it’s important for the younger generation to learn about their heritage. We are a biracial family so there’s a danger of watering down my heritage, and I want to keep it alive in the family and for my grand kids. How can I show it to them if I don’t know it myself?
Kata Rhe: It’s an important art form among my friends and musical community. It’s important to pass on all musical heritage, especially here in Nashville, it’s music city. There are not a lot of female congas players here, and there’s a growing interest and demand for Latino music. Congas has always been predominantly a male instrument and it’s time to move it out into female congas players.
How are you sharing this tradition with the public and how will you pass it down yourself?
Rachel: I already perform regularly in local fiestas and community events and venues, and I do a lot of bilingual children’s programs. I will incorporate the congas in what I am already doing, which includes: bilingual music, movement, storytelling, workshops with teachers and parents on incorporating arts in the classroom, especially rhythm traditions in Latin music.
Kata Rhe: I’d share it by performing for festivals, local shows, gigs. I’m already an active performer and I would introduce the congas in my repertoire. I perform with Rachel and separately, and by playing congas I would enhance my versatility.