A Benefit for Giovanni Hidalgo

Posted on in Art + Soul by Roy Strassman

Berkeley’s Freight and Salvage, July 2

To many, the name Giovanni Hidalgo doesn’t ring a bell; to aficionados of Afro-Caribbean music and especially the conga drum, he is legendary. The event attracted virtually the entire Bay Area Latin music community, some of whom were the evening’s performers—plus the Indian force-of-nature, tabla player Zakir Hussain. Giovanni was not expected to attend, but when he learned of the benefit (for his medical treatment), he asked, “How can there be a benefit for me without me being there?” So after playing an evening gig in his native Puerto Rico, he hopped on a red-eye to San Francisco to make a standing-ovation surprise appearance.

To a sellout crowd of over 500 people, bandleader and percussionist John Santos emceed the event and was one of its numerous performers. While the first set was plenty exciting, it wasn’t until midway through the second set that the real fireworks began. The band, expanded by a battery of Batá and conga players, set a complex but solid rhythmic groove, over which Giovanni and Zakir exchanged fusillade upon fusillade of astounding cadences on conga, timbales, and tabla, each solo more demanding, swinging, and complex than its predecessor. Here, they not only willfully “renounced” time and then perfectly returned to it—they even left the time they had just left, before seamlessly and incredibly returning to the original motif! The show fittingly reached its conclusion when a small herd of local musicians took the stage for one final descarga (jam session) in homage to Giovanni. To say that the evening was amazing would be a vast understatement—it was one of those exceedingly rare spiritual-musical experiences that left many agape by the enormity of what they had just witnessed.


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