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Give The Drummer Some: Conga/Timbal Duos

Tito Puente, above playing in London, was one of the best percussionists of any era.
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Tito Puente, above playing in London, was one of the best percussionists of any era.

Want a great conversation-starter with a jazz fan? Ask, "What's your favorite pairing of bass and drums?" Count Basie's Walter Page (bass) and Jo Jones (drums)? Miles Davis' Jimmy Cobb and Paul Chambers? John Coltrane's Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison?

There's an equally intriguing query for fans of Latin jazz: favorite pairings of conga and timbal players. Congas have become ubiquitous in popular music since the late 1960s, after Santana famously made 500,000 people sway their hips at Woodstock. Timbales, the two snare-drum-looking instruments usually mounted with an array of cowbells, recall the big bands of the famous Palladium Ballroom in New York, the epicenter of Latin popular music in the late 1950s. Together, they're the one-two punch of Afro-Cuban rhythm making.

Many long-standing percussion duos display seemingly telepathic interplay — the intensity of a runaway train mixed with the kind of swing that makes hips move by themselves. Picking five was a chore, but here they are.

Note: Traditional Afro-Cuban rhythm sections also include bongos, and a few are mentioned below as Honorable Mentions.

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Felix Contreras is co-creator and host of Alt.Latino, NPR's pioneering radio show and podcast celebrating Latin music and culture since 2010.