Maybe the instrument that defines go-go. Maybe that’s why everyone’s lining up outside La Fontaine Bleue.
The queue bends past the John 3:16 Bookstore, up to the front doors of the fancy event space in an unfancy Lanham shopping center — a parquet-tiled ballroom perfect for weddings, bar mitzvahs, quinceaneras, and on Sunday night, an EKG reading of Washington’s heartbeat.
Inside, the first-ever “King of the Congas Battle” is about to erupt. Hosted by the local Web site GoGoradio.com, it’s a competition based around the congas, the four drums essential to go-go’s signature pop-pah-pop. More than 500 fans will gather on this dance floor to hear 32 conga players from the area’s leading go-go bands compete in a single-elimination tournament for a $2,000 grand prize.
Their nicknames are beautiful. Smacka. Pep. Fleas. Hot Sauce. Left Hand Jason. Also, Congo Jay, Congo Dray, Congo Mike, Congo Danny, Congo Kermit and Smokin’ Congo Joe. (In the go-go scene, the “a” in “conga” transforms into an “o.”)
Brion “B.J.” Scott is one of the first to take the stage and spark chatter. His father is one of go-go’s most revered conga players, Milton “Go-Go Mickey” Freeman of the legendary Rare Essence. The battle’s hosts hype him up as “the future,” “the RGIII of go-go.”
The house band counts off, and the kid gets off to a flashy start, but the sound system blacks out during his routine. He leaves the stage wearing a wince that doesn’t unclench until the judges announce him as a first-round winner.
A few moments later, the 23-year-old is all smiles, glad to be a part of the evening. “It’s needed in this community,” B.J. says of the conga battle. “We’re bringing the unity back to go-go.”
But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to win.
“Mighty Moe” Hagans came dressed as Batman. Julian “Congo Jay” Myers takes the stage in a metallic mask. Angela “RE Angie” Jackson holds her hair in a bun with a pair of drum sticks. Roger “Good 2 Go” Jackson dons a bonnet, a bib and a diaper over his cotton track pants.
As amusing as they are, these costumes don’t really help. The judges have their eyes (and ears) locked on each player’s hands as they slap down hard on the congas in explosive, 90-second bursts. In addition to an entire language of pops and thwacks, some players dab their fingers to their tongues, tracing their fingertips along the skin of the drum to create a curved, moaning tone. It’s called “a whistle,” or “a slide,” or “a raindrop,” depending on whom you ask.
Nearly all of these drummers are self-taught — and they taught themselves by listening to the man seated at the center of the judges’ panel, Tyrone “Jungle Boogie” Williams.
Legend has it that Jungle Boogie initially joined Rare Essence hoping to be a singer, but ended up finding two mini-congas collecting dust in a corner of the band’s rehearsal space. Before then, Chuck Brown’s percussionists played two large conga drums. Now there were four. What Jungle Boogie came up with next helped map out go-go’s rhythmic DNA.
There are less conspicuous go-go royals in the house, too. “Big Tony” Fisher, bassist and bandleader of Trouble Funk, lurks toward the back of the ballroom, wearing a trench coat, shades and a fedora. He says he came to support a friend from his church, but the electricity of the competition has him thinking about go-go’s glory days.
“We’ve always been competitive like that. There’s always that battle thing,” Big Tony says of the ’80s go-go scene. “In person, we got plenty love for each other. But when we hit that stage, it’s on!”
As the tournament churns on, the stakes are raised. In addition to the cash, it’s announced that the conga king will take home two new drums. Later, promises of a visit to Fox 5 Morning News where the winner will give anchor Tony Perkins a conga lesson on the air.
The drummers start digging deep. Keith “Hot Sauce” Robinson takes the stage with his Backyard Band-mates, including Anwan “Big G” Glover, one of the scene’s most respected pillars. Other players add a fifth conga drum, electronic drum pads, or ask the techs at the sound booth to put their drums “in the water,” digitally shifting the amplified pitch to make them sound deeper.
Hot-dogging seems to work best. Walter “Bo Beedy” Clark of Black Alley gets the crowd roaring by making one hand work double-time on the congas while the other wags and flaps over his head.
When he’s eliminated in the next round, the room fills with a fog of boos.
After nearly five hours of music, there are two left — Samuel “Smoke” Dews of Da Mixx Band and Derek “Pooh” DeCarlo Lyons of CCB. A coin is flipped. Pooh goes first.
With arms like tattooed sequoias, he pounds, then dribbles, then ducks his head down, muting the drum with his chin. Then he stops altogether, stretching those tree trunks toward the ceiling, silencing the beat, freezing time.
Or at least it feels like it. When his allotted time actually expires, Pooh pumps his fists in triumph, wearing a smile that says “top that.”
Smoke grins back and eases into his routine. The man has gorgeous hands. He’s mathematical, brutal, sensual, coaxing the broadest spectrum of colors from these four drums. The audience chants his name. SMOKE. SMOKE. SMOKE. A few minutes before 2 a.m., we have a winner.
“Y’all know I don’t do too much talking,” Smoke says, gripping the microphone in one hand, hoisting up a three-columned trophy with the other. “Much love to the go-go community!”
And when the subjects put their hands together for a new king, even the chaotic rumble of their applause sounds like rhythm.