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.