April 10, 2020 — by Francis Mercier
Text enhanced by Dave Perlowski
If you tinker at something with determination and love, beauty emerges.
Prior to 1990, Michel Ouellet had been taking djembe lessons when the idea to make his own solid shell drum came to him. The son of a blacksmith (the original djembe was created by Mandinka blacksmiths) with a penchant for woodworking, Michel made several which he provided to his friends. He became pretty good at it, too, but he yearned for a greater challenge – to use his woodworking skills to solve the puzzle of forming staves into a conga drum.
Eager to get going and in keeping with his desire for authenticity, Michel made his own steamer and press dryer. He cut and steamed 24 staves, and he tried, and he tried and he tried to figure out how to glue them together, but nothing worked. To ease the frustration of repeated failure, Michel began making small conical drums from flat-cut staves and the Bingba (similar to the Boku or Ashiko) was born.
The straight sides of the Bingba shells were easy to piece and glue together and after fabricating 50 of them, Michel developed the skill he needed to successfully craft his very first 11” conga drum from the original 24 staves he had cut. And even though the Bingba was born out of frustration, it remains a part of the MOPERC catalog today!
Michel then set out to replicate his first success by making a set of three (Quinto, Conga, Tumba). His percussionist friends in Montreal were so impressed by the pure sound Michel’s congas produced that each friend ordered an identical set to be made, and MOPERC was launched!
Michel sold the first conga he made to a close friend with the request that should he wish to part with the drum that he would sell it back to Michel because of its sentimental and (now) historical value. The friend kept the drum for many years, but he suffered a stroke in 2018 leaving him incapable of speech. The friend passed in 2019 and his daughter inherited the conga as part of her father’s estate. Without knowledge of the drum’s origination or significance, she posted it for sale without any identifying information except for a picture.
After becoming the owner of MOPERC in 2018, Michel and I had a conversation about Drum #1 and unfortunately, the only thing he could show me was a photograph he had taken before he sold the drum to his friend. I received a message in November 2019 from my friend, James Williams, stating he saw a conga that looked like an early MOPERC, but he wasn’t sure. He sent me the listing picture and when I compared it with Michel’s original photo I couldn’t believe my eyes – Drum #1 was for sale! I asked James to immediately purchase the conga, I drove two hours from Danville to Montreal and Drum #1 is again in the MOPERC shop. Thanks for recovering a piece of history, James!
The drum still looks pretty good and it still has that pure MOPERC sound that originally drove Michel’s percussionist friends to purchase the first instruments he made. With the exception of cleaning the hardware with a bit of acetone, I won’t restore it. The shape is similar to the Custom Cubanos we currently make. It has a nice belly and it’s remarkable that the drum is still perfectly round after 27 years, though no alma was used!
I can’t express how elated I am to have this first MOPERC reunited with the company. It was the drum that began a proud legacy that hopefully will continue well into the future, and with any amount of luck, we’ll see that first set of 3 return home soon! Thanks for reading! Our next installment will be an interview with MOPERC endorsed artist, Poncho Sanchez. See you soon!