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Candido Camero: How To Be A Conga King

Candido Camero has been weaving himself through musical genres since his arrival in the States from his native Havana in 1945. He’s played conga with jazz legends Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, and Charlie Parker, and was instrumental in forging Latin jazz, playing with crossover pioneers such as Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Kenton. Candido is credited with being the first to play two or more congas simultaneously as well as bongos and congas at the same time. DRUM! caught up with Candido one evening at a party marking the issue of his release, Jazz Descargas, with Giovanni Hidalgo and Patato Valdez, The Conga Kings.

How did you come to be a conguero?
First I was playing bongos and trës. One of my uncles taught me to play the bongos. My father taught me how to play trës. Then I played bass for a septeto in Cuba by the name of Gloria Habanera. Then they decided to add another trumpet, piano, and conga and call it a conjunto. Like now, I didn’t know what was do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do. But I knew I could use my ear to play congas and be right with the arrangements, so I stayed with congas. That was in 1940.

Did success come right away?
Yeah, success came right away. From the beginning up until now. I’ve been with all the big names in the Latin field and the jazz field and I’ve been all over the world.

How did you first come to the United States?
I came with two dancers, Carmen and Rolando, that I worked with in Havana. I was 25.

And we understand you dazzled everyone with your unique technique.
Yeah. It was the first time somebody did both congas and bongos at the same time. I put the bongos on the floor between my legs and the congas on my left side. My left hand could play a pattern on the congas and my right hand could play on the bongos. That’s how I played along with the dancers.

Why do you think Chesky chose you to be one of The Conga Kings?
Because through the years, I have my experience and my name.

What about talent?
Talent, you’re born with it. Talent and experience, they go together.

You’re all three [Candido, Giovanni Hidalgo, Patato] strong musical personalities. Has it been difficult playing together?
The main thing is each one of us has their own style. And that is what pleases the people. They want to see three good conga players, players known all over the world, but they don’t want to hear the same thing from each one of us. Each one has a different style. We don’t compete with each other.

Can you describe your style?
I always put a little of the Orishas [the Afro-Cuban deities] in it, because that’s from Africa. I take a little from here and a little from there to make everything interesting and different and keep the tradition. And create over the tradition. That way, it never sounds monotonous.

What other types of music have you played?
I’ve played so many different rhythms, so many different types of music. Jazz, Latin jazz, pop. Not only one type of music. I feel comfortable playing whatever music. I only have to listen to what’s going down and I can go along with that. In that way I’m not limited.

Whom did you most admire from your era?
From the old school we have Mongo Santamaria, we have Chano Pozo, we have Patato, we have los Muñequitos de Matanzas, Los Papines, so many.

And of the new generation?
Lots of good ones, but no one specifically. I put all the new generation together. Giovanni Hidalgo.

What’s in the future for Candido?
I started when I was 14 years old. I’m 80 now. I hope to keep going strong as long as the cats want me to keep playing.

Is there anything you would like to add?
I hope you like my answers because I never give interviews. Just this one.

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