On July 4, 1946, the dance team of Carmen and Rolando arrived in New York City from their native Cuba. Stars on the island, they were the featured attraction at La Habana’s famous Tropicana nightclub, where they would thrill tourists with their rumba floor show. These spectacular presentations highlighted a tradition that was born in the solares (tenements that were former slave quarters), but by the 1940s had been adapted on a regular basis to a nightclub setting for tourists. Born of the fusion of southern Spanish song and dance with West African drumming, dance, and song, the rumba has deep roots in La Habana and Matanzas, two cities intertwined with the history of the genre. Its earliest form, the slow yambú, which was and still is played on cajónes (empty wooden crates that dock workers used as substitutes for drums when drumming was outlawed on the island in the late 19th century), accompanies a male and female figure dancing metaphorically; mimicking the movements of a rooster and a hen. The next step in the rumba’s evolution became known as guaguancó. With its characteristic brighter tempo and percussive melody, which accompanies the dialogue between a male and female dancer, its heartfelt vocals represents Cuba’s cultural fusion between Spain, Africa, and the Middle East. Finally, with the up-tempo colúmbia from Matanzas with its virtuosic display of solo male dance, the rumba became a rich tradition that has spawned generations of virtuosic hand drummers.
One of those drummers came with Carmen and Rolando as their accompanist. Not only would he signal the arrival of a successive wave of soon-to-become legendary conga drummers that would begin arriving from Cuba to the States, but he would also revolutionize the way the instrument was played by helping to develop the techniques used by everyone who has since played the instrument.
“My full name is Candido Camero Guerra,” Candido begins. “Guerra on my mother’s side; Camero on my father’s. I was named after my father. Without my parents, I would be nothing. The name means candid, simple, purity, white, innocence. I was born on April 22, 1921 at 6:30 P.M. on a Friday in the barrio of Havana known as El Cerro on the street known as Churaca 77. It is between Velarde and Washington.”
La Habana (as it is known by the city’s residents) was formerly made up of 43 districts, or barrios, which have since been restructured by the post-revolutionary Castro regime. Each one has its own characteristic neighborhood flavor and they each share friendly rivalries. Jesus Maria, Los Sitios, and El Cerro have long been hotbeds of the rumba tradition. “My barrio, El Cerro has its own saying, ’El Cerro tiene la llave’” — El Cerro has the key. Cerro means hill, but in this case it’s also short for cerrojo, which means a latch. So people from there say we have the key to the latch.”
Musicians abounded in the Camero family, though Candido states, “Except for a few, most of them were really amateurs.” In the household, a tradition of music was celebrated during the year at birthday parties for the six uncles Candido had from his mother’s side of the family. “We had a huge house. It had a living room, a separate dining room, and about five bedrooms with a large open-air patio in the back. My uncles lived there and as each one would get married they began leaving. My grandmother always celebrated their birthdays by hiring a charanga orchestra [a Cuban style band that features strings, flute, timbales, guiro, piano, bass, and vocals] and they would play in the living room. I remember them well — it was called Orquesta Cartaya, named after the leader who was a violinist. During their breaks, everyone would move to the patio where the rumba would start. It was nonstop music all day into the evening. You have to imagine that we would have those parties six times a year, one for each uncle’s birthday. I couldn’t wait, and frankly no one else could either.”
Ageless at 86, Candido’s amazing memory recalls the names of these local legends of ’la rumba’ as if it was yesterday. Candido smiles, “As you know Bobby, we have a tradition of nicknames in Cuba. Most of the time I never knew their real names. Guys like Comencubo, Quique, Chabalonga, El Niño, Alambre, Loretto, and a guy who was the most famous quinto player [drum soloist] in El Cerro, Teclo.”
At the age of four, Candido would embark on his journey as a musician. “My first inspiration was my Uncle Andrés. He was the bongocero of the Septeto Segundo Nacional. Alfredo León was the leader and tres player [the mandolin-like Cuban string instrument]. He was the son of another famous Cuban singer, Bienvenido León. The musicians came from the famous Septeto Nacional de Ignacio Piñeiro.” When asked why this group was formed, Candido erupts in laughter. “Let’s just say that the musicians didn’t get along with Piñeiro.”
During this time, the son was becoming the rage in La Habana, slowly overtaking the sedate, elegant danzón in popularity. Born in the eastern part of the island (Oriente) and eventually coming to Havana in the late 1890s during the Spanish American war, the son with its fusion of Spanish-influenced harmonic and melodic content and West African-rooted, clave-driven rhythms, with its emphasis on the bongo, was taking Havana by storm in the 1920s and ’30s.
Candido witnessed it all and would soon be a major participant. “My uncle would take me to see all the great son groups at the time. I would go to the rehearsals of La Naciónal Juvenil. The bongocero there was a guy named Abuelito. He was tremendous!
“It was funny because in those days you literally had to go the local precinct to get a permit so you could rehearse during the day or throw a party at someone’s house. You see, it was technically considered an infringement on the neighborhood because you would be making noise. You had to let the neighbors know, then go to the police and get permission. It was even more hilarious when the then president of Cuba, Machado, outlawed the use of the bongo!
“He considered it a primitive instrument, but it was just an excuse. He was offended by some of the double-meaning soneos [improvisations] soneros [lead singers of son] would make up about him and his administration. That’s how the timbalitos were invented. People would still play bongo, but you had to be careful. You’d have a set of timbalitos handy just in case the cops would come. Sometimes you could get away with it by asking the police for permission and they would let you, if they were sympathetic. That’s what would happen on a lot of the recordings. They let you because it was more of a closed private thing. But in public it was another thing. A lot of times the police, if they caught you, would confiscate the instrument or just break it right there. Just imagine, outlawing a musical instrument! It was absurd.”
Candido’s precociousness would lead him to constantly drum on tables in the house and receive frequent scolding from his mother who feared he would hurt his hands, but luckily his maternal grandfather Juan would intercede. “’Leave him alone!’ he would tell my mother. ’You will see, one day he will be famous.’
“My uncle Andrés asked me if I wanted to learn how to play ’el bongo,’ and of course I said yes. He took two cans of condensed milk, put skins on them, and put them together. That was my first instrument. He began teaching me by having me sit in front of him with my tin-can bongos while he played his set. He then would play a short phrase and would ask me to repeat it. That’s how I began learning how to play. The fun part would be when he would ask me, ’Now you play something and I will imitate it.’ That’s how I learned, through repetition.”