But the bongo was not the only instrument the young Candido would learn. “My father gave me for my eighth birthday a miniature tres.” This humble instrument is closely associated with the history of the son as it provides the harmonic and rhythmic ’impulso’ (propulsion) to the style. Made up of three pairs of double strings, its sound and rhythmic vocabulary is at the root of the figures a pianist would play in a salsa band today. “Just as with my uncle, my father would show me something and ask me to repeat it. Later, at the age of 14, my grandfather would begin to show me how to play the acoustic bass.
“I began playing tres and bass with various local groups around that time and have many great memories. The first group I played with was called La Gloria Habanera. I used to go to the Playa Marinao beach resort area all the time because they would have impromptu rumbas there. That’s how I met others who were my contemporaries, like Patato, Armando Peraza, Mongo Santamaria and characters like the famous Silvano Shueg, whom everyone knew as Choricera. He used to have this beat-up set of timbales that were held together with wires, but he would do an incredible show with this little group. He would screw in a red light bulb into a light receptacle that was above him when he was about to play. It was funny because he always carried that light bulb with him. Imagine if he would have lost it or it would have broken [laughs]. He also had a bottle of aguardiente [homemade Cuban rum] right next to him when the evening would start. By the end of the night, it was empty. I remember his conga player. He was very old and very ugly. His nickname was Cara Linda [beautiful face]. We used to laugh and say, ’That guy is uglier than a bad night.’ But whooo, could he keep time! Like a metronome. He would hold it down for as long as Chori played, which was at times very long for the rumba dancers they would accompany, Clara and Jubart.
“Mongo was playing bongo with the well-known Septeto Bolonia and she saw me playing tres with Los Jovenes Del Cerro. We eventually played together in a group called Septeto Apollo, then we played in a group that Chano Pozo led called Conjunto Azul.
“Radio was very big in Cuba. We used to do live radio broadcasts to promote our weekend appearances,” Candido laughs. “We would get paid ten kilos [ten cents]. I used to help Mongo with his delivery of the mail because he worked for the post office. This way he could finish early so we could rehearse earlier in the day with whatever group we would be playing with. Everyone would work freelance with several groups at the same time, and everyone knew each other, so it was a communal atmosphere that led to a lot of friendships on and off the bandstand and the spirit of brotherhood. I was also working occasionally as a dock worker unloading ships, so I was getting a lot of exercise.”
Although Candido is most closely associated with the conga drum, it would be the last instrument he would learn how to play. In the 1930s, the legendary blind virtuoso of the tres, Matanzas-born Arsenio Rodríguez, would revolutionize the way son was played. The previous standard of performing the style was with a tres, a guitar, a bassist, one trumpet, a bongocero, a primera voz (lead singer) playing clave, and segunda voz (background singer) playing maracas. Collectively this style of ensemble was known as a septeto, and it would be radically changed by Arsenio whose sobriquet became, “El Ciego Maravilloso” (The Marvelous Blind One).
He would replace the guitar with the piano, add a second, then third trumpet, and sometimes fourth trumpet with written arrangements, in contrast to the septeto, where the trumpet would improvise parts. He then would add a conga drummer to the band on a regular basis. “Others had done it before,” states Candido. “I saw a group called Septeto La Llave use someone playing a conga in the early ’30s, but not on a permanent basis. Arsenio made it a permanent part of his group.”
With the added lower tonal center of gravity and percussive funkiness provided by the conga drum, the bongocero could in effect play with more intensity and make use of the hand-held bell (cencerro) in the montuno (vamp) section as a standard rhythmic device, thus strengthening this section of the tune. The increased harmonic palette provided by the piano added to the tres’ guajeos (chord arpeggios in clave) and bass tumbaos (repetitive lines) could become more complex. Arsenio’s use of written arrangements, giving specific parts to his trumpets and their layering of line against line to create tension and release in the montuno section, was the root of the mambo horn concept. By making the montuno the main part of the song to feature solos as well as the singers’ improvisational inventiveness, Arsenio inspired other bandleaders and sent dancers into a frenzy. But beyond this, Arsenio’s use of African-based themes in his compositions, as well as a West African-rooted drum — a drum that was previously found only in the annual street carnival celebrations, African-based religious ceremonies, and in the rumba tradition — was a unique social-political statement and a source of pride for Afro-Cubans.
It was here that Candido made a life-changing decision. “I saw Arsenio’s group and saw the writing on the wall. I didn’t read music and I knew that the groups would all start to convert from the septeto to the conjunto format. In the conjuntos they started to use arrangements, and I couldn’t read music. I figured I wouldn’t be able to keep up as a tresero or bassist. I had played congas ever since I was a kid when I would participate at the rumbas in my home. I was 25 years old and I decided that I would begin to concentrate on playing congas professionally.”