Candido: Father Of Modern Conga Drumming

Tropicana Nights

Havana, Cuba’s nightlife was in full swing. Hotels and numerous cabarets were fueled by the mob-controlled money of American gangsters who profited from the lucrative gambling, prostitution, and liquor trade. The entertainment industry in Havana would flourish under these conditions. Musicians would also benefit, as each hotel employed a show band as well as a variety of smaller groups. Large radio stations like Radio Progresso and CMQ had staff big bands that performed live on the air and accompanied musical guests.

“The first cabaret I worked at was the Cabaret Kursal. I was 22 years old and my salary was $1 a night. I was playing bongo with the house band and quinto for the rumba floor show for whatever dance team would be featured. Mongo was playing bongo with Bienvenido León Y Sus Leónes at the Cabaret Eden Conser when he got offered a job with the dance team of Pablito and Lilón to go to Mexico. He gave me the job with Bienvenido and that’s how I got more involved in the cabaret and hotel scene.”

Candido’s fame would soon spread as he made a name for himself performing on conga and bongo at such famed venues as the Cabaret Montmantre, El Faraón, El Sans Souci, and all of Cuba’s major radio stations, including a six-year stint with the CMQ Radio Orchestra and a another six-year run with the famed Tropicana Orchestra, inaugurating the club in 1943 where Candido would still play bass on occasion as well as bongo and conga.

“At the Tropicana we did a big show which featured Chano Pozo called Conga Pantera. I knew Chano from playing in his group Conjunto Azul where I played tres and Mongo played bongo. At the Faraón I met and worked with Chucho Valdéz’s father, Bebo. We’ve been friends ever since, and later in 1955 he wrote a tune called ’Batanga.’ That was important, because it was the first popular piece to use the batá drums [sacred hourglass-shaped double-headed drums of the Yoruba tradition] in a dance band context. Fello Bey [renowned vocalist who would later become famous for his jazz-influenced vocal style] even came up with a dance style for it, but it never got off the ground.” Candido would visit his homeland for the last time in 1955.

At Radio CMQ, Candido worked with a show drummer that would greatly influence him. “Salvador Admiral was tremendous. He was very creative and played a lot of things that people would think were just recently invented. At the Tropicana, Daniel Perez played drums. He was a complete percussionist. He could also play vibes, timpani, as well as the Cuban percussion. Later Guillermo Barretto would also play there but ’Barretico’ would be the regular drummer at the Sans Souci. Guillermo was also tremendous, although he became even better known as a timbale player. He and the others were into jazz also and he once subbed for Buddy Rich in his own band when he came to Cuba in 1955. Buddy had gotten sick and couldn’t play. Barretico came in and read the music and played fantastically. People still talk about that. His brothers were also great musicians. Robert played tenor sax and Coco was a fine trumpeter, and both of them were into jazz and could play it. That was the thing with all of the musicians at that time. We all were affected by jazz. That’s what made Chico O’Farrell [famed arranger and former trumpeter who would work with Dizzy Gillespie, Machito and the Afro-Cubans, Mario Bauzá, Benny Goodman, and Quincy Jones] move to New York City. He wanted to play jazz.”

“There were many great musicians like drummer/percussionist Walfredo De Los Reyes’ father, who also had the same name. He played trumpet and boy could he sing, and Wally Jr. himself became a great show drummer playing with everyone in the cabarets and on radio. He says I inspired him to experiment with multiple percussion. Wally Jr.’s uncle, Rafael, was a fine trombonist. So many great musicians.”

Candido’s tenures at the famed Tropicana and Radio CMQ provided him with a wealth of experience in a wide range of settings — from accompanying musical guests, to performing for dancers, to concert music, and big production numbers. The drum set players he worked with inspired in him something that would revolutionize conga drumming. As fate would have it, necessity indeed would be the mother of invention.

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