Candido Camero was the first to develop the techniques for one person to play two and later three congas simultaneously.
Born on April 22 in 1921 in the Havana, Cuba barrio called El Cerro, Candido was originally a multi-instrumentalist, showing facility on the bongo, tres (a Cuban mandolin-sounding instrument), guitar, and bass — key instruments in the popular son music of his boyhood. A permanent switch to bongos and congas led to work with some of the most famous son groups in Cuba, including Chano Pozo’s famed Conjunto Azul, a six-year spell with CMQ Radio Orchestra, and a residency at the famed Cabaret Tropicana. A move to New York City on July 4, 1946 with the dance team of Carmen and Rolando made him the first in a wave of master conga drummers that would subsequently come to the Big Apple such as Chano Pozo, Mongo Santamaria, Patato, and others. This put Camero in high demand, and he soon began working with the premier jazz and Latin artists of the day, including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Machito & The Afro-Cubans, Tito Puente, Billy Taylor, and others.
Heralded as the father of modern conga drumming, Candido was the first to develop the techniques for one person to play two and later three congas simultaneously. Players in the past played on a single drum, and it took multiple players to create more complex patterns. He also developed a keen sense for melodic playing, tuning each drum to specific pitches. An example of this can be heard on the recording of “Tea For Two” with Puerto Rican pianist Joe Loco (Juan Esteves), where on three tuned congas and a set of bongos, Candido plays the entire melody. Candido also developed unique ways of being able to keep a steady rhythm with one hand while soloing with the other, thus becoming the father of coordinated independence as applied to Afro-Cuban percussion. His utilization of multiple percussion — playing a guiro with one hand and a cowbell played with the foot while the other hand simultaneously continued to play the congas — gave the effect of one person simulating an entire percussion section. It inspired drummer/percussionist Walfredo de Los Reyes to further explore the concept with his own experiments playing drum set and congas simultaneously. Today, at the young age of 85, Candido, with a recent Grammy nomination under his belt, still continues to perform and wow audiences with no signs of slowing down.
Chano Pozo’s career in New York City burned red hot for only two years before it was snuffed out when he was murdered at the age of 33.
In December of 1946, Luciano “Chano” Pozo (1915—1948) hit New York City like a tidal wave from Havana. His fame as a rumbero (street drummer, dancer, vocalist) was legendary and his compositions became hits in Cuba. In fact, Machito & The Afro-Cubans had already recorded in 1939 one of his tunes, “Nague,” which featured a young Tito Puente on timbales. His knowledge of the ritualistic music of the Abacua (Efik), Santeria (Yoruba), and Palo (Bantú) belief systems; his charisma, dancing, and showmanship; coupled with his drumming and songwriting skills served him well, and he longed for stardom in New York. Inspired by the Afro-Cuban jazz experiments of the Bauzá-led Machito Afro-Cubans, Dizzy Gillespie approached Mario Bauzá to first recommend a bongócero. Bauzá told Gillespie about Lorenzo “Chiquitico” Gallan, but after one appearance, Gallan told Bauzá that the music was not for him. Gillespie then asked Bauzá to recommend someone who played “one of those Cuban tom-toms.” Upon a recommendation from stellar Cuban vocalist Miguelito Valdés (Pozo’s boyhood friend) and Bauzá, the call was given to the newly arrived Chano Pozo. The meeting of Gillespie and Pozo was exactly what the trumpeter had been looking for. Gillespie loved showmanship, and Pozo exuded it along with his deep knowledge of West African—rooted drumming. By design, Gillespie wanted to reconnect, like two long lost brothers, the common West African roots of Afro-Cuban rhythm and African-Americans’ contribution to the world — jazz.
It yielded exciting results, like the recordings of classics such as “Cubano Be, Cubano Bop,” “Guachi Guaro” (open your eyes and look to the sky in the Efik language), “Tin Tin Deo,” and the legendary “Manteca.” Pozo’s original melodic idea was just based on a one-chord vamp. Not strange for the Cuban concept of the montuno (vamp). But Gillespie wisely stated, “No one at that time would go for a tune that had only one chord in it.” Along with arranger Walter Gil Fuller, Gillespie crafted a beautiful bridge section with flowing harmony that adapted the original one-chord based melody to the classic AABA form common to the popular music of the day. The result has become the anthem of Afro-Cuban jazz.