When Mongo Santamaría took “Watermelon Man” to the top of the pop charts in April of 1963, he joined a select group of jazz musicians who were able to achieve mainstream success without diluting their music. The fact that “Watermelon Man” rode a hardcore Afro-Cuban groove only makes it more of an anomaly.
“That song happened by accident,” Santamaría explains from his Miami home where he lives in semi-retirement. “We were playing a place in New York City, and my regular piano player (a youngster named Chick Corea) didn’t show up. One of the guys in the band brought along Herbie Hancock.” Hancock started playing a blues he’d been working on based on the cries of the African American street vendors he remembered from his youth. “There weren’t very many people in the club,” Santamaría said, “so we practiced that song over and over.” The next time the band played to a house full of paying customers, they went wild for the tune. “Everybody kept asking us to play it, again and again. My manager said we’d better record it, because it was going to be a hit.”
“Watermelon Man” stayed on the pop charts for two months, peaking out at #10, and its success led to bookings in Las Vegas and other American cities in the heartland not known for their affinity for jazz, not to mention an Afro-Cuban band. “Cuban music is in my bones. I can understand why some of the younger guys might make it more commercial and try to have a bigger following, but that’s not my way. I like the old way of drumming. I stick to traditional rhythms I learned growing up in Cuba.”
Ramón “Mongo” Santamaría – “Mongo” is Cuban slang for Ramón – was born in Jesús Maria, a black barrio of Havana, in 1922. Frank “Machito” Grillo had grown up in the same neighborhood, Santamaría says, but he’d already left for fame and fortune in New York by the time Mongo came of age. “My father worked in construction, building houses, doing everything, some carpentry, some plumbing, some electric work. My mom stayed home with me and my brother and sister.”
Santamaría grew up surrounded by music and was soon drawn to the sound of the drum. “I was about eight years old when I thought first about playing. The way it worked was you would stand around and listen to the older men play, and if they saw you were serious, they’d let you sit down at one of the drums. Eventually, you could play with them, and they’d teach you.”
When Santamaría told his father he wanted to be a drummer, his mother stepped in. “My mother thought music meant classical music, so she tried to make me play the violin, but we didn’t get along on that. My thing was a rhythm thing. The violin wasn’t me.”
Eventually, Mongo’s father saw the writing on the wall and bought his son a set of drums. “I had bongos, congas, timbales. I wanted to play them all, and [instruments] weren’t cheap in those days.” Santamaría had a ferocious musical appetite. He played for Santeria ceremonies, in street rumba bands, for guaguancó dancers, any situation that would further his rhythmic education.
At the age of 17 he dropped out of high school and got a job delivering mail. (Cándido Camero, a friend who also went on to fame and fortune as a conguero, used to help Mongo deliver the mail so they wouldn’t be late for rehearsals.) After working all day, Santamaría would grab his drums and run off to a gig at the Tropicana or the Sans Souci. “I didn’t sleep much,” he says, “but I wanted to be the best, and when you’re young, you have all the energy you need. I was also blessed with talent. I knew a lot of guys who wanted to play music for a living, but they didn’t have the ability. Even when I was young, I could listen to a rhythm and play it.”
One of the acts Santamaría worked with was Pablito y Lilon, a husband and wife dance team. In 1948 they decided to try their fortune in Mexico City and asked Mongo to go with them. When the gig in Mexico City fell through, Pablito y Lilon’s next stop was New York. Once again Mongo tagged along with them. “There were problems of some kind with the bookings or the manager, so after a week, we had to go back to Cuba.” But the Big Apple had made an impression on Santamaría. “Machito was already there, and Chano [Pozo] was famous for playing with Dizzy Gillespie. I wanted people to know my music too, so I saved my money. In the days before Castro, there were no regulations, so by 1950 I was able to come back.”