In the early ’50s, New York was in the grip of a craze for Cuban music. “I came here with my friend Armando Peraza, another good drummer. There were already a lot of Cubans [in New York] and we all helped to support each other, so it wasn’t hard finding work.” Santamaría’s first gig in New York was playing percussion with flautist Gilberto Valdés, who led the first charanga band ever put together on American soil. Sadly, the band had a short life, but in the meantime Prez Prado arrived. “I knew [Prado] in Cuba and I worked for him in Mexico too. He was already famous for the mambo and he wanted to put a band together in New York.”
Santamaría’s sound – a round, solid tone that pumped the heart full of rhythm and set feet in motion – was an important ingredient in Prado’s winning formula, a fact not lost on one of Prado’s chief rivals, Tito Puente. After a hasty audition, Mongo was invited to become a part of Puente’s rhythm section, adding his congas to Manny Oquendo’s bongos and Puente’s timbales and vibes. And in between live gigs and record dates with Puente, Santamaría found time to record with Noro Morales, José Curbelo and René Touzet, and begin his own recording career. His first date as a leader, Changó, was the first album of Afro-Cuban drumming recorded in the States.
“I wanted to do something that sounded like home,” Santamaría says. “I called Patato, [Carlos “Patato” Valdés was one of the first Cubans to arrive in New York. His conga talents had already been featured in the bands of Mario Bauza, Dizzy Gillespie and others.] Willie Bobo [a New York timbale player and close friend], Silvestre Méndez and some others. We played traditional songs and some new compositions.”
In 1957, Santamaría’s career took an unexpected turn when Cal Tjader, the leading figure of California’s Latin jazz scene, came to New York to record the follow up to his successful Ritmo Caliente! album. Santamaría played on only three tracks for Mas Ritmo Caliente, but one of the songs was a powerful showcase for himself and Bobo’s timbales called “Mongorama.” It was one of the first recordings that brought Santamaría’s playing to the foreground and introduced his tight, compact sound to mainstream jazz fans. “I play around the bass drum for a deeper sound. I feel I have more control of the tone on that drum. I sometimes tune the drums to the composition, but mostly I play by ear. The feeling is most important.”
Santamaría’s playing made such a strong impression that Tjader asked him to join his band, along with his sidekick Willie Bobo. “In California we had all kinds of people coming to see the band – black, white, Chinese. Everybody wanted to hear us,” Santamaría says. Mongo only spent three years with Tjader, but the gig gave him a national profile (which led to his own recording deal with Fantasy Records), and produced “Afro Blue,” one of the most recorded jazz standards of the past 40 years. “I don’t know how to write music,” Santamaría says. “But when you get the feeling for a composition, it happens. Sometimes the drum speaks to me. While I was working with Cal Tjader, I started hearing a melody in one of the rhythms I was experimenting with, so I went to the piano player [Lonnie Hewitt] and sang him the notes, so he could write them down.”
“Afro Blue,” was first released on Tjader’s Concert By the Sea, a live recording of the band’s set at the 1959 Monterey Jazz Festival. The tune got so much radio play by jazz DJs that Fantasy released it as a single and it got considerable chart action. For his 1958 Fantasy debut as a bandleader, Santamaría returned again to the rhythms of his youth. Yambu was another blast of pure Afro-Cuban tradition, this time featuring Modesto Duran and Francisco Aguabella, whose knowledge of traditional rumba rhythms elevated the set to dizzying heights.
“Francisco is from Matanzas, and I’m from Havana, so we have a different approach, but we work well together and I think we did a beautiful job. For that album, I wanted to capture what I heard when I was young, the feeling of fascination I got when I first began to listen to the old men playing traditional music,” Santamaría says. “I had already been lucky with my music, so I wanted to honor the old music. I wanted to make an album for the satisfaction, not for the money.”
Santamaría’s next move was a trip back to Cuba to see friends and family, and to record with some Cuban musicians. The sessions for Our Man in Havana and Bembé broke new ground by adding bongos and trumpets to the charanga tracks and using both tres and piano on the conjunto-style tunes. “People in the U.S. may have been surprised, but in Cuba that kind of experiment goes on every day. These days, guys like Paquito de Rivera and Gonzolo Rubalcaba are carrying on the tradition, but they’re always breaking new ground. The music must go forward to survive.”
In the early ’60s, the popularity of Latin music began to wane, partially because of the rise of rock and roll and partially because of the lack of airplay as radio became less open to sounds outside of the narrow confines of the pop music mainstream. To keep the cash flowing, many Cuban musicians began forming charanga bands – groups that favored fiddles, flutes and percussion, and played a sweetly swinging music that looked back to the big band era. Santamaría’s charanga was called La Sabrosa, and featured a jazzy horn section led by Brazilian trombone player João Donato, who brought a taste of samba to the music. “I always listened to a lot of different music,” Santamaría says. “Merengue, son, Brazilian – anything that has feeling. When I hear something I like, I use it.”
After two years, Santamaría broke up La Sabrosa and started another Latin jazz band, this time with Chick Corea on piano and Pat Patrick, a graduate of Sun Ra’s Arkestra, on sax and flute. It was that band that took “Watermelon Man” to the top of the charts, and introduced much of North America to authentic Cuban rhythms for the first time. This band also introduced audiences to the great La Lupe, a singer who was as well known for her flamboyant on-stage shenanigans as she was for her powerful vocal presence. When a song really moved her she’d pull off her wig, tear her clothing, or drop to the floor and pound the stage with tears streaming down her face. “She was a wonderful singer,” Santamaría says. “She could sing any style, and it was no act, she really was a wild woman. But she only sang with us for a little while.”
In the mid ’60s Santamaría signed with Columbia Records, and while other band leaders were struggling to make ends meet, Mongo’s evolving mixture of Latin, jazz and soul/blues remained popular. Eight of his Columbia albums broke into Billboard’s pop Top 200 including El Bravo!, another excellent display of Cuban rhythm. Over the years, Santamaría was also something of a world music pioneer, even before the term came into being. “Manila” combined Brazilian and Cuban rhythms, “Merengue Changa” bounced back and forth between merengue and samba beats and “El Toro” used a folkloric groove from Venezuela called the joropo.
“When I was growing up in Cuba, we knew all the music from South America. The traditional musics all have the same feeling, and if you like it, you want to use it. Today, [people] have the chance to do what we did back then, to listen to different music and enjoy it. The traditional music doesn’t get old. Celia Cruz, she’s still singing the same way she did in the ’50s and it still sounds good. Today people finally appreciate the treasure we’ve always had in Cuba.”
In the early 1970s, Santamaría left Columbia for Vaya, a branch of Fania, the Latin powerhouse that became infamous for its cavalier treatment of its artists. During his tenure at Vaya, Santamaría continued to make challenging music, including 1977s Amanecer (Dawn), which won a Grammy for Best Latin Recording.
For 20 years, Santamaría bounced from label to label, following his own muse, and as always, recording the music he wants to record, the way he wants to record it. He spent his final years living in Miami in semi-retirement, with his wife, children and sister. “I still have a house in New York and I still work, like the concert I just did at Carnegie Hall [Three Generations of Cuban Music] with Tito Puente and Pancho Sanchez.” He is also vaguely aware of Skin on Skin, a two-CD career retrospective that was put out by Rhino earlier this year. “My manager told me about that one,” Santamaría deadpans. “But I don’t know what’s on it. I like to play music, I don’t like to talk about it.”