Mongo Santamaria: Life Of A Living Legend

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.”

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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.”

Cal Tjader's Ritmo Caliente

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.

Mongo Santamaria

“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.”