Mongo Santamaria and the Afro-Cuban Diaspora

Mongo Santamaria was born in Cuba, the largest island of the Antilles group. Here, he cut his teeth listening to and eventually joining in with the local ‘Congeros’ singing and dancing to their songs of love, listening to their stories of war and religion whilst their polyrythmic sounds were quite literally drummed into him.

His is a music of sticks and drums, skins and bells, of rhythm and counter-rhythm. It’s a down-home sound encompassing at once the rural folk beat of Cuba and the finesse of jazz made amongst skyscrapers.

Moving to the “Uni” as the US was known amongst Cubans in the 50’s, Mongo found a welcoming home in New York where he briefly played with Perez Prado before moving on to work with Tito Puente as a percussionist. It was with Tito, that Mongo’s star really began to shine. Some say that the rhythm section of Tito Puente and Mongo Santamaria has yet to be surpassed, as they both had an innate understanding of the rhythmic forms at the heart of the afro-latin and specifically, the afro-cuban sound. This music was in their blood.

As the 50’s drew to a close, Mongo was riding a wave, as one of, if not the best conga player in America. Soon he was to branch out on his own, as leader of his own band. Before long he was taking the musical and rhythmic power of soul, funk and jazz and melding it with the polyrhythms from his own heritage to create something entirely new.

As this new sound developed, Boogaloo was born. It swept across America. Tunes such as ‘Watermelon Man’ sealed Mongo Santamaria’s fame and brought his joie de vivre to thousands of attentive ears. Within a few years, even the Beatles were using the word boogaloo in their songs (Ringo Star’s ‘Back off Boogaloo’). To this day, the boogaloo beat is synonymous with the latin soul sound, and is played in nightclubs and dancehalls across the world.

In the late 60’s and early 70’s, Mongo helped to develop the careers of many young latin and Jazz musicians. He gave opportunities to newcomers, allowing them to play in his band, helping them to get ahead by teaching them the ropes of a difficult business. He also frequently worked on collaborative projects with more established players. Artists as diverse as La Lupe, Chick Corea, Cal Tjader and Herbie Hancock have benefitted from his musical patronage. In this way, they were able to boost their careers and build reputations in their own right.

Mongo has never forsaken his heritage, returning time and again to the classic call and response of his West African roots.  The rhythmic and vocal patterns at the heart of his music come directly from Yoruba and Ebo tribal tradition, however, his work is not a straightforward re-presentation of these ethnic styles. Instead, they are filtered through Cuban, Jazz or other influences.

Mongo has always taken these ideas and used them to sympathetically create new fusions entirely his own. Throughout his musical career he has searched for a truth of identity which is not straightforwardly apparent. His roots, obfuscated by slavery, had melted into the mists of time and there is a drive within his work to reassert ownership of these musical traditions by hook or crook and force them into new forms which could be entirely owned and regained by his own people…

Put simply, Mongo Santamaria is a major player. Purely through his own musical curiosity, he has been a lynch-pin in rediscovering and representing African traditions in Caribbean music. The reassertion of African roots. When Mongo Santamaria ‘bangs’ the drum, other people listen. He is one of the greatest percussionists ever recorded and to hear his music is a fine privilege indeed.

Essential Listening:

Mongo (1959 Fantasy Records)
Contains the track ‘Afro Blue’ which became a Jazz Standard covered by John Coltrane and others.

There’s a live version on YouTube which starts with the most awesome polyrythmic percussion: check it out If you like that also check out ‘Sofrito‘ from the same session recorded at University of Massachusetts in 1985

Mongo at the Village Gate (1962 Battle Records)
Brilliant live album which contains the track El Toro which explores moorish traditions…

Drums and Chants (1978 Vaya Records)
Contains the excellent track ‘Druma Kuyi’ and many others. Mongo looking backwards to go forwards. This album is all about his Afro-Cuban roots.

Discography (with thanks to Wikipedia – this is not an exhaustive list by any means)

  • Tambores y Cantos (1955)
  • Afro-Roots(1960)
  • Yambu: Mongo Santamaria y Sus Ritmos Afro Cubano (1958)[1]
  • Mongo (1959) – with the theme “Afro Blue”
  • Our Man in Havana (1959)
  • Mongo en La Habana (1960) with Carlos Embale and Merceditas Valdés
  • Sabroso! (1960) – with tresero and composician Andrés Echeverría
  • Go, Mongo! (1962)
  • Watermelon man! (1963) (Battle Records)
  • El Bravo! (1964)
  • La Bamba (1965)
  • Pussy Cat (1965)
  • “Hey! Let’s Party” (1967)
  • Afro-American Latin (1969)
  • Stone Soul (1969)
  • Mongo´70 (1970)
  • Feelin’ Alright (1970)
  • Mongo’s Way (1971)
  • Up From the Roots (1972)
  • Ubané (1974) with Justo Betancourt on vocals[2]
  • Sofrito (1976)
  • Amanecer (1977) – won a Grammy award
  • Soy Yo (1987)
  • You Better Believe It (1979)
  • Mambo Mongo (1993)
  • Mongo Returns (Milestone Records, 1995)
  • Conga Blue (1995)
  • Come on Home (1997)
  • Mongo Santamaria (1998)

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