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Legendary master conguero, bongocero, band leader, composer

Born in Havana, Cuba April 7, 1917
Died in Miami, United States February 2, 2003

mongo santamaria

Ramon 'Mongo' Santamaria grew up in the Jesus Maria district, a working class neighbourhood in Havana with deep African roots. He was brought up by his mother as his father died young, and received the nickname 'Mongo' which he later learned meant 'chief of the tribe'. Due to his mother’s insistence he studied the violin for a time, but his love for hand percussion was such that it became his lifelong passion. He was inspired by Chano Pozo, the legendary Cuban conga player who migrated to the United States and had a brief but remarkable career playing with Dizzy Gillespie.

In pre-Castro Cuba, Santamaria worked all the major nightclubs, places such as the famous Tropicana, before heading for Mexico in the late 1940s with an ensemble of dancers and musicians led by Pablito Duarte. Soon after, Santamaria made his move to the United States where he joined Perez Prado’s Orchestra and enjoyed enormous success in the mambo era of the early 1950s. He then worked extensively with Tito Puente performing and recording with his band — the highlight being two memorable percussion albums: Top Percussion and Tito in Percussion.

He left Puente in 1957 to join Cal Tjader’s quintet in California. This move was to prove extremely important for Santamaria as he was keen to expand his musical expertise and to perform to new audiences. His work with Puente had been geared exclusively towards dancers, while Tjader’s group played for listeners and was featured in jazz clubs, concerts and college campuses.

He started his career as bandleader in the 1960s with his charanga band La Sabrosa which laid some of the foundations for the now popular salsa style. In 1963 while recording the Herbie Hancock tune Watermelon Man, he coloured his sound with a rhythm and blues tinge and had a hit on the pop charts. The tune reached the Billboard Top Ten Hit list; it was the first major Latin crossover pop hit.

He often said the best rhythms come from 'skin on skin'. He recorded his first percussion based album Drums and Chants in the early 1950s, and followed that with releases such as Yambu, Mongo, Our Man In Havana, Bembe and Up From The Roots. These recordings continue to inspire generations. His most famous composition Afro Blue, a beautifully crafted tune with a strong 6/8 African rhythmic connection, has become a jazz standard. The piece has been covered several times with some memorable versions recorded by John Coltrane, Dianne Reeves, Tito Puente, Dave Valentin and Cal Tjader.

Santamaria possessed unique talents as a percussionist and had a visionary outlook as band leader. His music contains a unique combination of Latin, jazz, soul and rhythm and blues. As band leader he also had an incredible foresight in choosing and encouraging up and coming talents. Some of his former sidemen include pianists Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, flautist Hubert Laws and trumpeter Luis Gasca. Santamaria recorded more than seventy albums as leader, and was signed at one time or another to some of the most prestigious record companies in the world including Fantasy, Columbia, Atlantic, Concord, Riverside, Milestones and Fania. He received five Grammy Award nominations and in 1997 his album Amanecer was awarded the Grammy for Best Latin Recording.

Santamaria was one of the finest individuals to grace the world of percussion, and as far as conga playing, arguably the most influential. Players of many generations and of wide cultural backgrounds worldwide always make a mention of Santamaria’s profound influence. He left Cuba determined to make a mark in the international music scene, something he achieved in his lifetime. His music will live on forever. May he rest in peace.

© Alex Pertout. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without prior written permission from the author. This article was first published in The Age Obituaries (February 11, 2003) and in Drumscene magazine.

© Alex Pertout. All Rights Reserved.