Mongo Santamaria Biography

Ramón Santamaría, 7 April 1922, Jesús María district, Havana, Cuba, d. 1 February 2003, Miami, Florida, USA. Percussionist and band leader Santamaría (nicknamed Mongo by his father) arrived in New York at the end of the 40s. There he performed with the first charanga (flute, violins, rhythm section and voices band) to be organized in the city, led by multi-instrumentalist Gilberto Valdés (b. Matanzas Province, Cuba), Pérez Prado (for a brief stint) and Tito Puente (between 1951 and 1957). In 1955, Santamaría recorded Changó (aka Drums And Chants), an album of roots Afro Cuban music featuring the Cuban percussionists Silvestre Méndez (b. Jesús María district, Havana, Cuba; bongo, composer), Carlos ‘Patato’ Valdés and Julito Collazo.

Many years later, Santamaría commented: ‘Changó is the best album recorded in the USA, within that genre, and much better than Yambú and other albums which I recorded later for Fantasy Records’ (quote from a 1991 interview with Luis Tamargo published in Latin Beat magazine). As Puente’s conguero, Santamaría enjoyed celebrity status in the Latino community. However, in 1957 he and two other Puente sidemen, percussionist Willie Bobo and bass player Bobby Rodríguez, provoked the band leader’s wrath when they were credited as performers on Más Ritmo Caliente by Latin jazz vibes player Cal Tjader. Hurt by Puente’s response, Santamaría and Bobo informed Tjader of their intention to leave. Tjader could not believe his luck, and offered to hire them. Early the following year, they both joined him in San Francisco. During their three-year tenure, Santamaría and Bobo contributed significantly to Tjader’s sound on a string of classic albums recorded for Fantasy Records, and through this association they attained more widespread fame.

Santamaría was still with Tjader when he recorded the Afro Cuban sets Yambú and Mongo on Fantasy. The second contained his hit composition ‘Afro Blue’, which became a much covered jazz standard. In 1960, Santamaría and Bobo visited Cuba, where they recorded the progressive típico album Our Man In Havana with local musicians, including the legendary tres guitarist, arranger and composer Niño Rivera and teenage pianist Paquito Echavarría. The latter relocated to Miami and worked there with bass player Israel ‘Cachao’ López. In 1961, Santamaría left Tjader (taking Bobo with him) to inherit former personnel from Armando Sánchez’s Chicago-based charanga Orquesta Nuevo Ritmo (whose only album was 1960’s The Heart Of Cuba), including violinist and composer Félix ‘Pupi’ Legarreta, flautist and composer Rolando Lozano, pianist René Hernández, vocalist and composer Rudy Calzado, and bass player Victor Venegas (a good friend of Santamaría who remained with him until the late 60s). Santamaría added the incredible violinist and tenor saxophonist José ‘Chombo’ Silva and others to form his own charanga, which debuted on the excellent 1962 set, Sabroso!. On this and his other charanga releases on Fantasy, including one with pianist Joe Loco, Santamaría successfully managed to infuse the traditional Cuban flute and strings framework with jazz idioms.

In 1962, Santamaría returned to New York, leaving Bobo in San Francisco. He put together a Latin fusion (although this nomenclature did not exist then) group with a view to securing a contract with Riverside Records. He succeeded and debuted on the label with Go, Mongo!. At the end of 1962, Santamaría recorded the crowd-pleaser ‘Watermelon Man’, written by keyboard player Herbie Hancock, who performed with the group that year. With negligible promotion, the single became a US Top 10 pop hit in 1963. The song’s R&B/jazz/Latin cocktail pretty much set Santamaría’s stylistic compass for the rest of his career. After a few more albums on Riverside, he continued in the Latin fusion vein with a string of releases on the Columbia Records, Atlantic Records, Vaya, Pablo, Roulette, Tropical Budda, Concord Picante, and Chesky labels. Dawn (Amanecer), his sixth release on Vaya, won a Grammy Award, becoming the first album from the Fania Records stable to receive the accolade. From the mid-60s onwards, Santamaría only rarely diverted from his fusion path to record typical Latin albums such as 1966’s El Bravo! and the Justo Betancourt collaboration Ubane. During his career as a band leader, he hired and developed notable artists such as Chick Corea, La Lupe, Hubert Laws, Marty Sheller and others.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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