Article: From Havana To Harlem: Tumbao Melao
by Vernon W. Boggs
Not too long ago, Mr. Alegre Superstar — who is no stranger to this publication — insisted that he heard a recording of Billy Eckstine’s Caravan with conga drums “smokin’” in the rhythm section. Mr. Johnny Otis, a well-known figure in rhythm and blues, reported that he had them fueling his rhythm section on one recording in 1945. So, the conga drum's tumbao is no newcomer to jazz or R & B. This fact is further evident if one only turns his attention to music commonly known as “Doo-Wop” or, more specifically, “Latin Doo-Wop.”
Latin Doo-Wop is a genre of American popular music that gained its maximum exposure primarily in Harlem/New York City in the 1950s. It began as street corner a cappella singing, picked up its “doo-wop” moniker from a Chicago-based group called The Spaniels, quickly found its way into various recording studios and became legendary through the efforts of George Goldner and Morris Levy...no strangers to Latin music. In order to hear what Latin Doo-Wop is, buy a reissue copy — a “mint original” pressing costs $175 — of The Crows’ “Mambo Shevitz” on the Tico label which was issued in March 1955 on a 45RPM. The backup band is said to be “Melino and His Orchestra.” So far, an exhaustive effort to determine the make-up of this band has been futile at best. Yet even the untrained ear will immediately recognize that this is no unrehearsed “pickup” band playing a mambo in the background of a cappella singing. Flip the record over to the “B” side and listen to the instrumental version the band plays of Pérez Prado’s “Mambo #5” and you will arrive at the same conclusion. Melino and His Orchestra have an authentic tumbao. Although we can find the recording, we find no trace of “Melino.” Who really was Melino? Was it the Tito Puente Band? Maybe someone will uncover the true identity of this enigmatic “Melino.”
Latin Doo-Wop record hunting clearly proves that one can locate many such recordings that are strongly “colored” by the tumbao. A case in point are the records by a Bronx-based all-Puerto-Rican Latin Doo-Wop band called The Eternals. This group recorded many Doo-Wop mambos and cha-chas..
Further research on this unique musical genre suggests that the inclusion of Afro-Cuban rhythmic patterns in the music did not come about without reason or by accident. The reasons are myriad, but one thing does stand out: Afro-Cuban rhythms are considered exciting. More than 100 doo-wop 45’s clearly reveals a Cuban “coloration.” This coloration, however, has not been confined solely to Doo-Wop, since it can easily be found in other forms of American popular music of the 1950s. But the Cuban musical impact lies mainly in the spheres of jazz and doo-wop. (On the other hand, doo-wop has had its impact on Cuban music as any early recordings of Los Zafiros will bear out!)
In conclusion, one can say that the honey-flavored tumbao was truly Cuba’s gift to Harlem; a “gift” that has never been seriously recognized. And if you ever find the following records (45s), let us here at Descarga know: The Royals’ “I Want You To Be My Mambo Baby”, The Sultans’ “Boppin’ With The Mambo”, The Duke's “Leap Year Cha Cha”, The Falcons’ “Mambo Baby Tonight”, and The Chanters’ “She Wants To Mambo”. We love our Latin Doo-Wop or “Doo-Wop with a tumbao."