Profile of the legendary percussionist (primarily conga drums), bandleader,
Notes and Profile by John Child (John_Child@descarga.com)
With the kind permission of NascenteBack2Back, we reproduce John Child's liner notes
to a Mongo CD on the label featuring Afro-Indio
and A La Carte.
This NascenteBack2Back title is not available in the USA, however Afro-Indio
and A La Carte
can be ordered separately from the Descarga.com catalog.
Mongo Santamaría was responsible for a style of music that could be described as a
combo of mambo, salsafunk and jazz latino. His sound was as unique as they come...
Mongo Santamaría: Latin Music's Mr. Fusion
Individual lives don't always turn out as you might expect. Mongo Santamaría is a
prime example of this. The grandson of an African-born slave, his upbringing in the
Jesús María district of Havana during the 1920s and 1930s was steeped in the Afro-Cuban
roots tradition. After arriving in New York in the late 1940s, his earliest jobs there
were all in character with his background. These included stints with Gilberto Valdés'
charanga (the city's first example of this typical Cuban format of flute, violins,
rhythm section and voices), mambo populariser Pérez Prado and Mambo King Tito Puente.
Furthermore, his first three recordings as a leader, Tambores Afro-Cubanos
on SMC, Changó
'55 on Tico (which was reissued in 1978 on Vaya as Drums And Chants
) and Yambú
'58 on Fantasy, were all authentic Afro-Cuban percussion workouts which became classics
of the genre.
However, fate, in the form of vibes player Cal Tjader, stepped in. From right under
Puente's nose, he whisked Mongo and percussionist Willie Bobo off to the West Coast
in 1958 to play with his pioneering Latin jazz group. Though Mongo retired to the
wings during Tjader's straight jazz numbers, he was still exposed to an important influence.
When Mongo left Tjader in 1961, he somewhat reverted to his roots by briefly leading
a charanga band. This was understandable to a degree, as the charanga/pachanga craze was raging at full force at the time. Nonetheless, by this stage, Mongo could already
not resist incorporating jazz idioms into the traditional Cuban flute and strings
framework. A combination that worked very well.
Mongo made four fairly orthodox charanga albums for Fantasy in 1961 and 1962, including
one headlined by pianist Joe Loco. In addition, he recorded a further three albums
of rootsy material for the label between 1959 and 1960; two of which were made in
Cuba. However, with the benefit of hindsight, it was his third and second from last albums
for the company, Viva Mongo!
and Mighty Mongo, both made in 1962 with a decidedly jazz oriented octet comprised mainly of personnel
from his charanga, that gave the strongest flavour of his future direction.
Long before the charanga/pachanga fad subsided in the mid-1960s, Mongo disbanded his
charanga and returned to New York in 1962. There, he hurriedly pulled together a
horns-led group of musicians with diverse musical backgrounds, including pianist
Armando Corea (who later became famous as Chick Corea), to audition for a contract with the
jazz label, Riverside Records. He was successful, and made a pair of albums each
for Riverside and their subsidiary Battle label between 1962 and 1964. It was during
this period that his ground-breaking Latin/jazz/R&B fusion sound emerged. This was epitomised
by his greatest commercial success, the 1963 top 10 hit single "Watermelon Man" (written
by Herbie Hancock) on Battle, subsequently included in the Battle album of the same name.
The producer of "Watermelon Man", Orrin Keepnews, later described the single as a
"unique concoction of funk, blues, soul, rock, jazz, Afro-Cuban-Latin, and what-have-you."
 Though a hit of the same magnitude was to elude him, bar a few notable exceptions, the song virtually set the stylistic tone for the rest of his recording career
to date, with Columbia (1965 to 1970), Atlantic (1970 to 1972), Vaya (1973 to 1980),
Pablo (1981), Roulette (1983), Tropical Budda (1985), Concord Picante (1987 to 1990),
Candid (1993), Chesky (1993) and Milestone (1995).
This Back2Back features two significant albums Mongo made for Vaya Records, a subsidiary
of the Fania Records empire founded in 1971. First-up, the Grammy-nominated Afro-Indio
, his third outing for the label issued in 1975, places the emphasis on the Latin-funk
dimension of his Latin fusion cocktail. While the following album, A La Carte
, his penultimate release for Vaya, sees his work logically edging into the disco
domain. In fact, Latin music historian, John Storm Roberts contends: "During the
1960s, percussionists Mongo Santamaría and Willie Bobo essentially created the Latin-jazz-funk that was the basis of the 1970s disco sound." 
To conclude, I'll let Mongo summarise the relationship between his rootsy Afro-Cuban
heritage and the fusion direction of his career: "All this music does have one unifying
factor. Behind the styles of Latin, soul, rock or jazz is the African beat." 
1. Quote from Orrin Keepnews's sleevenotes to Skins
'76 on Milestone.
2. Quote from the book Latin Jazz: The First of the Fusions, 1880s to Today
by John Storm Roberts, published by Schirmer Books, 1999.
3. Quote from Kathy Mackay's sleevenotes to The Watermelon Man
'73 on Milestone.
These notes are dedicated to the memory of my mother, Hilda Child, who passed away
while they were in preparation.
What follows is an extensive, if not complete, Mongo Santamaria discography:
Ramón Santamaría, 7 Apr. '22, Havana, Cuba; d
1 Feb. '03, Miami, FL) Latin percussionist (primarily conga drums), bandleader,
composer. His grandfather was born in Africa; always called Mongo, he later learned
that the word means "chief of the tribe" in Senegalese. Studied violin, but first
love was drums, inspired by Chano Pozo. Dropped out of school to play congas; spent five years
in opulent clubs of pre-Castro Havana and went to Mexico City '48 with Armando Peraza;
they arrived in NYC late '40s, billed as the Black Cuban Diamonds; played with NYC's first charanga led by flautist/saxist/composer Gilberto Valdés (b
21 May '04, Jovellanos, Matanzas province, Cuba; d
12 May '72, NYC), joined Pérez Prado for a short spell, then Tito Puente '51-7; meanwhile
made LPs of music derived from Afro-Cuban religious cults: Tambores Afro Cubanos
on SMC and Changó
'55 on Tico (reissued '78 on Vaya as Drums And Chants
); joined Cal Tjader's group '58 for three years with percussionist Willie Bobo (LPs
on Fantasy, Prestige).
His own LPs on Fantasy: Yambú
'58-9, latter incl. "Afro Blue" (became jazz standard), both LPs later combined in
'72 on Prestige; also Our Man In Havana
, Mongo In Havana "Bembé"
(coupled with previous LP in CD reissue Our Man In Havana
, Pachanga with Joe Loco
(reissued as half of the CD Loco Motion
'94), !Arriba! La Pachanga
, Más Sabroso
, Viva Mongo!
, Mighty Mongo
(superb live set by a Latin jazz octet coupled with previous LP in CD reissue At The Blackhawk
'94), Mongo y La Lupe
(aka Mongo Introduces La Lupe
with Cuban vocalist La Lupe, 1939-1992) '60-3.
He recorded fusions of Latin, R&B, jazz, soul, hiring musicians like Chick Corea,
Hubert Laws; had top 10 hit with Herbie Hancock tune "Watermelon Man" '63 on Battle
label: album Watermelon Man
incl. single's B side "Don't Bother Me No More", also "Yeh Yeh", covered for UK chart
hit by Georgie Fame; packaged with Mongo At The Village Gate
on Battle plus "Para Ti" (recorded at the Village Gate, from Riverside LP Mongo Explodes
) to make The Watermelon Man
'73 on Milestone; Skins
'76 on Milestone combined his first and last Riverside LPs: Go, Mongo!
'62 and Mongo Explodes
'64, the latter with Nat Adderley on some tracks.
His success led to Columbia (CBS) contract, LPs El Pussy Cat
, La Bamba
, El Bravo
(an isolated típico outing), Hey! Let's Party
, Mongo Mania
(incl. "Mongo's Boogaloo"), Explodes At The Village Gate
, Soul Bag
, Stone Soul
, Workin' On A Groovy Thing
(incl. top 40 cover '69 of "Cloud Nine", hit by the Temptations), All Strung Out
'65-70: most of these made USA pop LP chart, making Mongo the most successful Latin
musician of the '60s. Switched to Atlantic for Feelin' Alright
'70, which also charted; Mongo's Way
'71 incl. Israel "Cachao" López on bass, also incl. Peraza, as did Mongo At Montreux
'71; Up From The Roots
'72 had one side of Afro-Cuban music, other conjunto. To Vaya label (Fania stablemate)
'73, Mongo Santamaría Live At Yankee Stadium
'74 (on same bill as Fania All Stars, with whom he also guested, live and studio
tracks appear on FAS's Latin-Soul-Rock
'75, Mongo & Justo "Ubane"
'76 with Justo Betancourt (another rare típico digression), Sofrito
'77, then Dawn (Amanecer)
'77 (the first Fania album to win a Grammy), A La Carte
'78; Mongo Mongo
'78 was a compilation on Vaya prepared by Al Santiago, Red Hot
'79 on CBS UK. Images
'80 was his Vaya finale.
'81 on Pablo was made live at Montreux with Dizzy Gillespie, Toots Thielemans; Mongo Magic
'83 appeared on Roulette; Free Spirit
'85 on Tropical Budda. To Concord Picante for Soy Yo
, with guest Charlie Palmieri on "Mayeya" (Yoruban religious chant co-written by Santamaría),
Soca Me Nice
, Olé Ola
, Live At Jazz Alley
'87-90. Performed on Mambo Show
'90 (rec'd mid-'80s) by Tropical Budda All-Stars incl. Palmieri, José "Chombo" Silva,
Barry Rogers, Johnny "Dandy" Rodríguez and Nicky Marrero. Joined Tito Puente's Golden
Latin Jazz All Stars (incl.
Paquito D'Rivera, Dave Valentín, Hilton Ruiz, Andy González and Mario Rivera, amongst
others) for "Live" at The Village Gate
'92 and "In Session"
'94, both on Tropijazz, and performed with Puente and "The Golden Men of Latin Jazz"
at London's Royal Festival Hall, July '93. Mambo Mongo
'93 on Chesky; Watermelon Man
'95, rec'd at Birdland 9-10 Oct. '92; guested on half of Poncho Sánchez's tribute
CD Conga Blue
'96 on Concord Picante, which reprises Mongo's hits.
Six of his albums received Grammy nominations '75-85. Other gigs with FAS incl. Live At Yankee Stadium Vol 2
'75, film footage incl. in Salsa
(also soundtrack album).
After a third stroke, Mongo was disconnected from life support in Miami's Baptist
Hospital and passed away at 3:00 am Saturday 1 Feb. '03.
-This is a slightly revised version of one of over 130 Latin music entries written by John Child (John_Child@descarga.com) for The
Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, 2nd Edition, edit. Donald
Clarke; Penguin Books; 1998; 1524 pages; US$22.95, UK£16.99.
They are published on the Descarga website by kind permission of Mr. Donald Clarke.