Mongo Santamaria

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About Mongo Santamaria

A Mongo Santamaria concert is a mesmerizing spectacle for both the eyes and ears, and even as he entered his seventies, this seemingly ageless Cuban percussionist/bandleader could energize packed behemoth arenas like the Hollywood Bowl. A master conguero, Santamaria at his best creates an incantatory spell rooted in Cuban religious rituals, quietly seating himself before his congas and soloing with total command over the rhythmic spaces between the beats while his band pumps out an endless vamp. He has been hugely influential as a leader, running durable bands that combine the traditional charanga with jazz-oriented brass, wind, and piano solos. He also reached out into R&B, rock, and electric jazz at times in his long career. No Cuban percussionist, with the possible exception of Santana's Armando Peraza (and let's not count Desi Arnaz), has reached more listeners than him. Santamaria moved to New York in 1950 and spent six years performing and recording with Tito Puente and Cal Tjader. After his mass-market breakthrough, the 1963 Top Ten single "Watermelon Man," Santamaria's cross-pollination of jazz, R&B, and Latin music led to a high-profile contract with Columbia that resulted in a wave of hot, danceable albums between 1965 and 1970. He later returned to his Afro-Cuban base, recording for Vaya, Concord Picante, and the Fantasy subsidiary Milestone. Santamaria passed away in 2003.

Havana, Cuba
April 7, 1922

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