Touring and recording songs well into his late seventies, Santamaria in his later years has expressed his annoyance over the name given to his generation’s music by critics and the press when several entertainers revived Cuban-influenced music during the 1990s. "What they call ‘salsa’ is the Afro-Cuban music that we did 50 years ago," he told Aaron Cohen of Down Beat in November of 1999. "I don’t see calling it a new thing. We used to call it mambo, guaracha, guanco, and every other name. Today they take everything and just call it salsa. It’s an economical thing—with the Cuban Revolution, they tried to forget the music had anything to do with Cuba."
Ramon "Mongo" Santamaria was born on April 7, 1922, in Havana, Cuba. Raised in the city’s Jesus Maria district, Santamaria was exposed to all kinds of Afro-Cuban rhythms—rumbas and Santeria rituals were everywhere. During his childhood, Santamaria first played the violin, but eventually switched to drums, dropping out of school in his teens to become a professional musician. In spite of his youth, he played in some of the city’s most famous pre-Castro clubs, especially the Tropicana. By the early 1940s, Santamaria had established himself as one of Havana’s leading percussionists, participating in an array of bands that drove the city’s flourishing nightlife. One such group, the Orquestra Casino de la Playa, counted another famous Cuban, Perez Prado, among its members. When Prado took his
own band to Mexico City in 1948, he took young Santamaria with him.
In 1950, Santamaria moved to New York City, where he made his American debut with Prado. After spending a total of three years on the road with Prado’s orchestra, he left the ensemble to work with Tito Puente and his band. During the six years spent as a percussionist for Puente’s orchestra, Santamaria eventually became well-known throughout California, earning him a position in 1957 with a pioneering Latin-American jazz band in San Francisco led by vibraphonist Cal Tjader that also featured bassist Al McKibbon, pianist Vince Guaraldi, and a percussion section consisting of Willie Bobo, Louis Kant, and Santamaria’s cousin Armando Peraza.
It was during his tenure with the Tjader group (which lasted until 1960) that Santamaria penned the piece "Afro Blue," a springboard for the formation of his own ensemble, a traditional Latin charanga band billed as Mongo Santamaria y Sus Ritmos Afro-Cubanos. With this group, Santamaria as a bandleader made an impressive debut for the Fantasy label in December of 1958 entitled Yambu, a collection of percussion songs, including the musical highlight "Timbales y Bongo," reflecting religious thought and music in the African tradition. The conga drummer returned in 1959 with a second Fantasy album entitled Mongo, which contained Santamaria’s "Afro Blue," composition. The song immediately became a Latin jazz standard taken up by trumpeters John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, and others. Afro-Cubanos soon evolved into the Mongo Santamaria Afro-Latin Group, which included the likes of saxophonist Pat Patrick, who had worked with Sun Ra, and a promising young keyboard player named Armando "Chick," Corea. This group’s first album, Go, Mongo! (first released in 1962 and later packaged with the band’s final Riverside album as Skins in 1976), further cemented Santamaria’s reputation and included his own standout composition "Carmela.,"
Although by now an important figure in both Latin and jazz circles, Santamaria would break through into the mass market in a moment of consequence—the result of a bad night at a Cuban nightclub in the Bronx, New York, in 1962. When only three people showed in the audience for a scheduled gig, the musicians held a bull session, and when a substitute pianist named Herbie Hancock performed a new tune of his entitled "Watermelon Man," all of the band members gradually joined in. Santamaria, for his part, brought his own Afro-Latin rhythmic flourishes to Hancock’s design. Eventually, Hancock’s song became a regular part of Santamaria’s repertoire, and after record producer Orrin Keepnews heard the composition, he immediately pulled the musicians into the studio to record a single. Released in 1963, "Watermelon Man" rose to number ten on the pop charts, and more importantly, pointed to the development of funk music in the 1970s, helping to broaden the fusion of pop and Latin influences.
Upon the success of "Watermelon Man," Santamaria went on to become one of the most prolific composers and recording artists of his generation, producing a lengthy catalog of staggering variety and musical depth that was considered the definitive textbook on Afro-Cuban styles. An essential introduction to anyone wishing to explore the performer’s history can be found in 1972’s Afro Roots, a two-record set that contains tracks recorded between 1958 and 1959. After recording several acclaimed albums for the Riverside label and its subsidiaries, Santamaria signed a high-profile contract with Columbia Records. His association with this label resulted in a wave of danceable albums between 1965 and 1970 that often covered hits of the day. Although these records offered a brighter, brassy sound, aided by trumpeter Marty Shelley, Santamaria never completely let go of his roots and continued to mix genres into the early 1970s.
Subsequently, Santamaria focused on the Afro-Cuban tradition for much of the remainder of his career. In 1987, he released Soy Yo, which found Santamaria bridging the gap between contemporary black pop and AfroCuban music, while 1988’s Soca Me Nice explored the soca, or soul calypso genre. Despite his successes in the studio, however, Santamaria favored producing live records, using this type of recording opportunity to advance his multicultural musical agenda. Some of his most recognized live outtakes include 1963’s Mongo at the Village Gate; 1981’s Summertime, a live gig with Gillespie and Toots Thielemans recorded in 1980; 1990’s Live at Jazz Alley; and 1994’s At the Black Hawk, a CD compilation of two 1962 live releases, Mighty Mongo and Viva Mongo, both recorded at the legendary Black Hawk club in San Francisco.
In 1995, he returned to the Fantasy label, via its subsidiary Milestone, with the release of Mongo Santamaria; Mongo Returns. A two-disc compilation, Skin on Skin: The Mongo Santamaría Anthology, 1958-1995 arrived in 1999 on the Rhino label. By the late 1990s, Santamaria was unable to tour because of health problems. He continued to live in the same apartment that he moved into back in 1964 on New York’s Upper West Side. "I’m not a hero, but I did my best to make everybody happy," the percussionist told Cohen. "Everything I did, I did it with con mucho amor.,"
(01). Druma kuyi
(02). Consejo al vive bien
(05). Congo mania
(12). Bembe kinigua
(14). Conga callejera
(17). Fiesta Abacua
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