Santamaría, Ramón (“Mongo”)
Santamaría, Ramón (“Mongo”)
(b. 7 April 1917 in Havana, Cuba; d. 1 February 2003 in Miami, Florida), bandleader and percussionist whose album Dawn (Amanecer) (1977) won a Grammy Award.
Santamaría was born to Ramón Santamaría Gímenez and Felicia Rodríguez Bazan in the working-class Jesús María barrio of Havana. Although several publications list his birth year as 1922, Santamaría himself confirmed 1917 as his year of birth. Santamaría’s father, a construction worker who lived apart from the family, gave Santamaría the nickname Mongo, a Senegalese term meaning “chief of the tribe.” Santamaría’s mother sold coffee and cigarettes to support the family. Santamaría had one brother and two sisters.
The barrio where Santamaría came of age had a strong African culture as well as a strong religious tradition of ceremonies that included music. Santamaría’s grandmother used to take him to Santería ceremonies. His uncle had a music group, and Santamaría used to watch them rehearse. Although his mother wished for Santamaría to play the violin, his true passion lay with percussion. Santamaría dropped out of school in the seventh grade to work as a mechanic and taught himself maracas, bongos, conga, and timbales.
In 1937 Santamaría joined the Septeto Bolona, a son group, and played with them for two years. He also played on the Mil Diez radio station and performed with musicians such as Celia Cruz and Pedro Flores. In 1940 Santamaría became a mailman but continued to play music at clubs such as the famous Tropicana. In 1948 Santamaría took a three-month leave of absence to accompany a dance troupe to Mexico City and then to New York City, where he played with the orchestra of Miguelito Valdés for a week. He also worked with Johnny Segui’s Los Dandies and through that group met the percussionist and bandleader Willie Bobo.
Santamaría returned to Mexico City for a year-and-a-half to obtain a visa and spent time in Cuba before returning to New York City in 1950. He made his official American debut with Gilberto Valdés and Pérez (“King of Mambo”) Prado in the first charanga (flute, violins, percussion, vocals) group. While on tour with Prado, Santamaría broke his legs in a bus accident. After recovering he joined the orchestra of Tito Puente, a fellow percussionist, from 1951 to 1957 and recorded on the album Puente in Percussion (1955) with Bobo and Carlos (“Patato”) Valdés. The single “Ti Mon Bo” was named after the first syllables of the names Tito, Mongo, and Bobo and was an early instrumental hit. In 1954 Santamaría recorded with the trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie. In 1955 Santamaría recorded Chango with Silvestre Mendez, Valdés, and Julito Collazo. The name Chango was a tribute to the orishan god of music and dance. The album was re-released as Drums and Chants in 1978. In 1956 Santamaría organized an homage to the saints at the Palladium, an important Latin music venue in New York City.
Santamaría and Bobo left Puente to form their own group, El Conjunto Manhattan, and then joined the vibraphonist Cal Tjader from 1958 to 1961 on the Fantasy Records label. With Tjader the fusion style of Cuban music—jazz, soul, rhythm and blues, and Brazilian—reached more people in jazz clubs, festivals, and universities than did the traditional style of Cuban music with Puente’s band in Manhattan. Santamaría also played with the singer Nat King Cole and the pianist Count Basie.
Yambú, Santamaría’s first recording as bandleader, was released on the Fantasy Records label in 1958. It was followed by in 1959 by Mongo. In 1960 Santamaría and Bobo went to Havana to record two albums for Fantasy Records. Our Man in Havana was progressive tipico combining charanga and conjunto. Bembé was African-Cuban folkloric with religious chanting and a few rumbas. In 1961 Santamaría and Bobo left Tjader to form La Sabrosa, a group that played pachanga, a variation of the flute-and-violin charanga. The group recorded five albums in two years.
In 1962 Santamaría left Bobo in San Francisco, California, and returned to New York City to put together a Latin fusion group in order to secure a contract with Riverside Records, which released Go, Mongo!. At the end of 1962 Santamaría’s band was joined by a substitute pianist, Herbie Hancock, who introduced Santamaría to his song “Watermelon Man.” With Hancock’s permission, Santamaría adopted the song as his own, and it reached number ten on the pop charts in 1963. Santamaría’s band also for a time featured Chick Corea on piano and Hubert Laws on flute.
Santamaría recorded albums for the Battle and Riverside labels and then switched to Columbia Records from 1964 to 1969. He discovered he had a rapport with African American audiences with his rhythmic hybrid of blues, cha-cha, and funk and became part of the boogaloo movement. However, he received pressure from Columbia Records to do covers of pop hits in order to repeat the success of “Watermelon Man.” In 1968 Santamaría signed with Atlantic Records and was allowed a relatively free hand. He played to a new audience in a concert with the rock groups Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. Also in 1968 Santamaría recorded an important record called Cloud Nine with Bernard (“Pretty”) Purdie, a rhythm and blues drummer.
Despite reservations and public criticism of the label, Santamaría recorded for Fania Records from 1973 to 1979. Santamaría was opposed to the marketing term “salsa” used to describe several forms of Latin music. He also disliked the tendency of Fania musicians to obscure the Cuban origins of music they adapted. Still, in 1976 Santamaría recorded the album Ubane with Justo Betancourt that included a coro (chorus) that some musicologists classified as salsa. In 1977 Dawn (Amanecer), Santamaría’s sixth release on Vaya Records, a subsidiary of Fania, won a Grammy Award.
Santamaría retired because of health problems stemming from the bus accident. He had a stroke at the age of eighty-five and died in a Miami hospital on 1 February 2003. He is buried in Woodlawn Park South Cemetery in Kendall, Florida.
Santamaría was a constant teacher of the philosophy, history, and culture of Cuban music and was a bandleader who used his groups as schools and training grounds for young musicians who went on to great accomplishments. Although he maintained a love for Cuba, Santamaría hated the racism, lack of respect, and limitations Cuba placed on its black musicians. On the other hand, because he was comfortable with both jazz and Cuban music and the musicians who played both, Santamaría was unencumbered by ethnic tensions when he arrived in the United States. He was open to the possibilities of weaving African-Cuban street music, funk, jazz, soul, and rhythm and blues.
Scott Yanow, “Mongo Santamaría,” Afro-Cuban Jazz (2000), contains a biography followed by reviews of many of Santamaría’s most important albums. Charley Gerard, Music from Cuba: Mongo Santamaría, Chocolate Armenteros, and Cuban Musicians in the United States (2001), includes three chapters on Santamaría, a discography of Santamaría’s work as bandleader and sideman, chapter notes, and a glossary of Spanish music terms. In Norbert Goldberg, “An Interview with Mongo Santamaría,” Percussive Notes (July 1984), Santamaría describes his feelings about Cuban music, his career, and drumming style. Popular sentiment toward Santamaría at the time of his Grammy win is captured in Pablo (“Yoruba”) Guzman, “Mongo: To Fusion and Beyond,” Rolling Stone (4 May 1978). Luis Tamargo, “Mongo Santamaría 1917–2003,” Latin Beat (Apr. 2003), describes Santamaría’s character and legacy. An obituary is in the Los Angeles Times (4 Feb. 2003).