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Cuban Music Lesson: Mongo Santamaria

Get ready to be schooled, asere. It’s time for a Cuban music lesson! Learn to tell your cha cha cha from your mambo without leaving your couch. Put on your dancing shoes, guayaberas, park your 57 Chevy, light up that Habano, and pay attention.

Today, most of us have really soft hands. That’s because we don’t ever do anything that requires manual labor. With our job as bloggers, the worst that can happen is a case of carpal tunnel. Now imagine that your job not only required you to use your hands, but you had to smash your hands repeatedly on a tight piece of goatskin as hard as you can. Now imagine doing that 100 times a minute. Sounds painful, right? That is the life of conga player. In our opinion no one ever did it as well as Mongo Santamaria.

First of all, is there a cooler name than Mongo Santamaria? He sounds like a Latino extraterrestrial secret agent. Mongo was born in Havana in 1917. He grew up surrounded by Cuban drumming, both as a religious and secular activity. Cuban Santeros play drums to call their gods, so the drum in Cuba is sacred. It is probably the oldest instrument on earth. Some ancient Neanderthal salsero ancestor beat on a fallen log and shook his ass, and music was born. Mongo respected the drum and he practiced until his hands were like marble. Being a conguero takes literal blood and sweat, which is why often times a drum head will turn brown. Ew. Do you have dedication like that? We don’t. If we bled on our keyboards we’d pass out and have to take them to the shop to be cleaned.

Mongo came to the United States in the 60’s along with a lot of Cuban artists escaping the Castro regime. He moved to New York where he collaborated with several Nuyorican (New York Puerto Rican) and Cuban artists. The sound he helped create was called Latin boogaloo or Cubop. It was a synthesis of classic Cuban rhythms and bebop jazz. His song “Afro Blue” was recorded by none other than John Coltrane. Latin boogaloo is the mother of salsa, and Mongo was their at its birth. He was part of Fania records, a New York Latin label that had Celia Cruz, Tito Puente, Hector Lavoe, Willie Colon, Ray Barretto, and many other salsa luminaries. He went on to record several other classics like “Leah”, “Sofrito”, and “The Watermelon Man” which was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998.

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