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Cuban Music Lesson: The Mambo

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.

One of the first forms of Cuban music to make the jump across the Florida Straits that led to a lot of Americans dancing awkwardly was the mambo. This musical form originated in the 1940s during Cuba’s big band era. Mambo was faster than the son or danzon and relied less on drums and more on horns. Its signature dance is still popular today and you can regularly see D list celebrities fall on their asses trying to do it on Dancing with the Stars.

This was also a period of time when American tourism to Cuba was at its height. People could take a ferry from Key West or fly down for a weekend the way you might go to Vegas today. Havana became the playground of the rich and famous. They would get sauced on Cuban rum (ed. note: best rum in the world in our book), grab a couple of dancing girls, and gamble all night at one of the many mafia-owned hotels (oh yes, Godfather 2 was for real, dudes). The soundtrack to all of this awesomeness was the mambo. Soon after, bands started popping up in New York and Miami among the expat communities. This led to attempts by American artists to copy the style such as Rosemary Clooney’s Mambo Italiano, which doesn’t make any sense if you think about it because Italians don’t mambo.

The father of the mambo was Perez Prado, a virtuoso composer, bandleader, and singer who toured all over the world for over 40 years. He spent a lot of his career working in Mexico and stayed there after Castro’s revolution to record and play music until his death in 1989. His infectious rhythm and signature scream became known throughout the world. So take out your ruffled shirt and straw hat and listen to Mambo Jose.

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