Mongo Santamaria was a great Cuban conga player (“conguero”) who most people don’t know about. Even though for tropical Latin music lovers, percussionists and drummers, he is a veritable god. He’s unknown to the many people who love Herbie Hancock’s wonderful cover of Mongo’s classic song, “Watermelon Man”, a big hit that launched the pianist’s career. Mongo’s version, less known, is a great boogaloo classic. He was born in Havana in 1917 and died in Miami in 2003. Among other things, Mongo gave jazz flutist Hubert Laws his start, and his shows at New York nightclubs like the Village Gate are stuff of legend. Together with fellow Cuban congueros Chano Pozo and Francisco Aguabella, Mongo brought the African rhythms from Cuba to America for all to enjoy. Those rhythms have deep African blood in their veins, and many of them are devotional rhythms dedicated to the African gods, or “orishas”.
There’s a picture of me and Mongo in KCRW’s master control studio. Mongo was there with me on Morning Becomes Eclectic in 1988. I’m proud it’s there for staff and guests to see. He’s holding a copy of the Mr. Watermelon Man lp (he signed the white pants on model’s butt) and a copy of the rare Live at the Village Gate lp on Columbia, which was never reissued.
Lately, Mongo has been getting renewed attention and airplay because of a new Joe Claussel remix album called “Hammock House: Africa Caribe”. The cut is called “Mambo Mongo”, and it’s a respectful and quality re-interpretation. I’m glad Mongo’s once again getting his due.