Show #260: Mambo Kings

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This week we listen to some Afro-Cuban mambo from its beginnings in the 1940’s, through its high point in the 1960’s, to the present day. Like the words bongo and banjo, the word mambo comes from the Kongo language of West Africa, meaning “conversation with the gods.” Both a tropical music and dance style, mambo was perfected in the swank hotels and gambling halls of pre-Castro Cuba, in night clubs like Havana’s legendary Tropicana. Mambo took off in the 1940’s when Cuban musicians Machito, Arsenio Rodríguez, Chico O’Farrill, and Cachao brought their hot, rhythmic sounds to New York City. Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker loved the sophisticated music and recorded with the Cubans, calling their collaborations “Cubop.”

We start the show with two seminal figures from the early days of mambo—tres (Cuban double 3-string guitar) virtuoso Arsenio Rodríguez and mambo king bassist Israel “Cachao” Lopez. Arsenio Rodríguez rose to great popularity in the 1950’s, but his appeal waned as new styles like boogaloo appeared. He eventually moved from New York to Los Angeles hoping for more opportunities, but died of pneumonia shortly after his arrival in 1970. The classically-trained Cachao graduated from Havana’s Orquesta Filarmónica de la Habana at a young age. He is often credited with inventing not only the mambo, but also the improvised jam session known as descarga.

The next bandleader, Frank Grillo, better known as Machito, has been called “El Padrino,” the godfather of mambo. The king of big band Afro-Cuban music in New York City in the 1940’s, Machito is featured here with his lead singer and sister Graciela, performing arrangements by his musical partner Mario Bauzá.

Beny Moré (sometimes spelled “Benny”), one of the greatest of all Cuban singers, used to perform in Cuba, New York City, and Mexico City. Known as the “El Bárbaro del Ritmo” and “The King of the Mambo,” Moré frequently recorded with Pérez Prado as well as Cuba’s La Sonora Matancera. He was ornery and irascible. After a bad concert review from a Caracas newspaper writer, he allegedly wrapped a lead pipe in a newspaper and beat up the unfortunate journalist. When interviewed afterwards, he said it was “only a newspaper.” Moré died young at the age of 43 from liver cirrhosis.

Tito Puente, born in Spanish Harlem in 1923, is perhaps the most famous mambo king of them all. He’s recorded over 100 albums, and I interviewed him once after his 100th album was released. During World War II, Puente served on the escort carrier U.S. Santee as the bandleader, and the crew was so impressed by his music that they retained him on the ship all the way to the end of the war, when it sailed into Tokyo Bay for J­­­apan’s officia­­­l surrender. Afterwards, the G.I. Bill allowed Puente to study at Juilliard upon his return to the U.S. Puente became a timbales viruoso as well as a superb vibraphonist, but his greatest skill was as a big band arranger. He toured incessantly, taking his music all around the world. We hear one of his biggest mambo hits from the 1960’s, “Ran Kan Kan,” which has propelled a million dancers across dance floors everywhere.

The next “Tito” in the playlist is Tito Rodríguez, the suave, ultra-smooth Puerto Rican singer and bandleader. The song “Avisale a Mi Contrario” (Advice to My Rival) is said to be about Tito Puente and the friendly rivalry between these two mambo kings. The track comes from a wonderful two-CD set called Inolvidable (Unforgettable).

Next we hear Pérez Prado’s biggest hit, “Mambo #5.” Prado’s music—along with that of Celia Cruz and the two Titos—was a staple of the Palladium Ballroom on New York City’s upper Westside as well as Latin music nightclubs in the Americas, Japan, and Europe.

The Cesta All Stars, formerly the Tico-Alegre All Stars and who later became the Fania All Stars, were huge in 1960’s New York. Their shows at the Cheetah Nightclub and Madison Square Garden are the stuff of legend. We feature a jam session, or “descarga,” called “No Hace Falta Papel” (No paper/sheet music needed here). Chombo Silva supplies the great tenor solo.

Eddie Palmieri, the final mambo king featured today, is entering his sixth decade as a pianist, arranger, and bandleader. We hear a 1997 love song to Puerto Rico simply because of what Puerto Rico has been going through since the hurricane. It’s Eddie’s tribute to the beauty of the island.

We wrap it up with Cuba’s Orquesta Akokán, named after the Yoruba word for “from the heart” or “from the soul.” The 16-piece outfit of virtuoso Cuban musicians was pulled together by the powerful Cuban singer José “Pepito” Gómez. The group collaborated with producer Jacob Plasse and arranger Mike Eckroth on this record celebrating mambo classics. The musicians were knocked out by the sophistication of Eckroth’s charts; they’d never heard of the New Yorker. This is the first record of Afro-Cuban music to come from the Brooklyn-based Daptone Records label, founded by the late Sharon Jones.

I simply love the footage below of a mambo dance contest in the 1950’s at the Palladium Ballroom on 53rd and Broadway in New York. Tito Rodríguez supplies the music and the star dancer is a guy named Cuban Pete. Check out the fashions, too!

Rhythm Planet Playlist for 4/27/18 

  1. Arsenio Rodríguez / “Linda Cubana” /24 Exitos Original/ Ansonia
  2.  Cachao / “Descarga Cubana” / Descarga Cubana / Bela Records
  3. Machito Feat. Graciela / “El Abanico” / El Padrino/ Fania
  4. Beny Moré / “Que Bueno Baila Usted” /  Orquestas Cubanas de Los Años 50 / Reyes/Musica del Sol
  5. Tito Puente / “Ran Kan Kan” / El Rey / Fania
  6. Tito Rodríguez / “Avísale A Mi Contrario” / El Inolvidable / Fania
  7. Pérez Prado / “Mambo No. 5” / Mondo Mambo!/ Rhino/RCA/BMG
  8. The Cesta All Stars / “No Hace Falta Papel” / Mas Mambo Mania / Rhino/BMG
  9. Eddie Palmieri / “Puerto Rico” /Sentido/ Musical Productions
  10. Orquesta Akokán / “Un Tabaco para Elegua” / Orquesta Akokán / Daptone Records
Banner image of Orquesta Akokán by Adrien H. Tillmann