Vail Jazz: How the conga became an important part of jazz
Inside the Vail Jazz Festival
In 1917, Ramon Santamaria Rodriquez was born into poverty in Havana, Cuba. Nicknamed “Mongo” (a tribal chief in Senegal), he began playing the conga drum at an early age and as a teen, Mongo Santamaria (as he was known) dropped out of school to become a professional musician. A long musical journey followed and by 1950 he had settled in New York City, where he played in the bands of Latin jazz luminaries Perez Prado, Tito Puente and Cal Tjader. In 1958, he recorded his first album and the next year he wrote “Afro Blue,” a tune that eventually became a jazz standard.
A sidebar here … in the 1950s, the audience for Latin (Afro-Cuban) jazz was relatively small in the U.S., with the early fans of the music being dancers who wanted to mambo (which has morphed into today’s salsa), a dance craze that swept the U.S. in the ’50s.
For many of the dancers, it was their first exposure to conga drums and it wasn’t long before conga dance lines were mandatory at weddings and Ricky Ricardo (Desi Arnaz) was on television as the conga-playing husband of Lucille Ball in “I Love Lucy.”
What makes a conga drum
The conga drum (tumbadora in Cuba) is tall and narrow with a conical barrel shape and a drum head on top with an open bottom. There are many different sized drums but all are generically known as conga drums. The drum originated in Africa, where ancestors of Cuban slaves played it in religious ceremonies. Initially played individually, today congueros (conga players) play two or more at the same time, using their fingers and palms (and sometimes their elbows) to create the polyrhythms that are fundamental to Afro-Cuban jazz.
One of the distinguishing components of Afro-Cuban jazz is the instruments employed by the percussionists. In the U.S., there is usually one drummer with a drum kit (drums, cymbals and maybe a wood block, cow bell and tambourine), but in Cuban jazz there are multiple percussionists, playing not only a drum kit, but also congas, bongos, timbales, clave, guiro, maracas, shekere and many more. Since rhythm is one of the essential ingredients of jazz — whether American or Afro-Cuban — the difference in instrumentation is significant and can be explained by the fact that the slaves in Cuba were allowed to play their tribal instruments, while the slaves in the South were generally denied the right to play drums. So the American jazz tradition evolved with less emphasis on percussive elements.
In 1962, Mongo was 45 years old and a relatively unknown conguero, but that all changed one night when he played a gig with a young substitute pianist, Herbie Hancock, and they played Hancock’s new composition, “Watermelon Man.” The small audience went ballistic and Mongo sensed he had a potential hit on his hands, which he quickly recorded. The tune became a top 10 pop hit and placed Mongo in the spotlight for the first time, a position he would occupy for the next 30 years. During that period, he recorded seven Grammy Award-nominated albums, including one winner, traveled the international jazz festival circuit and became a world famous conguero. In the process, he fused the Afro-Cuban music traditions of his youth with American jazz, rhythm and blues, rock and soul from his adopted country, creating a “Latin groove” that was the beginning of the boogaloo era. Mongo popularized the conga drum to the point where it is now played in many different musical genres throughout the world. He truly was “Chief of the Congueros.”
Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of Vail Jazz, the presenter of the annual Vail Jazz Festival each summer and an annual Winter Jazz Series, both of which feature internationally renowned artists. In addition, Vail Jazz presents educational programs throughout the year with a special focus on young musicians and young audiences. Many of Vail Jazz’ performances and educational programs are presented free of charge. This column is readapted from the original archived edition, republished to commemorate Vail Jazz’ 25th anniversary season in 2019. For information about upcoming performances, visit http://www.vailjazz.org.