Preview of the 23rd Annual Vail Jazz Festival: Chief of the Congueros |

Preview of the 23rd Annual Vail Jazz Festival: Chief of the Congueros

Mongo Santamaria developed a unique sound and phrasing on the congas, making it big in 1962 with his composition "Watermelon Man." He would remain in the spotlight for the next 30 years.
Special to the Weekly |

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What: Vail Jazz joins Vail Symposium to present professor Michael Davison and members of Afro-Cuban band ¡Cubanismo! in a performance and demonstration of the fundamentals of Afro-Cuban jazz.

Where: Sonnenalp Hotel, Vail.

When: Wednesday, Aug. 9, 6:30 p.m.

Cost: $40.

More information: Visit

What: ¡Cubanismo! concert.

Where: Jazz Tent at Vail Square, Lionshead.

When: Thursday, Aug. 10, 6 p.m.


More information: Visit

In 1917, Ramon Santamaria Rodriquez was born into poverty in a slum in Havana, Cuba. Nicknamed “Mongo” (a tribal chief in Senegal) by his father, he began to play the violin but switched to drums at an early age, settling on the conga drum as his primary instrument.

As a teen, Mongo Santamaria (as he was known) dropped out of school hoping to become a professional musician and began a long journey that would take him from the slums of Havana to Mexico City and finally, in 1950, to New York City.

Fame, if it happens at all, doesn’t happen overnight. Mongo had to pay his dues.

During the 1950s, he played in the bands of Latin jazz luminaries Perez Prado, Tito Puente and Cal Tjader and in 1958 recorded his first album. The next year, he wrote “Afro Blue” — a tune that eventually became a jazz standard.

As an aside, 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 1950s. 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 TV as the conga playing husband of Lucille Ball in “I Love Lucy.”

In The Spotlight

By late 1962, Mongo was 45 years old and was regularly fronting his own band. He had developed a unique sound and phrasing on the congas, but Mongo was still a relatively unknown conguero (conga player). But on a fateful night, his regular piano player couldn’t make a gig in the Bronx and instead a young substitute, Herbie Hancock, sat in and the band played his new composition, “Watermelon Man.”

The small audience went ballistic and Mongo sensed he had a potential hit on his hands, which he quickly recorded and the tune became a Top 10 pop hit. The success of “Watermelon Man” 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 nominated albums, won one, traveled the international jazz festival circuit and became an internationally famous conguero.

One of the distinguishing components of Afro-Cuban jazz, when compared to its American cousin, is best illustrated by comparing the instruments regularly employed by the percussionists in each genre. In the U.S. there is usually one drummer with a drum kit (drums, cymbals and maybe a wood block, cow bell and tambourine). In Cuban jazz there are multiple percussionists, playing not only a drum kit, but also playing 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 slaves in the South were generally denied the right to play drums and the American jazz tradition evolved with less emphasis on percussive elements.


To celebrate Mongo’s 100th birthday, Vail Jazz joins the Vail Symposium at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday at the Sonnenalp Hotel to present professor Michael Davison and members of the internationally famous Afro-Cuban band ¡Cubanismo! in a performance and demonstration of the fundamentals of Afro-Cuban jazz.

At 6 p.m. on Thursday, Vail Jazz presents the entire 11-piece power of ¡Cubanismo! in concert in the Jazz Tent at Vail Square in Lionshead Village. Lastly, as part of the Labor Day Weekend Jazz Party, Vail Jazz presents the Tommy Igoe Sextet’s Tribute to Mongo and More on Sept. 4.

Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of the Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Celebrating its 23rd year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summerlong celebration of jazz. Visit for more information.

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