Ramán “Mongo” Santamaria was born in 1922 in Havana’s Jesus María barrio. Originally a violinist as a child, he switched to percussion and dropped out of school to become a professional musician.
He worked at the Tropicana Club in Havana and traveled to Mexico City with the Dámaso Pérez Prado orchestra. Before Fidel Castro came to power, he headed for New York in 1950.
In 1951, Mongo joined the Tito Puente band, with which he recorded two now classic Afro-Cuban percussion albums: Puente in Percussion (1955) and Top percussion (1957). In 1958, Mongo started performing with vibraphone player Cal Tjader, and timbalero Willie Bobo.
In 1960 he traveled to Cuba where he recorded two legendary albums: Mongo in Havana, with Carlos Embale and Merceditas Valdés, and Sabroso, with tres player Andres Echeverría, a.k.a. El Niño Rivera. In 1962, Mongo returned to the United States and began his natural progression towards jazz. In the early 1960s, Afro-Cuban music and San Francisco jazz jams took place at the Treat Street headquarters and studios of Fantasy Records. The jazz axis of this strange revolution was Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaria revolving around the axis were Cal Tjader, Vince Guaraldi, Bola Sete, and others.
Early in 1963, Mongo Santamaria accomplished something that even then was a rarity in the world of American pop music. His band’s instrumental single reached the Top Ten on Billboard Magazine’s official best-seller chart. That song was “Watermelon Man,” a Herbie Hancock song. It had all started one night at a Cuban nightclub in New York City when Hancock sat in with Santamaria’s band. Hancock introduced his new tune to the band and they jammed on it, soon making it a standard piece of their repertoire. Producer Orrin Keepnews heard them play it one night and he rushed them into the recording studio. It was released as a single and it went straight to the No. 10 slot on the pop charts.
In the mid 1970s he returned to his Afro-Cuban music roots. Mongo recorded with the Fania All Stars, in 1977, and one year later he won a Grammy for Best Latin Recording with the album Amanecer.
Mongo’s superb band was joined by Dizzie Gillespie in 1980, to record Summertime. Gillespie was still a formidable trumpeter.
In his final years, Mongo Santamaria established his residence in Miami during the winter months. He died on February 1st, 2003, at the age of 86, victim of a heart failure.
Afro-Cuban Drums (SMC Pro-Arte, 1952)
Drums and Chants – Changó (Vaya, 1954)
Tambores y Cantos (1955)
Yambu: Mongo Santamaria y Sus Ritmos Afro Cubanos (1958)
!Arriba! La Pachanga (Fantasy, 1959)
Afro Roots (Prestige, 1958)
Mongo (Fantasy, 1959)
Our Man in Havana (Fantasy, 1959)
Mongo en la Habana, with Carlos Embale and Merceditas Valdés (1960)
Mighty Mongo (Fantasy, 1962)
Watermelon Man! (Battle, 1963)
Mongo at the Village Gate (Riverside, 1963)
El Bravo! (Columbia, 1964)
La Bamba (Columbia, 1965)
Pussy Cat (Columbia, 1965)
Hey! Let’s Party (Columbia, 1967)
Mongomania (Columbia, 1967)
Soul Bag (Columbia, 1968)
Workin’ On A Groovy Thing (Columbia, 1969)
Stone Soul (Columbia, 1969)
Mongo ’70 ( Atlantic, 1970)
Feelin’ Alright (Atlantic, 1970)
Mongo’s Way (Atlantic, 1971)
Up from the Roots (Atlantic, 1972)
Fuego (Vaya Records, 1972)
Afro-Indio (Vaya Records, 1975)
Skins (Milestone Records, 1976)
Sofrito (Vaya Records, 1976)
Amanecer (Vaya Records, 1977)
A la Carte (Vaya Records, 1978)
Red Hot (Columbia, 1979)
You Better Believe It (1979)
Images (Vaya Records, 1980)
Soy Yo (Concord Jazz Picante, 1987)
Mambo Mongo (Chesky, 1993)
Mongo Returns (Milestone, 1995)
Author: Angel Romero
Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. Angel produced several TV specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World.