Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

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(b Ramón Santamaría, 7 April 1922, Havana, Cuba; d 2 February 2003) Latin percussionist (primarily conga drums), bandleader, composer. His obituary said he was 85 years old. His grandfather was born in Africa; always called Mongo, he later learned that the word means 'chief of the tribe' in Senegalese. He studied violin, but his first love was drums, inspired by Chano Pozo. He dropped out of school to play congas; spent five years in the opulent clubs of pre-Castro Havana and went to Mexico City in 1948 with his cousin Armando Peraza; they arrived in NYC in the late 1940s, billed as the Black Cuban Diamonds. He played with NYC's first charanga led by flautist/ saxist/ composer Gilberto Valdés (b 21 May 1904, Jovellanos, Matanzas province, Cuba; d 12 May 1972, NYC), joined Pérez Prado for a short spell, then Tito Puente '51-7; meanwhile recorded music derived from Afro-Cuban religious cults: Tambores Afro Cubanos on SMC and Changó '55 on Tico (reissued '78 on Vaya as Drums And Chants); joined Cal Tjader's group '58 for three years with percussionist Willie Bobo. His own LPs on Fantasy were Yambú and Mongo '58-9, latter the including 'Afro Blue' (became jazz standard), both LPs later combined in Afro Roots '72 on Prestige; also Our Man In Havana, Mongo In Havana 'Bembé' (coupled in CD reissue Our Man In Havana '93), Sabroso!, Pachanga With Joe Loco (reissued as half of the CD Loco Motion '94), Arriba! La Pachanga, Más Sabroso, Viva Mongo!, Mighty Mongo (a superb live set by a Latin jazz octet coupled with previous LP in CD reissue At The Blackhawk '94), Mongo y La Lupe, aka Mongo Introduces La Lupe with Cuban vocalist La Lupe (1939-92) '60-63.

He recorded fusions of Latin, R&B, jazz, soul, hiring musicians like Chick Corea and Hubert Laws; had a top ten hit with Herbie Hancock tune 'Watermelon Man' '63 on the Battle label: the album Watermelon Man included the single's B side 'Don't Bother Me No More', also 'Yeh Yeh', covered for UK chart hit by Georgie Fame; packaged with Mongo At The Village Gate on Battle plus 'Para Ti' (recorded at the Village Gate, from Riverside LP Mongo Explodes) to make The Watermelon Man '73 on Milestone; Skins '76 on Milestone combined his first and last Riverside LPs: Go, Mongo! '62 and Mongo Explodes '64, latter with Nat Adderley on some tracks. Success led to Columbia (CBS) contract, LPs El Pussy Cat, La Bamba, El Bravo (an isolated típico outing), Hey! Let's Party, Mongo Mania (including 'Mongo's Boogaloo'), Explodes At The Village Gate, Soul Bag, Stone Soul, Workin' On A Groovy Thing (incl. top 40 cover '69 of 'Cloud Nine', hit by the Temptations), All Strung Out '65-70: most of these made the USA pop LP chart, making Mongo the most successful Latin musician of the decade. He switched to Atlantic for Feelin' Alright and Mongo '70, which also charted; Mongo's Way '71 included Israel 'Cachao' López on bass, also Peraza, as did Mongo At Montreux '71; Up From The Roots '72 had one side of Afro-Cuban music, the other conjunto.

He went to the Vaya label (a Fania stablemate) for Fuego '73, Mongo Santamaría Live At Yankee Stadium '74 (on the same bill as Fania All Stars, with whom he also guested, live and studio tracks on FAS's Latin-Soul-Rock '74), Afro-Indio '75, Mongo y Justo 'Ubane' '76 with Justo Betancourt (another rare típico digression), Sofrito '77, then Dawn (Amanecer) '77 (the first Fania album to win a Grammy), A La Carte '78; Mongo Mongo '78 was a compilation on Vaya prepared by Al Santiago, Red Hot '79 on CBS UK. Images '80 was his Vaya finale; Summertime '81 on Pablo was made live at Montreux with Dizzy Gillespie, Toots Thielemans; Mongo Magic '83 appeared on Roulette; Free Spirit '85 on Tropical Budda. To Concord Picante for Soy Yo, with guest Charlie Palmieri on 'Mayeya' (Yoruban religious chant co-written by Santamaría), Soca Me Nice, Olé Ola, Live At Jazz Alley '87-90. He performed on Mambo Show '90 (recorded mid-'80s) by Tropical Budda All-Stars including Palmieri, José 'Chombo' Silva, Barry Rogers, Johnny 'Dandy' Rodríguez and Nicky Marrero. He joined Tito Puente's Golden Latin Jazz All Stars (including Paquito D'Rivera, Dave Valentín, Hilton Ruiz, Andy González and Mario Rivera, among others) for 'Live' At The Village Gate '92 and 'In Session' '94, both on Tropijazz, and performed with Puente and 'The Golden Men of Latin Jazz' at London's Royal Festival Hall '93. Mambo Mongo '93 was on Chesky; Watermelon Man '95 made at Birdland '92. He guested on his own tribute album, Conga Blue '96 on Concord by Poncho Sánchez, which reprised his hits. Six of his albums received Grammy nominations '75-85. Other gigs with FAS included Live At Yankee Stadium Vol. 2 '75, film footage seen in Salsa (also soundtrack album).

His cousin Armando Peraza (b c.30 May 1924, Havana; d 14 April 2014, San Francisco), also a Latin purcussionist, also had a successful career, including long associations with George Shearing and Carlos Santana.