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Mongo Santamaria Dies

Legendary Cuban percussionist wrote “Afro Blue”

Mongo Santamaria, an internationally renown percussionist, died on
February 1st at a hospital in Miami. The Cuban-born bandleader was
eighty-five.

Santamaria’s propulsive skill as a conguero was a trademark of
more than four decades of recording and performing, and punctuates
his classic 1963 cover of Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man,” an
unlikely, pre-Beatles hit in 1963 that hit Number Ten on the pop
charts. Santamaria may be better known in improvisational circles
as the writer of “Afro Blue,” a beautiful, melodic composition that
worked its way into the repertoire of jazz mainstays from Dizzy
Gillespie to John Coltrane. The latter took a particular shine to
the song, using it as a touchstone for his developing sound: From
early, faithful and pretty interpretations circa 1963 to a 1966
free jazz deconstruction in Japan.

Ramon Santamaria was born in Havana on April 7, 1922. His
professional start came in the city’s legendary Tropicana Club in
his twenties, before moving to New York in 1950. There Santamaria
learned to swim in the deep end of the pool, first performing with
legendary Cuban bandleader and King of the Mambo Perez Prado,
followed by stints with fellow percussionist Tito Puente and
vibraphonist Cal Tjader. Fusing the Latin rhythms that were
practically his birthright with Americanized styles like R&B
and jazz, Santamaria made his first recordings as a bandleader in
the late Fifties with Yambu and Mongo.

With the cover of “Watermelon Man,” Santamaria found himself
garnering the acclaim of his former mentors. He would even visit
the pop charts once again — a feat that, among his mentors, only
Prado ever accomplished — in 1969 with “Cloud Nine.” And he
recorded prolifically through the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties,
before slowing things down last decade. But with the success of
1996’s Buena Vista Social Club album, more eyes turned to
the music of Cuba. Santamaria’s music drew attention four decades
after its start, with the release of several compilations,
including Rhino’s career-spanning, two-CD Skin on Skin: The
Mongo Santamaria Anthology
and Legacy’s The Best of Mongo
Santamaria
, which put a light on his late-Sixties output.

“I have two sons, one’s named Mongo and the other is Tito,”
Grammy-winning Latin percussionist Pancho Sanchez told Rolling
Stone
in 2001. “You know how much you respect a man if you
name your son after him. Everything I do and have done can be
traced back to those two men. They’re my heroes.”

Santamaria will be buried today near Miami.

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