By Bobby Sanabria
At the youthful age of 87, NEA Jazz Master Candido Camero has indeed led a full life with no signs of slowing down. While still maintaining a busy schedule of performing and traveling, "The Man of a Thousand Fingers" is still wowing audiences the world over as a shining example of youthful vigor, excellence and originality. In fact, there isn't a conga player today that doesn't play something that Candido didn't do first. His innovations in terms of coordinated independencethe first to play two and three conga drums; melodic playing and multi-percussion like playing guiro, a foot bell and three congas simultaneouslyhave set a standard that still stands.
"My first inspiration was my Uncle Andres. He was the bongocero of the Septeto Segundo Nacional." During this time the son clave was becoming the rage in Havana, slowly overtaking the sedate, elegant danzon in popularity. Born in the eastern part of the island (Oriente) and eventually coming to Havana in the late 1890s, the son, with its fusion of Spanish- influenced harmonic and melodic content, West African-rooted clave-driven rhythms and emphasis on the bongo, was taking Havana by storm in the '20s and '30s. "My uncle Andres asked me if I wanted to learn how to play 'el bongo' and of course I said yes," recalled Candido. "He went and took two cans of condensed milk, put skins on them and put them together. That was my first instrument."
Although Candido is most associated with the conga drum, it would be the last instrument he would learn how to play. At this time the legendary blind virtuoso of the tres (Cuban mandolin), Arsenio Rodriguez, would revolutionize the way the son would be played. Usually performed by a septeto of bongo, guitar, tres, acoustic bass, sonero (lead vocalist who also played claves), segunda voz (second voice who would also play maracas and/or guiro) and trumpet with a straight mute, it would be radically changed by Arsenio whose sobriquet was El Ciego Maravilloso (The Marvelous Blind One). He replaced the guitar with piano, added a second, then third and sometimes fourth trumpet with written arrangements and included a conga drummer regularly. Arsenio's written arrangements, giving specific parts to his trumpets and layering line against line to create tension and release in the montuno (vamp) section, created the mambo horn concept.
Thus Candido made a life-changing decision. "I saw Arsenio's group and saw the writing on the wall. I didn't read music and I knew that the groups would all start to convert from the septeto to the conjunto format. In the conjuntos they started to use arrangements and I couldn't read music. I figured I wouldn't be able to keep up as a tresero or bassist. I had played congas ever since I was kid when I would participate at the rumbas in my home. I was 25 years old and I decided that I would begin to concentrate on playing congas and bongos professionally."
Havana's nightlife was in full swing. The hotels and numerous cabarets were fueled by the mob- controlled money of American gangsters, providing an abundance of work for musicians. Large radio stations like Radio Progresso and CMQ had staff big bands to perform live on the air and accompany musical guests. Candido's fame would soon spread as he performed at such famed venues as the Cabaret Montmartre, El Faraon, El Sans Souci and all of Cuba's major radio stations. This included six-year stints with both the CMQ Radio Orchestra and the famed Tropicana Orchestra. Candido states, "...the musicians at that time. We all were affected by jazz. We had great drum set players at all the cabarets and radio stations: Salvador Admiral, Daniel Perez, Walfredo De Los Reyes and Guillermo 'Barrettico' Barretto." "Barrettico" once subbed for Buddy Rich in his own band when he came to Cuba in 1955. The drum set players Candido worked with inspired him to develop something that would revolutionize conga drumming.