Mongo On My Mind, Part I
“ Mongo had a penchant for using lesser known and ”
Ramón “Mongo” Santamaría first captivated my ears in the early 70s. Mongo –as Cubans call those named Ramón– was featured during an abortive concert at the Yankee Stadium in 1973 both with his group and as a special guest in a conga give and take with Ray Barretto and the Fania All Stars. Wound up by their performance in “Congo Bongó”, the expected presentation of the Fania All Stars ended abruptly when the crowd went into the playing field –against clear and obvious instructions to the contrary by the city’s police and the organizers themselves. Even so, when Fania released the misleadingly titled “Fania All Stars: Live at Yankee Stadium” –as it was material mostly recorded at another event at the Coliseo Roberto Clemente in Puerto Rico– many of us salseros discovered Santamaría.
Last month, while attending his funeral at a suburban Florida cemetery, reminiscing about that initial full frontal exposure to Mongo's playing turned out to be consciously therapeutic. Even today, 30 years later, the recall of that sunny, fresh, warm and Mary-Janely-musky Puerto Rican afternoon, smells as minty and thickly smoked as ever. Three adolescents from the Las Lomas suburb of Río Piedras –at the outskirts of San Juan– with an eight track player in a Volkswagen, excellent weed and a freshly pressed Fania All Stars track at hand... the stage was set for a startling close encounter with the Toy Cannon of the tumbadoras.
Indeed, all three of us were taken aback by Santamaría’s performance in that Fania anthem. Whereas we readily recognized Barretto’s playing –as he was the premiere Salsa conga player at the time as well as one of its most important leaders– Santamaría’s sounded primal and foreign. His slap, or seco, for example, came from an open way of hitting the drum –akin to primeval African percussive techniques such as the ones used in some Djembe methods. It had a sense of spacing that is more vocal-like and more air than anyone else’s, although just as dry and powerful. In that regard –and many others as well– he’s as fine an embodiment of ibiano as anyone has ever been. Such rubric defines the Blackest, baddest, deepest sense of Blackness in Afro-Cuban percussion.
The joints kept smoldering while we listened to the deep and vivacious interchange between Mongo, Barretto –and the oft-ignored Manu Dibango in the sax. Our musical intellect and curiosity were aroused by the percussive reverse-vocalese they so ably featured, nay, incarnated! These guys were playing like African singers over the swinging-steady-beated piano montuno of Larry Harlow –co-composer of “Congo Bongó”– and the heated bedrock of both bassist Bobby Valentín and cuatrista Yomo Toro. They were exciting, deep, swinging and full of feeling, tight, with lots of room for improvement, albeit at the risk of loosing both spirit and feeling in the process.
We ended up aghast on the side of a Puerto Rican countryside road, exhausted by that cut. Even more weed whacking was required to recuperate from the pulsating onslaught leftover. You know a musical performance is a killer when all musicians evolve together and bring about the best from each other’s role in wholesome supportive ways. If that energy, mindset and feeling manages to be transmitted to the audience too, you are there dude! Well, we were there alright. We were there with Mongo and the rest of the band happy and excited by such orgasmic driven music. Ever since, Santamaría became a source of pleasure and inquiry.
Although Mongo’s set prior to the aforementioned forfeited Fania All Stars presentation was released under the title Mongo Santamaría–Live at Yankee Stadium, that Jazz was beyond my grasp and interest at the time. Later in life, however, that LP was revisited and properly assimilated when enough maturity allowed for a fuller understanding of its richness. Meanwhile, singer Justo Betancourt and Mongo united for a recording that even today grows in firm and steady value, as all good stocks do. Then and now, it serves as a musical reeducation program, aside from kicking ass! It wasn’t until the 1976 Ubane record, then, that Santamaría was met anew.
Betancourt, a Cuban from Matanzas –albeit thoroughly assimilated to Puerto Rican and Hispanic New York mores– was one of my favorite Salsa singers at the time. He was quite popular throughout all international Salsa markets featuring a blatant street-wise, chauvinistic, inventive, swinging and quite flavorful style of singing. Betancourt’s public image was that of the quintessential barrio womanizing bully. Image was close to reality and –in due course– his vocal cords were damaged because of a fight over a woman whereupon someone stomped his throat. Then, however, the Cuban’s singing was nearing its prime. The sonero’s timing, intonation, delivery and feeling were ideal for a production that –according to author César Miguel Rondón in his influential Salsa: Crónica de la música del Caribe urbano – was conceived by the producers as an unabashed return to “the fundamental style of the Cuban guaracha of the 50s.” The guaracha was a Cuban musical style –akin to the Son– that evolved from its theatre roots in the 19th Century into the dance halls and its lyrics –according to Helio Orovio in his Diccionario de la música cubana – are “generally, picaresque, mocking, satirical. They reflect the times and gather popular issues or humorous events.”
Rondón, nonetheless, mistakenly names the record as Ubané. He also misidentifies Orestes Vilató, Patato Valdez and Bobby Rodríguez as participating musicians –when they apparently didn’t. The noted Venezuelan Salsa authority, however, correctly states that Ubane “was radically different: for the first time an idea was offered of what an authentically Cuban salsa could be and not Cuban music focused from New York salsa, which was the habitual scene” (Emphasis in the original). The album featured deep bad asses from the New York scene such as Julito Collazo, Gonzalo Fernández, Andy González, Marcelino Guerra, Virgilio Martí, Manny Oquendo, Víctor Paz, Barry Rogers and Adalberto Santiago. Hence, this recording produced a fatter, denser, harsher, bolder, Mongo-like sound with attributes that could very well be described as updated old school ; which in turn can also define much of importance in Santamaría’s career as Mongo had a penchant for using lesser known and –at times– extinct rhythms updating them into Jazz, various Hispanic musical modalities, Boogaloo, Funk, etc.
In Ubane Mongo’s spacious and tasteful golpes are highly infectious and extremely effective. Paired with Oquendo’s distinctive style of playing, striking horn arrangements, a sound dunked into several Latin musical periods and styles with its own street markings, intrepid accompaniment and solos, this album is truly unique and a medal of honor in Santamaría’s career. Steve Berríos timbale solo in the opener “Cantándole al amor” and its delicious mambos, the swaying tight onomatopoeic swing of “Kindimbia” with a killer flute solo by Fernández, the romantic macho vocals of Betancourt that work so well in “Miedo” and “No me importa” and such a professional band that can enamor you with the same ardor as they swing, the exoticism and depth of the title cut with a rhythmic base from the mysterious Cuban Abacuá society established by Nigerian slaves in 1836, the hot homage to a percussive predecessor of note called Manana –not “Mañana” as the album credits misprint– and the equally heated “Come candela” with yet another driving wooden flute solo by Fernández, Mongo’s bongo solo in “Vengan pollos” as well as Paz’s trumpet incursions, and the deepest treatment of the Colombian Cumbia in the Salsa repertoire, made this jewel shine around Mongo’s sweaty brow and grand smile.
This celebrated recording also introduced me to Marty Sheller in full force. “Who is he?” I asked in 1976 to some friends. “He plays the piano on 'Cumbia Típica,' arranged five tunes and produced and conducted the LP,” I found myself explaining. The answer didn’t delay much.