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.
The Cuban dance team of Carmen and Rolando, who wowed audiences at Havana's famed Tropicana with their virtuosic rumba floor show, would bring Candido to New York in 1946. The full percussion section of two conga drummers could not be taken; Candido alone was chosen for his skill as a quinto playerthe drum soloist who dialogues with the dancers. "When we were at the airport, I brought with me a quinto and a conga and the promoter began to ask me 'Why do you have two drums?' I told him, 'Don't worry, you will see.'" Carmen and Rolando, accompanied by Candido, would be the featured performers in a musical revue called "Tidbits of 1946" at the Plymouth Theater but first would perform at the Cabaret Havana Madrid on 52nd Street and Broadway. In the house was Cuban Anselmo Sacassas' Orchestra, Puerto Rican Catalino Rolon's Orchestra and Mexican trumpeter Charlie Valera's conjunto. In the audience were the comedy team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. What happened next would astound the audience and New York's Latin music community. Carmen and Rolando exploded on to the stage, dancing to the propulsion of an up-tempo guaguanco. It sounded like several drummers simultaneously, but it was all being generated by one man, Candido. As the intensity grew, Candido would mark with the quinto, soloing in his right hand while he accompanied himself playing tumbao (repetitive rhythm) in his left. "The crowd went crazy and Carmen and Rolando began hugging me. The promoter who had asked me what was I going to do with that extra drum came over to me. He smiled and said, 'I see what you mean.'" The musicians surrounding Candido asked him how he had done it. He simply smiled and said, "Out of necessity."
Candido's first record date in New York was with the legendary Machito and The Afro-Cubans. "What impressed me was Machito's band. There was really nothing that you could compare it to in Cuba. They were so far ahead of everyone, very progressive with their combination of jazz and pure Afro-Cuban rhythm." Keeping pace with the forward thinking of Machito, Candido would demonstrate an even more spectacular innovation in percussion at the Apollo in 1950. While appearing with Puerto Rican pianist Joe Loco's (Juan Estevez) band, he was the first to perform on three congas, each tuned to specific pitches. "I had seen the New York Philharmonic perform and paid attention to the timpanist. I thought to myself, I can do the same thing with the congas. I began to tune them to a dominant chord so I could play melodies in my tumbaos and solos."
One of the disciples of the Machito Afro-Cubans was trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, who had been friends with Machito's musical director Mario Bauza
since their days in Cab Calloway
's band back in the late '30s. Gillespie, the first jazz bandleader to utilize a conga drummer, had suffered a tremendous loss with the murder of Chano Pozo in 1948. "He told me to come down to the Downbeat club on West 52nd street to sit in with pianist Billy Taylor
's house trio to play a set and see if I could swing the tumbao to fit in a jazz setting. I did and he told me to meet him, 'Manana,' which means tomorrow in Spanish. So, I came back the next night to the club and played another set thinking he would be there. What I didn't know was that he meant to meet him tomorrow at the train station, that they were going on tour with his big band. The club owner at the Downbeat offered me a one year contract to play with Billy's trio as a featured performer and I accepted. We accompanied everyone that was anyone including Charlie Parker
who used to call me 'Dido.' That was my entrance into the jazz world and I haven't stopped since. When Dizzy got back, his pianist, who was Wynton Kelly
, came looking for me. Wynton is Panamanian and so he began asking me in Spanish what had happened. I told him and he started to laugh out loud. He explained everything to me and then both of us started to laugh. I eventually did tour with Dizzy. I was disappointed that I didn't do that first tour but that association with Billy yielded my first appearance on a jazz recording and the experience of accompanying every star in the jazz world opened the door for me."
By 1952 Candido was being hailed by New York jazz critics as the greatest conga drummer to come from Cuba since Pozo. Candido would become the most visible ambassador of Afro-Cuban percussion of his generation appearing on TV with Duke Ellington on The Drum Is a Woman and the Steve Allen, Pat Boone, Jackie Gleason, Patti Page and Ed Sullivan shows. He's appeared on over 1,000 albums with such artists as Woody Herman
, Lionel Hampton
, Coleman Hawkins
, Tito Puente
, Chico O'Farrill
, Tony Bennett
, Art Blakey
, Stan Getz
, Count Basie
, Buddy Rich
, Elvin Jones
, Ray Charles
, Quincy Jones
, Dexter Gordon
, Stan Kenton
and Charles Mingus
and was the percussionist of choice during the golden age of studio work. Although he just turned a youthful 87, in recent years he has appeared on several Grammy-nominated recordings including his most recent, Inolvidable
(Chesky) a collaboration with legendary vocalist and fellow Cuban, Graciela.
For his contributions to the world of jazz and his place in its history, Candido recently received the highest honor bestowed on a jazz musician by the United States, the title of National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master. It's a fitting tribute to a man who fulfilled the promise of his grandfather Juan, who after a young Candido was scolded by his mother for drumming on the kitchen table, told her, "Leave him alone! You will see. One day he will be famous." Recommended Listening:
Billy Taylor Trio, With Candido
Candido Camero, Candido
Candido, Brujeras de Candido: Candido's Latin McGuffa's Dust
Charles Mingus, Cumbia and Jazz Fusion
Candido Camero/Giovanni Hidalgo/Carlos "Patato" Valdes, Conga Kings
Mambo Allstars Orchestra, 50 Years Of Mambo (A Tribute to Perez Prado)
(Mambo Maniacs, 2002)