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
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.