Ramón ‘Mongo’ Santamaría Rodríguez was an Afro-Cuban Latin jazz percussionist who brought Afro Cuban and African rhythms into Jazz.
Born in Havana, Cuba, Santamaria grew up with music all around him. His nickname ‘Mongo’, means ‘chief of the tribe’ and anywhere there was music and people having a good time there Mongo was to be found.
His mother wanted him to play the violin, but it was rhythm that always attracted him. Mongo reminisced: “In the neighbourhood we had all kinds of music, mostly from Africa. The music we made dealt with religion and conversation. The drum was our tool and we used it for everything.”
Mongo dropped out of school to work as a musician and by the 1950’s made his way to New York City where he played in Tito Puente’s band for six years.
Mongo was always interested in the link between Afro Cuban and African American music, and whilst playing with Cal Tjader’s band in 1959 he wrote Afro Blue, based on a typical African 6/8 rhythm. The tune became a jazz standard made famous by John Coltrane.
His biggest hit came with Herbie Hancock’s Watermelon man which he re-recorded in 1963, adding a Guajira beat that got everybody dancing. Hancock claimed the beat fitted the tune like a glove fits a hand, and Watermelon man held the top 10 position on the Billboard charts for 6 weeks.
Mongo wanted to be remembered for introducing a music style that included the sound of his African ancestors, Cuban rhythms, American Blues and Jazz and
100 years after his birth in 1917, Mongo is remembered for doing just that.