|Baltimore Jazzine publisher, Tamm E Hunt interviewing Dwight Brewster click on photo
Let’s Talk about the “Mambo”
People continually argue about the difference
between Mambo and Salsa. Some say they are the same thing. Others
say Salsa is something you eat! Still others think Salsa is a generic
label for all different types of “Latin” music. If you listen to
the early Mambo of Tito Puente, Machito, Beny More, Tito Rodriguez as well as many other greats who started playing
before 1960 you’ll hear a certain sound, then listen to some of the newer folks on the block, you'll find a distinction
easily enough. Is the new “better”? Hmm, perhaps a look at how we got to this point in the music and discuss who
is who is in order.
Of African and European parentage, the Mambo
is the result of a long cross cultural journey, an example of the kind of sensual alchemy which is a specialty of the Caribbean. Mambo,
Conga and Bongo were originally Bantu names for musical instruments that were used in rituals and gradually
became secular. Mambo means "conversation with the gods" and in Cuba
designates a sacred song of the Congos,
Cubans of Bantu origin. The Congos have
absorbed a variety of foreign influences and the mambo is a delicious cocktail of Bantu, Spanish and Yoruba. Despite its strong African resonance, the Mambo also can be traced back to an unexpected source, English
country dance, which in the seventeenth century became the contredanse at the French court and later the Contradanza
In the eighteenth century the contradanza
reached Cuba where it was known as Danza
and became the national dance. Its hold grew with the arrival of the planters and their slaves who fled from Haiti after it became independent. The Haitian blacks added
a particularly spicy syncopation to it called the cinquillo, which is also found in the tango, itself derived
from the Contradanza. Gradually other black elements found their way into the contradanza, some titles of which reflect this
blending are "Tu Madre es Conga" ("Your mother is Congo"), which was played in 1856 in Santiago de Cuba at an aristocratic
ball in honor of General Concha, and "La Negrita."
From the beginning of Jazz musicians in the
USA have been incorporating these rhythms
into their own music. In 1900, W.C. Handy visited Cuba and began our legacy
of Latin jazz here in the USA. Louis Armstrong,
Jelly Roll Morton, James P. Johnson, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie "Bird" Parker, Stan Getz and Cal Tjader have all followed the
tradition by blending and evolving Latin jazz. Gillespie added a Cuban drummer named Chano Pozo to his band in 1938 and they
began to compose together. This collaboration plus advances in recording technology
after WW2 started a “great leap forward” for the music.
Even the less esoteric forms of music in the
USA have sampled Latin rhythms and incorporated
them with great success. Sam Cooke, The Diamonds, Johnny Otis, Elvis Presley, Bo Diddley and Nat King Cole all helped popularize
Latin music with hits containing elements from Cuban music. Gloria Estefan is one of the most well-known contemporary performers
who popularize Latin music in the USA.
She has very successfully blended English lyrics and rock and roll R&B style with her Cuban musical heritage. To find the roots of Cuban music we have to look to West Africa where
the slave trade thrived. The Yoruba, Congo
and other West African people created rhythms in ancient times to call forth various gods. Sadly, these wonderful rhythms
were brought over to the New World under dire circumstances.
One drummer (research leads me to believe
his name was Ijibwa) was taken captive and placed on a slave ship for America.
He was forced to play on deck to keep up the spirits of the prisoners so that the "merchandise" would arrive alive. The slaves used the drum rhythms in Christian worship too. Slaves were forced to adopt Christianity upon
arrival in the new World, but often called their own gods by Christian names so as to avoid punishment. A similar practice
was the progenitor of the "Yo Mama is so..." jokes in existence today among African-Americans.” Mama" was actually a
code word for "Master." Hardly anyone telling these jokes today remembers what
"Mama" actually stood for in slave times.
In Latin music of today most of the listeners
are not even aware that the drum rhythms we dance to are actually religious in meaning, dedicated to various African gods.
Cabillolos (secret societies) still exist in Cuba and the United States and keep alive over 200 different rhythms for
different African gods. With that said: As a “Latin” (Afro Caribbean)
Jazz Musician I noticed quite a bit of resistance to our (Afro American) style of Salsa. As an original member of Willie Colon
and his La Dynamica Orchestra, I’ve been around Salsa a long time.
With a few members of a World Music band I
started in another era we formed a new Orchestra playing a style of Salsa, Jazz and Caribbean
colors we’ve always wanted to play. By strongly following the Jazz tradition of pulling from all types of song material
that has the potential to generate that “swing sound” we’ve grown to love. But then there are the cultural
When this subject is brought up most music
lovers don’t really believe it to be true. I wasn’t dreaming when the owners and directors of the leading Latin
record company of the day said to me “move on to other music” and “don’t try to pursue ANY recording
opportunities playing Salsa music” with their label. Heck I grew up in
the Bronx just like them! My father was a jazz musician who was born in Barbados! Plus the guys who came to jam with my Father at
our house all to a man played the Mambo! But I can’t play the Mambo for
them because I’m an African American? Please any excuse but that
one! I didn’t know at the time I had to change my name to Hernandez or
Diaz to “join the party”? I found out recently through my own research I wasn’t the only one this happened
Dr. Vernon Boggs, researching his book Salsiology
was open to all sources of knowledge and information about our varied Latin (Afro Caribbean) music. That is why he disliked the cultural gatekeepers. Dr. Boggs may or may not have coined the phrase, but
I too always associate the term with him. He introduced the notion of gate keeping in Afro-Cuban and Venezuelan Popular Music’s.
His view of what a cultural gatekeeper is was published in Latin Beat issue Oct.
92. Basically, a cultural gatekeeper is a snob. Dr. Boggs wanted the public to
decide what kind of music they liked to hear, not the people in the music industry who attempt to regulate the public's taste.
For example, according to Boggs, the cultural gatekeepers killed the Latin Boogaloo. There are other cultural gatekeepers
to watch out for, this article only touches upon the topic but is prevalent in other forms of music as well.
Dr. Boggs’ main focus of interest and
perhaps his greatest passion in life was Afro-Hispanic music, more specifically Salsa. This would not be surprising except
for the fact that this Latin music expert was an African-American. Dr. Boggs’
love of the Hispanic culture was evidenced by his desire to learn Spanish and to penetrate the culture in order to pursue
the knowledge he sought. What a better way to connect with the culture than through the music. His biggest pleasure was to
find and then publish a little-known fact, to discover a piece of the salsa puzzle and to offer it to all salsa lovers.
People in the know are very fond of Vernon
Boggs's series of Latin Beat articles, bringing to our attention that many Doo Wop tunes curiously include titles such as
Everybody Loves to Cha Cha and Mambo Baby. Dr. Boggs sang the virtues of the
unsung. His many articles published in Latin Beat magazine presented relatively untouched topics: books on salsa written by
authors from abroad, Latin Ladies and Afro-Hispanic Caribbean Music. The notion
of a musical trans-culture that included African, Swedish and Japanese Salsa bands and dance troops, the lists are endless
One of the reasons I have returned to the
Salsa scene is the music today is a world wide phenomenon. No one group in New York, Miami, Cuba
or wherever can really control Salsa, it’s too big for that. With the assistance of the Internet you the reader now
has a chance to see and hear music that is truly different but still worthy of being called “Salsa.” (For
my example please visit: www.hairezolution.com!)
I didn’t think of all this or try to
play the game like I know it all. However, with the help of the Internet, plus
many of my long time friends and associates have an historical view too. The following are some of the people whom I respect
as experts, this article is based my research and their information:
Tracing the Origins of Salsa Music
Cuban Fire: The Story of Salsa and Latin Jazz
Louis M. Brewster Musical Foundation
Dwight Brewster is a writer/musician/bandleader at large living in Brooklyn, NY. He plays Afro Caribbean Jazz internationally with his band, Hai Rezolution. firstname.lastname@example.org