Mambo


The Mambo is a musical form and style of dance originating from Cuba. The word mambo is the name of a high priestess in Haitian Voodoo, derived from the language of the African slaves who were imported into the Caribbean.

Stylistic origins:

Cuban son montuno and danzon mixed with American big band swing

Cultural origins:

1940s Cubans in Havana, drawing on Haitian-Cuban influences

Typical instruments:

conga, bongo, timbales, claves, upright bass, piano, trombone, trumpet, saxophone

Mainstream popularity:

Significant in Cuba, sporadic in US and elsewhere, peaking in the 1950s

History

The history of modern mambo begins in 1938, when a danzon called "Mambo" was written by Orestes and Cachao Lopez. The song was a danzon, descended from European ballroom dances like the English country dance, French contredanse and Spanish contradanza, but it used rhythms derived from African folk music. The contradanza had arrived in Cuba in the 18th century, where it became known as danza and grew very popular. The arrival of black Haitians later that century changed the face of contradanza, adding a syncopation called cinquillo (which is also found in another contradanza-derivative, Argentine tango).

By the end of the 19th century, contradanza had grown lively and energetic, unlike its European counterpart, and was then known as danzon. The 1877 song "Las alturas de Simpson" was one of many tunes that created a wave of popularity for danzon. One part of the danzon was a coda which became improvised overtime. The bands then were brass (orquestra tipica), but was followed by smaller groups called charangas.

The most influential charanga was that of Antonio Arcano, who flourished in the late 1930s. It was Arcano's cellist, Orestes Lopez, whose "Mambo" was the first modern song of the genre. His brother, bassist and composer Cachao Lopez, is often described as "the inventor of the mambo".

In the late 1940s, a musician named Perez Prado came up with the dance for the mambo and became the first person to market his music as "mambo". After Havana, Prado moved his music to Mexico, and then New York City. Along the way, his style became increasingly homogenized in order to appeal to mainstream American listeners.

Following in the footsteps of Prado came a wave of mambo musicians, such as Enrique Jorrin. Some experimented with new techniques, such as faster beats and the use of side steps in the dance; this latter innovation formed the foundation of chachacha, and was the result of Jorrin's experimentation. Chachacha was very pop-oriented, especially after Arthur Murray further simplified the dance. Mambo remained popular throughout the United States and Cuba until the 1960s, when a combination of boogaloo and pachanga (both modified forms of mambo) were created.

Some of New York's biggest mambo dancers and bands of the 50s included Augie & Margo Rodriguez, Mambo Aces, Killer Joe Piro, Paulito and Lilon, Louie Maquina, Pedro Aguilar ("Cuban Pete"), Machito, Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez and Jose Curbelo.

By the mid-1950's mambo mania had reached fever pitch. In New York the mambo was played in a high-strung, sophisticated way that had the Palladium Ballroom, the famous Broadway dance-hall, jumping. The Ballroom soon proclaimed itself the "temple of mambo," for the city's best dancers--the Mambo Aces, "Killer Joe" Piro, Augie and Margo Rodriguez, Paulito and Lilon, Louie Maquina and Cuban Pete--gave mambo demonstrations there and made a reputation for their expressive use of arms, legs, head and hands. Augie and Margo became the highest paid dance duo in the world and still dance in Las Vegas 50 years later (2006).

There was fierce rivalry between bands. The bands of Machito, Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez and Jose Curbelo delighted habitues such as Duke Ellington, Bob Hope, Marlon Brando, Lena Horne and Dizzy Gillespie, not to mention Afro-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Upper East-Side WASPs and Jews and Italians from Brooklyn. Class and color melted away in the incandescent rhythm of the music. Even jazz musicians such as Erroll Garner, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins and Sonny Stitt fell under the mambo's charm, as can be heard on the many Latin recordings they made in the 1950's.

In 1954 the cha-cha-cha, a kind of mambo created by the Cuban violinist Enrique Jorrin, a member of the Orquesta America Charanga, swept through Havana and New York. Easier to dance than the mambo, with a squarish beat and a characteristic hiccup on the third beat, it spread to Europe, before being dethroned in the early 1960's by the pachanga and then the boogaloo.

Mambo returned to prominence in the 1995 when Guinness used Perez Prado's track Guaglione in an advertising campaign featuring the dancing of Dublin actor Joe McKinney. The song was released as a single and reached number 2 in the UK charts. In 1999, Lou Bega released a remix of Mambo No. 5, another Prado original, which became a hit across Europe.

Published: 7 January 2005

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