Mongo Santamaria, 1922-2003

Some families pray to God. In our family, we prayed to Mongo Santamaria.

When you grow up in a religiously and politically agnostic household like we did, you take your icons where you can get them. And the biggest of ours was Santamaria. Every Christmas morning my father would wake up before any of us, go to the living room, and put the 1965 Columbia album El Pussy Cat on the turntable, crank up the volume to “full blast” and the house would rock with the latin rhythms of the title track, a song the AMG calls “delightfully absurd”. I can think of no better way to start Christmas Day, and this is a tradition we’ll keep alive for generations.

Mongo Santamaria died Saturday at age 85 of a stroke. Rolling Stone says he was considered”one of the most influential percussionists of his generation.” PopMatters calls him “Cuba’s conguero extraordinaire.” On Christmas mornings we didn’t know any of that, of course; we just knew that our eccentric father with broad musical tastes was up to his hijinks again. And we revelled in it.

Mongo Santamaria will be missed.


hisashi nakamura's picture
hisashi nakamura on February 6, 2003 - 07:34 Permalink

very sorry to hear about his passing. ‘watermelonman’ is the big hit by herbie hancock but it ws also the we-known tune by mongo. who invented this tune, heribe or mongo?

Oliver Baker's picture
Oliver Baker on February 7, 2003 - 05:26 Permalink

The tune was Herbie’s and existed before Mongo, but my sense is that in jazz it’s the arrangement that counts as much as anything. I heard Herbie Hancock in an interview on the radio telling about the origin of the Mongo version of watermelon man. Mongo was visiting and somebody suggested to Herbie that he play watermelon man for him. Herbie thought that was a stupid idea, but he did, and with Mongo jumping in it was (I don’t know how subtly) transformed into the tune that became a hit. Even though I heard that Herbie wrote it before collaborating with Mongo, I didn’t catch whether he had recorded it. It may be that the first published arrangement was a colaboration.

Chlo's picture
Chlo on June 28, 2005 - 10:39 Permalink

Don’t forget that watermelonman was rewrote by Harvey Mason for the 1972 version, with reference in pigm