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The centennial of mambo king Pérez Prado

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, a new, fast, and instantly appealing music and dance style swept across the globe: the mambo. The man behind the new sensation was the Cuban pianist, composer, bandleader, and showman Dámaso Pérez Prado. December 2016 we celebrate the centennial of his birth in the city of Matanzas, 100 miles east of Cuba’s capital in Havana.

Mambo fever started with unusually named tunes like “Mambo Number 5,” (rendered in the United States as “Mambo Jambo”), “Mambo Number 8,” and other instrumental compositions with similar nomenclature that moved to the top of the charts in the United States. Meanwhile in Mexico (Prado’s home base at the time), Cuba, and the rest of the Spanish-speaking world, other mambos that included lyrics from the Afro-Cuban traditions became regional favorites. Prado’s choice of the brilliant Cuban vocalist, Benny Moré, helped popularize tunes like “Babarabatiri” and “Anabacoa.” Always attuned to the visual and dance aspects of a new style, Prado featured, performances by the talented and famous Cuban women dancers called rumberas or even exóticas (such as Ninón Sevilla and María Antonieta Pons), both in live shows or in the many Mexican movies in which he participated.

Beyond his mambo tunes, Pérez Prado had an obvious knack for composing and orchestrating other material that became immediately popular around the world. He appropriated in his own particular manner an early 1950s music “craze,” the cha-cha-cha, and produced a novel arrangement of a French tune, “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White,” which became the number one hit on US music charts for 10 consecutive months in 1955. No sooner had the rock-and-roll revolution taken over in the United States than, in 1958 when Prado released “Patricia,” an almost indefinable slow mambo-rock featuring an organ as the lead instrument, for the first time in American pop music. It too reached the number one spot on the pop music charts, and it became something of a classic in American music. Cinema also came to pay respects: Swedish leading screen actress Anita Ekberg danced to “Patricia” in Federico Fellini’s memorable La Dolce Vita.

Prado’s music, in all its expressions, whether commercial or concertos, mambos, or other styles, had the evident qualities of style and rhythm. Everything he composed, everything he did, was full of rhythm.

Often accused of producing nothing except commercial music, Prado had another side to his musical inclinations, composing in the 1950s and 1960s three instrumental concerts. The 1954 “Voodoo Suite” was a four-movement tone poem, a fusion that combined jazz and Afro-Cuban themes. The seven-movement “Exotic Suite of the Americas,” recorded in New York in 1962, did not achieve much recognition in the United States. However, that was not the case in Cuba because the leading documentary filmmaker Santiago Alvarez used the first movement as a theme for the soundtrack of the daily official Cuban government newscast of 16 October 1967, that reported the death of Ernesto “Che” Guevara in Bolivia. Since then, the sound of that movement of the “Exotic Suite,” repeated year after year when Guevara’s death is commemorated, it has become synonymous in the average Cuban’s sonic imaginary with the image of the fallen guerrilla fighter. In 1965, Prado composed and performed live his third concerto, the percussion feast “Concierto para bongo.” As with his earlier hits, it’s difficult to put this music squarely in a box. But again, it made its mark in a film, serving as background music in Pedro Almodovar’s Kiki.

Prado’s star faded in the United States by the early 1960s, but not so in the rest of the world, especially in South America, Europe, and Japan, where he toured more than 20 times in the 1960s and 1970s. And in 1965 Pérez Prado launched another dance rhythm, the dengue, which turned into a huge success in his native Cuba and became emblematic of the 1966 Havana Carnival.

Prado’s music, in all its expressions, whether commercial or concertos, mambos, or other styles, had the evident qualities of style and rhythm. Everything he composed, everything he did, was full of rhythm. The mambo was of course his most memorable accomplishment. As always seems to happen with a successful style, several artists claimed that “they,” not Pérez Prado, had invented the mambo. After his death in 1984, a number of them, here and there, were anointed, or anointed themselves, as the mambo “kings.” My considered opinion is the same as the late, great New York musician Tito Puente when he stated, “For me, like for all musicians in New York and the world, the only mambo king ever was Pérez Prado.”

Featured image credit: “Southernmost Point” by FitzFox. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Pixabay.

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