The full title of this article by Bobby Sanabria (WBGO) is “Deep Dive: A Toast to Candido, Who Holds the Key to Conga Drumming, As He Turns 99.” It is a tribute to Cuban percussionist Candido Camero. See full article at WBGO.
Candido Camero, pioneering percussionist, was born in Havana, Cuba on April 22, 1921. In celebration of his 99th birthday, WBGO is proud to publish a Deep Dive by our own Bobby Sanabria, host of Latin Jazz Cruise.
On July 4, 1946, the dance team of Carmen and Rolando arrived in New York City from their native Cuba. Stars on the island, they were the featured attraction at La Habana’s famous Tropicana night club, where they would thrill tourists with their rumba floor show. These spectacular presentations highlighted a tradition that was born in the solares (tenements), but that had by the 1940s been adapted to a nightclub setting for tourists.
The rumba, born of the fusion of southern Spanish song and dance with West African-rooted drumming, has deep roots in the cities of La Habana and Matanzas. Its earliest form — the slow Yambú, which was and still is played on cajónes (empty wooden crates) that dock workers would utilize as substitutes for drums in the late 19th century, when drumming was outlawed on the island — accompanies a male and female figure dancing, mimicking the movements of a rooster and a hen.
The next step in the rumba’s evolution became known as guaguancó. Its tempo is brighter, with a percussive melody played by congas that accompanies the visual dialogue between a male and female dancer. Its vocals represent Cuba’s cultural fusion between Spain, Africa and the Middle East. Finally, there’s the up-tempo colúmbia from Matanzas, with its virtuosic display of solo male dance and drumming. Altogether, the rumba is a rich tradition that has spawned generation after generation of virtuosic Cuban hand drummers.
One of those drummers came to New York with Carmen and Rolando as their accompanist. Not only would he spark a successive wave of soon-to-become-legendary conga drummers that would begin arriving from Cuba to the States, but he would also revolutionize the way the instrument is played by developing the techniques that everyone utilizes when they play congas today.
His name is Candido Camero Guerra, and he was born 99 years ago today, on April 22, 1921, in the barrio of Havana known as El Cerro. “My barrio in La Habana, El Cerro, has its own saying, El Cerro tiene la llave,” he says. “‘El Cerro has the key.’ Cerro means ‘hill,’ but in this case it’s also short for ‘cerrejo,’ which means a latch. So people from there say we have the key to the latch.”
The same could be said of Candido and his relationship to conga drumming. An innovator on his instrument, an NEA Jazz Master, and one of the most widely recorded percussionists in jazz, he has been on a first-name basis with several generations of musicians and fans.
My own relationship with him goes back to 1980, when we both played a lunchtime concert at the World Trade Center, in the orchestra of famed Cuban pianist Marco Rizo. Over the 40 years since, we’ve played together literally hundreds of times, and become close friends. (The quotes in this article come from our conversations over the years, translated from Spanish.)
Candido — “The name means candid, simple, purity, white, innocence” — came from a musical brood. Most members of his family played a variety of instruments. “But except for a few,” Candido explains, “most of them were really amateurs.”
Music was always a central feature of the birthday parties for Candido’s six uncles from his mother’s side of the family. “We had a huge house,” he says.
It had a living room, a separate dining room and about five bedrooms with a large open-air patio in the back. My uncles lived there, and as each one would get married, they began leaving. My grandmother always celebrated their birthdays by hiring a charanga orchestra (a Cuban dance band with violins and flute), and they would play in the living room. I remember them well, it was called Orquesta Cartaya, named after the leader who was a violinist. During their breaks, everyone would move to the patio, where the rumba would start. It was non-stop music all day into the evening.
Candido embarked on his journey as musician at age four. “My first inspiration was my Uncle Andrés,” he recalls. “He was the bongocero of the Septeto Segundo Naciónal. Alfredo León was the leader and tres player (the mandolin-like guitar of Cuba). He was the son of another famous Cuban singer, Bienvenido León. The musicians were from the famous Septeto Naciónal de Ignacio Piñiero.”
When asked why this group was formed, Candido erupts in laughter: “Let’s just say that the musicians didn’t get along with Piñiero.” During this time, the son was becoming the rage in La Habana, slowly over taking the sedate, elegant danzón in popularity. The son originated in the eastern part of the island (Oriente) and came to Havana in the late 1890s, bringing a fusion of Spanish-influenced harmonic and melodic content and the West African-rooted clave rhythms, with its emphasis on the bongó. By the 1920s, it was taking Havana by storm.
My uncle would take me to see all the great son groups at the time. I would go to the rehearsals of La Naciónal Juvenil. The bongócero there was a guy named Abuelito. Tremendous! It was funny, because in those days you literally had to go the local precinct to get a permit so you could rehearse during the day or throw a party at someone’s house. You see, it was technically considered an infringement on the neighborhood because you would be making noise. You had to let the neighbors know, then go to the police and get permission. It was even more hilarious when the then-president of Cuba, Machado, outlawed the use of the bongó. He considered it a ‘primitive’ instrument, but that was just an excuse. He was offended by some of the double-meaning soneos (improvs) that soneros (singers of son) would make up about him and his administration.
Candido’s precociousness would lead him to constantly drum on tables in the house, earning frequent scoldings from his mother, who feared he would hurt his hands. Luckily, his maternal grandfather, Juan, would intercede. “‘Leave him alone!’, he would tell my mother. ‘You will see. One day he will be famous.’” [. . .]
[Above: Candido Camero performs on a World Music Institute concert at Symphony Space in New York, April 19, 2008. JACK VARTOOGIAN / GETTY IMAGES.]