Cándido Camero, Conga Master Who Transformed Jazz, Dies at 99

He brought Afro-Cuban influences to American ensembles and dazzled audiences with his virtuosic multiple-drum technique.

A report by Neil Genzlinger for The New York Times.

“When you talk about percussion, particularly the evolution of conga playing, you’re talking about two periods — before Cándido and after Cándido,” the Grammy-nominated percussionist and bandleader Bobby Sanabria said on Friday, having just attended a memorial service for Cándido Camero, who died on Nov 7 at 99. “His contributions were literally game changing.”

Mr. Camero — just Cándido to most fans and fellow musicians — took brought his Afro-Cuban musical influences to the United States from Cuba in the middle of the last century and brought a new dimension to both Latin music and jazz. He played multiple conga drums simultaneously, something new at the time, and introduced other innovations as he performed with top names like Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Kenton.

“More than any other Latin percussionist of his generation, Cándido succeeded in making the sound of the conga drum a standard coloration in straight-ahead jazz rhythm sections,” Raul A. Fernandez, emeritus professor of Chicano and Latin studies at the University of California, Irvine, who wrote about Mr. Camero in “From Afro-Cuban Rhythms to Latin Jazz” (2006), said by email.

Mr. Sanabria, in an email interview, rattled off Mr. Camero’s list of innovations:

“He developed coordinated independence as applied to the congas and bongo — being able to keep a steady rhythm with one hand while soloing with the other. He was the first to develop the techniques to play multiple percussion instruments simultaneously, sounding like three or four players. He was the first to tune multiple congas to specific pitches so he could play melodies on them, and he was an inventor as well. In 1950 he created the first device for a player to be able to play a cowbell with one’s foot.”

The National Endowment for the Arts, which designated Mr. Camero a Jazz Master in 2008, posted news of his death, at his home in New York.

Cándido Camero was born on April 22, 1921, in Havana to Cándido Camero and Caridad Guerra. His father worked at a factory that made soda bottles, and his mother was a homemaker.

He said he began drumming when he was 4, pounding on empty condensed milk cans, tutored by an uncle who played the bongos. He also learned to play the bass and the tres, a Cuban stringed instrument.

By 14 he was playing professionally. In an interview for the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Program in 1999, Mr. Camero described the precautions his father had taken to keep him on the straight and narrow.

“As soon as I came home, my dad would say, ‘Say ha,’” he recalled. “And I said, ‘Ha ha.’ And then he’d say: ‘Only one ha is needed. One is enough.’ He wanted to smell my breath to see if I had been drinking.”RACE/RELATED: A deep and provocative exploration of race, identity and society with New York Times journalists.Sign Up

In the 1930s and ’40s, Mr. Camero played one instrument or another in a variety of groups, performing in nightclubs and street parades and on the radio. For years he was part of the orchestra at the Tropicana nightclub in Havana.The Year’s ObituariesRemembering Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John Lewis, Kobe Bryant, Chadwick Boseman, Kirk Douglas, Little Richard, Mary Higgins Clark and many others who died this year.Notable Deaths 2020

A job backing the dance duo Carmen and Rolando proved to be pivotal. He had accompanied them in performances throughout Cuba when the act was invited to the United States in 1946. In Cuba they had performed with two percussionists, one of whom played bongos while Mr. Camero played the quinto, a drum with a higher-pitch than that of the standard conga. The travel budget, though, allowed for only one percussionist; they took Mr. Camero. And he introduced a new flourish.

“I said, ‘OK, I’m going to try something to see if you like it and if it works,’” he recalled in the oral history. “And they said, ‘What is it?’ I say, ‘Well, I’m going to surprise you.’ Then I brought the conga and a quinto. At showtime, I began to play the rhythm with my left hand on the conga and to do what the bongo player was supposed to do with my right hand on the quinto, to mark the steps when they were dancing. That was the first idea, the low drum and the quinto at the same time.”

Mr. Camero at a Lincoln Center Out of Doors concert in 2006, two years before the National Endowment for the Arts designated him a Jazz Master.
Mr. Camero at a Lincoln Center Out of Doors concert in 2006, two years before the National Endowment for the Arts designated him a Jazz Master.

The tour opened up numerous opportunities for Mr. Camero in the United States — with the pianist Billy Taylor’s trio, the bands of Gillespie and Kenton, and others. He soon settled in New York, and he kept on innovating.

By 1952 he was playing three congas at once and tuning them in such a way that he could carry a melody. When he would solo with Kenton’s orchestra in the mid-1950s, he added adornments that made him a virtual one-man band.

“I used the conga, bass drum and hi-hat to carry the rhythm by myself instead of the drum set,” he explained, “accompanying myself rhythmically at the same time that I took my conga solo.”

He adapted these dazzling techniques to a range of bandleaders and musical styles, and he, in turn, influenced those styles.

“To me,” Professor Fernandez said, “his greatest contribution was establishing the conga drum as an integral, if not essential, component of the modern straight-ahead jazz percussion scheme and securing a place for the ‘Latin tinge’ among the many rhythmic tinges available to the modern jazz drummer.”

His versatility landed Mr. Camero in countless recording sessions.

“His complete list of recordings as a sideman is awesome,” Professor Fernandez said. “Woody Herman, Art Blakey, Ray Charles, Kenny Burrell, Erroll Garner, Stan Getz, Count Basie — the list is rather long.” Mr. Sanabria said that Mr. Camero had more than 1,000 recording credits, including numerous albums as a leader.

In addition to recording numerous albums as a leader, Mr. Camero worked as a sideman with Ray Charles, Stan Getz, Count Basie and countless others.
In addition to recording numerous albums as a leader, Mr. Camero worked as a sideman with Ray Charles, Stan Getz, Count Basie and countless others.

During a 1999 performance at Birdland in Manhattan at which Mr. Sanabria was leading one of his large ensembles, he brought out Mr. Camero for a guest appearance. Peter Watrous, reviewing the performance in The New York Times, made it sound as if Mr. Camero had stolen the show.

“Mr. Camero has access to the divine,” Mr. Watrous wrote, “and when he began to play, the music changed. He uses several tuned conga drums, and he began by playing melodies carefully. His playing makes sense, it has cadences, and it starts and finishes logically. And he swings.”

Mr. Camero was still performing in his mid-90s. His survivors include a daughter, Emerita Camero Dradenes, and a grandson.

Mr. Sanabria summed up Mr. Camero’s career succinctly: “Every percussionist working today, in any context, owes a debt of gratitude to him.”

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