Introduction and background
Throughout the history of Latin music, there has hardly been anyone who has heard this genre and not been fascinated by its exciting rhythms.
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Latin music, specifically mambo, gained wide recognition among the non-Latin population in the twentieth century and demonstrated a remarkable ability to merge with other genres as well as nurture them in return. Mambo was originally a Cuban musical form that gained popularity in 1940s–1950s due to activities of Cuban musicians and enthusiasm of their American colleagues. The places that hosted mambo dance and music in its golden age were, correspondingly, Havana and New York City.
The mambo music genre demonstrates a unique fusion of international music traditions. Historically, the roots of mambo music can be traced back to three cultures: European, Haitian, and African. The European dance tradition was represented in Cuba by the Spanish genre of contradanza, from which mambo gained its specific bass line (Waxer 141). Contradanza was brought to Cuba in the eighteenth century by Haitian planters of French origin and their slaves who fled from the 1791 Haitian Revolution (Waxer 149).
This originally European dance gradually assimilated elements of local music and evolved into the genre of danzon by the beginning of the twentieth century (Leymarie 40). The several sections of danzon ended with a lively coda usually improvised by the musicians, and each section featured one of the solo instruments of the standard danzon ensemble — a violin, a flute or a clarinet (Waxer 149).
Mostly European in terms of melody, harmony and instrumentation, danzon was performed by black ensembles and therefore gradually acquired specific African rhythmic ‘swing’ (Waxer 149). Both the solo improvisations and the syncopated swing performance manner were inherited and developed in mambo genre later on.
The African roots of mambo reveal themselves in the very name of the genre. African by origin, ‘mambo’ stems from the name of a Bantu sacred drum and means “conversation with the gods” (Leymarie 40). Subsequently, the word was used to designate a part of danzon and only later became a name for a separate musical genre (Waxer 150). Another African connection is traced between mambo and the genre of son. The word son means ‘sound’ in Spanish and refers to a style of music by large based on the Afro-Cuban rumba (Waxer 142).
The two sections of son feature various elements: while in the first section, tema, the song itself is presented, the second section, montuno, is an improvisated dialogue between the soloist and the instruments (Manuel, Bilby, & Largey 46).
In addition to the structure of rumba, son borrowed its rhythmical pattern, slightly altering it but preserving the overall line of the clave (Waxer 143). Afro-Cuban influence on mambo music is also traced through the introduction of a typically rumba drum tumbadoro in the son ensemble by popular Cuban band leader Antonio Rodriguez (Waxer 143).
In addition to popularizing an enlarged son ensemble, Rodriguez ascribed a predefined part to each of its instruments (Manuel, Bilby, & Largey 45). Therefore, the African roots of mambo can be traced on multiple levels, from purely linguistic to musical, including the structural and rhythmical patterns and functions of instruments.
Emergence of mambo and its stylistic characteristics. Although the word mambo had been used for centuries, it was not until the late 1930s when it was first applied to a music genre (Sublette 508). A famous flautist, Antonio Arcano, summoned a band that enjoyed popularity with the public, playing favorite tunes at dance pavilions.
On one evening, the cellist of the group, Orestes Lopez, introduced an especially prolonged improvisation of repeating figures in the coda section of a danzon (Sublette 508). By doing this he actually combined the elements of danzon with those of son, and called it “mambo”. Since then, Arcano would call out for his musicians to start a solo by the phrase “Mil veces mambo!” — “A thousand times mambo!” (Leymarie 40). Thus, the term mambo was born and used in a music performance.
The diversity of mambo pieces at the genre’s peak is hard to reduce to one sample. A leading scholar in Cuban music, Ned Sublette confesses to the difficulty of defining mambo precisely: “It can be instrumental or vocal. It’s an up-tempo, horn-driven dance music, but there are slower mambos. It’s big band music but you can play it with a combo if you must” (Sublette 508).
After the discoveries made by Arcano and Lopez, the kind of big band mambo style that is known today was developed and promoted by one of the most popular musicians of the time, Perez Prado. Prado was the first performer to actually market his musical pieces as a specific music genre of mambo (Levy 1).
One example was that he dressed up mambo pieces in such arrangement that it could not but excite the public. The brassy band sound of trumpets, trombones, and saxophones was additionally enhanced by the powerful rhythm and arose public admiration (Perez 206). To increase the excitement of the audience, Prado announced himself the “Mambo King” and behaved very expressively on stage: a natural showman, he accompanied his batoning with dancing and jumping (Perez 206).
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Mambo mania. Perez Prado’s activities were actually the key to the popularity of mambo outside the island of Cuba. In 1947, Prado had to leave Cuba because of opposition faced with Cuban musical authorities who disliked his tendency to mix the elements of North American jazz with mamba music (Levy 2). Prado’s 1949 recording of “Mambo No.5” made in Mexico literally launched a mambo craze which engrossed the whole North America, and especially New York City (Levy 2).
In early 1950s Perez Prado made a series of splendid performances in the Palladium Ballroom on 53rd Street (Levy 2). Since that time The Palladium Ballroom, one of the main dance rooms in New York, was proclaimed the temple of mambo, and the city’s best dancers and orchestras competed there for mambo dance lessons and performances that attracted crowds (Leymarie 40). Joining in with the general passion for the new dance, contemporary press burst out in their praise of mambo:
“Dance bands drifting in from the hinterlands report loud and persistent requests to ‘play a mambo!’”; “Mambomania! Mambo is the biggest exotic dance craze to sweep the country in a quarter century.”; “In terms of dedicated hypnosis, nothing like the effect of the mambo on its exponents has ever been witnessed in the contemporary America.”; “New York is beginning to shake from hips down as the mambo fever continues to spread around town.” (contemporary newspaper articles, as cited in Perez 206)
Despite the fact that mambo was brought to the general American public in a bright commercial wrapping, the original mambo sound and rhythms gradually won the hearts of the devoted audiences. While the flashy, agitated, spectator-oriented style of Perez Prado appealed mostly to the white audiences and secured a commercial success, his popularity was much less among the Latin-American community (Levy 3).
Afro-Cuban rhythms and instrumentation were represented to a greater extent in the bands led by such legends of mambo music as Tito Puente in New York and Benny More in Mexico City (Campbell 125). In addition, many mambo ensembles which emerged in New York attempted to reinterpret original Cuban sounds giving them more of a brass sound and making them faster, as well as excluding vocals from their performances since purely dance music found more response in the public (Waxer 162).
Gradually, mambo started to lose its dashing popularity and gave way to dance genres that stemmed from it: developed by Enrique Jorrin in the early 1950s, the easier to dance cha-cha-cha took its place (Perez 208). It was further moved away by salsa which captured the dance floors in the 1960s and 1970s (Waxer 167).
Socio-cultural significance. The wide popularity of mambo appeared to bear crucial social influences on the interracial relationships and attitudes of the time. As Leymarie states, “class and color melted away in the incandescent rhythm of the music” on the New York dance floors conquered by mambo music (Leymarie 2). The New York Palladium played the role of the universal pacifier, since it united races in one joyous dance.
An eminent Latin music scholar, Max Salazar, called the Palladium “a laboratory” for uniting people of different racial backgrounds: “… Afro-American, Irish, Italians, Jews. God, they danced that mambo. And because of the mambo, race relations started to improve in that era. What social scientists could not do on purpose, the mambo was able to accomplish by error” (as cited in Manuel et al. 48). This ability for creating a social and racial unity was inherited by mambo from one of its genre roots, son.
Waxer states that as both Afro-Cuban and white cultural elements started to be involved in son playing, the economic and racial barriers were lowered, and social alliances emerged on the basis of collective music making (Waxer 148). Son was popular both with the white and the black, and therefore required their tolerance and cooperation with each other, which evidently took place at dance floors and was further transferred into daily life relations.
The social context of mambo at the time of mambo mania was unprecedentedly broad. Seen as the dominant theme in night clubs and dance floors throughout the American nation, mambo enjoyed such popularity that clubs were named after it: Mambo City in Chicago and Los Angeles, Mambo Club in New York, El Mambo in Miami, the Mambo Room in Cleveland.
These were a few examples of mambo becoming the hallmark of contemporary culture in the mid-twentieth century (Perez 207). Cultural life boosted with the launching of such shows and programs as “Mamborama”, “MamboScope”, “Mambo at the Statler”, Carnegie Hall “Mambo Cocerto”, “Mambo Jambo Revue”, and “Mambo Nights” (Perez 207).
Furthermore, dance studios increasingly added mambo lessons to their programs, and bands could not wait to add a ‘mambo’ word to their titles. The commercial success of mambo allowed some record companies to limit their production exclusively to mambo records, since the latter easily reached the tops of the charts (Perez 207).
A revived interest to Cuban music and mambo in particular emerged in mid-1990s, when an album of 1940s–1950s Cuban music, the Buena Vista Social Club was recorded. The album featured Cuban musicians of different generations and background, and even presented a number of tunes that native Cubans would never dance to (Perna 246).
The reason for the astonishing international success of the album can be viewed by the fact that after Prado’s experiments with big band mambo, modern society lacked any familiarity with Cuban music. In the public admiration for a certain ‘exotic stereotype’, the Buena Vista album represents Cuban music that is opposed to modernity and therefore attractive. The album’s attractiveness to the global listener is based on the tendency towards rather the traditional than the innovative (Perna 246–262).
Political significance. The complex political history of Cuba is closely related to the development of the mambo genre. First, at the very beginnings of mambo music in the late 1930s, there was a significant political event that allowed for further proliferation of national Cuban music. Officially suppressed and even banned in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Afro-Cuban musical practices could not be enjoyed openly.
Any open performance of Afro-Cuban music in the wrong place and at the wrong time would lead to conflict with the law. Eventually, the ban was lifted on traditional carnival drum ensembles in 1938, and the musical life in Cuba received a new wind and could develop more freely (Waxer 144). Afro-Cuban music was no longer seemed improper or illegal, and political tensions around it relaxed.
Connections between Cuban musicians and their North American colleagues were rather affected by the events of the 1959 Cuban Revolution and the consequent relations between the two countries. Despite the fact that communities of Cuban immigrants continued to promote the music of their country in North America, they could not trace all the significant changes in Cuban music since the time they left their motherland.
Therefore, the world has been ignorant of the developments in Cuban music, and even the recording of Buena Vista did not improve the situation. Together with breaking the international isolation of Cuban music in general and providing a sufficient support for musicians of old school in particular, it has denied success to musicians of younger generations since their musical traditions do not fit into that promoted by the recording (Perna 263).
Conclusion. Mambo music occupies a special place in the history of Latin music and of the popular music of the twentieth century. Apart from purely musical significance, mambo has appeared to be a cultural phenomenon that managed to unite not simply musicians and dancers, but also record studios, radio stations, concert promoters and journalists.
More importantly, mambo united peoples and races despite all political intrigues of the time, drawing a connection between Havana and New York which no embargoes could ever wipe out. This lesson of acceptance and unity mambo has taught to contemporary and future generations is by large the main message of mambo to humankind.
Campbell, Michael. Popular Music in America: And the Beat Goes on, 3rd ed. Boston, MA: Schirmer Cengage Learning, 2009. Print.
Levy, Joseph. “Perez Prado and Mambomania.” The Perez Prado Pages. 21 Feb. 2010. Web. <http://www.laventure.net/tourist/prez_bio.htm>.
Leymarie, Isabelle. “Mambo Mania: A Brief History of the Mambo.” UNESCO Courier 48.1 (1995): 40. Web. <http://www.laventure.net/tourist/mambo.htm>.
Manuel, Peter, Kenneth Bilby, and Michael Largey. Caribbean Currents: Caribbean Music from Rumba to Reggae. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2006. Print.
Pérez, Louis A. On Becoming Cuban: Identity, Nationality, and Culture. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2008. Print.
Perna, Vincenzo. “Marketing Nostalgia: The Rise of the Buena Vista Social Club.” Timba: The Sound of the Cuban Crisis. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2005. 240–263. Print.
Sublette, Ned. Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo, v. 1. Chicago, IL: Chicago Review Press, 2004. Print.
Waxer, Lise. “Of Mambo Kings and Songs of Love: Dance Music in Havana and New York from the 1930s to the 1950s.” Latin American Music Review / Revista de Música Latinoamericana 15.2 (1994): 139-176. Print.