Last updated: April 15, 2019
Topic: ArtMusic
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One can hardly read about Mambo without coming across names like Orestes Lopez and Tito Puente. This style of music which developed in the twentieth century, and which is a hybrid of several others, finds its deepest root in the music of Africa as passed down through Cuba. In fact, the origin of the Mambo is most often credited to the Cubans. Yet its history is that of several other cultures, as it came to maturation in New York City, one of the largest cultural melting pots of modern society.

Mambo as a style is the result of evolution. It is the assemblage of different rhythms coupled with dynamic melodic arrangements, and it is this assembly of rhythms that contributes to its beat and ultimately to its unique style. In a few telling lines, Johnson and Shernoff, in the book Basic Conga Drum Rhythms in African American Musical Styles, describe the interplay of rhythm beat and style: “a rhythm is a single line, but the ‘beat’ of a single style is something that emerges from the overall  organization and dynamics of several rhythms combined and working together. If styles are based upon particular combinations of rhythms, then it could be said that no single rhythm can define a style without supporting rhythms.” This is proven to be true in the history of the Mambo. It originated in the traditional Christian rhythms of Cuba, which are in turn thought to have their roots deep in the African soil. Its other influences include rhythms from Europe and its neighbors in the Caribbean, especially Puerto Rico.

Mambo may be considered a kind of syncopation as it is characterized by strongly accented backbeats, and in Cuba it was generally played in small bands during its early stages of development (Encarta). According to Schuller and Kernfeld in their article on Afro-Cuban Jazz, the earliest traces of Cuban influence can be found in the music of Alberto Socarras and Mario Bauzá in the 1930’s. Socarras was a Cuban musical virtuouso who played saxophone, reed, clarinet and flute. He was also a band leader, who worked with such great players as Prince Robinson and Cab Calloway. He was mainly responsible for taking the Cuban Mambo rhythm to several notable stages, such as that of the Cotton Club (Chilton). Mario Bauzá was a trumpeter who worked with several notable musicians and is credited with introducing Dizzy Gillepsie into Calloway’s band. He was also responsible for encouraging Gillepsie to incorporate the Afro-Cuban music into Jazz, which action was a significant impetus in the development of Mambo (Ayala and Kernfeld).  However, it was when Dizzy Gillepsie began working with Chano Pozo, the Cuban percussionist, that the style became an internationally recognized one that drew a large following.

The development of this style of music (the Mambo/Afro-Cuban Jazz) was driven by a desire to inject a more varied rhythmic style into contemporary American Jazz. Schuller and Kernfeld note that “the main impulse for the Afro-Cuban movement came from their feeling that American jazz of the 1930s and 1940s [was] essentially monorhythmic.” They also reflect that such pieces as Manteca and Afro-Cuban Suite, which feature Pozo as percussionist, “were the first to integrate authentic Afro-Cuban polyrhythmic concepts with the bop idiom,” (par. 2). Bop here refers to a modernist movement in Jazz led by the same Gillepsie (Hodeir). This identifies Mambo as part of a tradition of music that continually borrowed and lent its form in a cyclical way that facilitated the ongoing enrichment of the style.

In the late 1940’s it was Perez Prado who caused the Mambo (as its own style) to rise closer to its peak of popularity in the United States and the Americas. He was “a brilliant pianist,” and noted for his use of dramatic horn lines and simple, less rhythmically complex arrangements than those of authentic Cuban bands” (Waxer). He toured the region and gained an audience first with the North American Spanish speakers. By the early 1950’s he had made such popular songs as Qué Rico El Mambo, which were being played all over the continent, even making it to the top of the popular music charts (Mambo). So popular, in fact, became the Latin rhythms (to which family the Mambo belongs) that they were “quickly incorporated into the repertories of big bands that played jazz for dancing” and soon became commonplace (Kernfeld).

By this time, Mambo dancing had grown quite as popular in the United States and around the world. Its unique characteristic of beginning the first step on the “fourth beat of a 4/4 bar” distinguished it from other dances (Sellman). Adopting the big-band style of recording instrumentals, and finding its strongest support and a home in New York City, the Mambo as both a music and dance genre truly came into its own. The musical ensembles of Machito, Marcelino Guerra, and José Curbelo were compelling acts which “performed infectious and driving mambo rhythms” that soon became favorites at the Palladium and other Latin American dance halls (Sellman).

When Tito Puente arrived on the Mambo scene in the 1950’s, he took it to the zenith of its popularity. Puente was a timbales player and a band leader. He was born in Spanish Harlem and studied music theory, conducting, and orchestration at New York’s prestigious Juilliard School of Music. Sellman refers to him as “the last of the great originators of Afro-Latin Jazz.” His album Dance Mania was instrumental in the spread of Mambo; however, in 1966 when the Palladium closed, the Mambo era ended.

The integration of Cuban sounds with that of other cultures has implications and suggestions that go beyond the mere creation of a new musical flavor. Certainly, it says much about the globalization of culture as the music from several regions and continents around the world merge into one. However, it is also an interesting fact that, historically, Mambo presented itself at a significant time in the history of the United States and Cuba. Indeed, its era coincided remarkably with the rise to power of Fidel Castro and even the development of the Cold War. In light of this, one can detect irony inherent in the embrasure by the United States of the Cuban-influenced rhythm, considering the current strain in the two countries’ relations.

At that time, according to Lise Waxer in her review entitled “Of Mambo Kings and Songs of Love: Dance Music in Havana and New York from the 1930’s to the 1950’s,” Mambo facilitated the immigration of Cuban musicians to the United States, many of whom did not return (139). This contributed greatly to the growing subculture of Cuban-Americans that exists in the United States despite the strained relationship of the two countries. Waxer goes on to note: “The transitional process that shaped the growth of Cuban music and Cuban-based styles in North America intensified in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, contributing to the widespread appeal of the mambo and related dance forms[…]” (139). The music influenced the presence and distribution of the Cuban minority in what Waxer terms the “Havana-New York Axis,” which in turn influenced the music. Therefore Mambo and other Latin music have provided a precedent for the acceptance of the music of such contemporary Latin Americans as Arsenio Rodriguez and Ricky Martin in the United States.

In his work entitled “A Structured Classification of the Fine Arts,” Charles Lalo describes a completed musical masterpiece as “A superstructure of auditory pitches, rhythms, timbres and suggestions which are its substructures. These the musician appreciates, on one hand as a whole, an organic complex; and on the other hand separately, for they are essentially heterogeneous” (308). Classical guitarist Mario Olivares’ piece entitled Ocho Mambo attests to this as it can be appreciated on many levels. This is attributed to its layered aspect and the precision with which each layer fit and enhances the others. It can be taken as a whole and enjoyed almost without thought, and it can indeed be enjoyed in its deconstruction by the most astute student of the different instruments.

Performed in the classic big-band style, the piece starts out with its main theme represented only by the guitar and punctuated periodically by single percussion hits, which serve as an introduction to the layered and polyrhythmic quality of the work. The music is punctuated by a succession of quick and then slower rhythms, though the overall beat is relatively fast. The guitar overlays the entire work as carrier of the main theme and its embellishments. The melody can best be described heterogeneous, an improvisation, that (in the true spirit of Jazz) introduces a main theme and then branches off to several subordinate melodies that all carry something of its progenitor. This allows the music to vary dynamically with regard to tone, melody, and timber while remaining a unified whole that holds each of its parts in coherent relation to each other. And somewhere between the percussion and melody, the bass holds a steady course that performs as an anchor to the often varying quality of the other layers.

The piece was recorded in the late 1990’s and reflects a rather jovial or even festive mood. It begins with a sort of determination, and continues with a floridity of melodic improvisation that resolves into almost a ballad-like solemnity in the middle. Then, nearer the end, it regains a certain measure of determination that builds and finally finishes off with something of a tempered triumph.

As mentioned before, the song consists of an introduction which presents a theme and which the melody upholds, though it varies. In a classic statement and restatement of its theme, it is strophic, often repeating the introductory theme as the music picks back up after a resolution. Its genre is of course Latin in origin and presents a polyphonic harmonic structure of guitar and bass, and a polyrhythmic structure consisting of the bass, the drums and the percussions.

Mario Olivares’ and his Latin Spice band generally perform locally in San Diego, where they give recurring performances in four locations and also travel around the city for tours. The members of the band are J. Machan who plays Bass, David Brown on Drums, Mario Olivares on the guitar, Mikey Manglicmot playing percussion (Congas), Mark Sevilla who plays guitar, William Rosales, and Patrick Armenta (Mario Olivares Music). Although the Latin Spice band performs on a relatively small scale, several other bands of this type exist whose CD’s can be accessed on the internet and in stores.

Mambo music in Toronto can mainly be found at clubs dedicated to Salsa and other Latin music. These are plentiful in the multicultural city. The city has such a dedicated Latin culture that such groups exist as The Mambo Men and The Mambo Squad. A person interested in Mambo can find the music and dance at clubs, lounges, and even restaurants. Some of these even offer dance classes, such as the Mana Bar and Lounge. Others provide visual and aesthetic pleasure from the performance of Mambo by professional and talented dancers (“Toronto”).

Like New York City, the place in which it developed and strengthened into its current form, Mambo is a melting pot of different musical and cultural rhythms. The rhythms of Africa and Europe combined to influence the Cuban style, which in turn became the most direct influence of the Mambo form as it exists today. Such musicians as Alberto Socarras, Mario Bauzá, Dizzy Gillepsie, Chano Pozo, Perez Prado, and Tito Puente were instrumental contributors to the form of this Afro-Cuban hybrid. Though it matured in the 1930’s to the 1950’s, Mambo has a genealogy that reaches back into history far beyond colonialism, and a span that encircles the entire globe.


Works Cited

Chilton, W. “Alberto Socarras” Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy. 10 November 2005

Gartner, Kurt. “Mambo Birdland, Dancemania ’99.” Rev. of Mambo Birdland Dancemania

’99, by Tito Puente. American Music 20.4 (2002): 468-470. 10 November 2005. ;;

Hodeir, Andre. “Bop [bebop, rebop]” Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy. 10 November 2005

Johnson, Hafiz Shabazz Farel and John M. Chernoff “Basic Conga Drum Rhythms in African-

American Musical Styles.” Black Music Research Journal. 11.1 (1991): 55-73. 10 November 2005 ;;

Kernfeld, Barry. “Latin Jazz” Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy. 10 November 2005

Lalo, Charles. “A Structural Classification of the Fine Arts.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art

Criticism 11.4 (1953): 307-323. 10 November 2005 ;;

“Mambo” Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy. 10 November 2005 ;;
Mario Olivares Music. 11 November 2005. ;;Olivares, Mario. “Ocho Mambo” Waterfall. CD-ROM. Mario Olivares Music, 1997.
Schuller, Gunther and Barry Kernfeld “Afro-Cuban Jazz [Cubop]” Grove Music Online ed. L.

Macy. 10 November 2005 ;;
Sellman, James Clyde. “Afro-Latin Jazz” Microsoft  Encarta Reference Library DVD-ROM

Microsoft Corporation. 2005.

“Toronto Clubs.” TOSalsa.16 Jan. 2005. 15 Nov. 2005.;;

Waxer, Lise. “Of Mambo Kings and Songs of Love: Dance Music in Havana and New York

from the 1930s to the 1950s.” Rev. of Of Mambo Kings and Songs of Love, by Oscar Hijuelo. Latin American Music Review / Revista de Música Latinoamericana 15.2 (1994): 139-176. 10 November 2005 ;;

Waxer, Lise. “Pérez Prado” Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy. 10 November 2005