Candido: The Father Of Modern Conga Drumming

candido with drums

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 nightclub, where they would thrill tourists with their rumba floor show. These spectacular presentations highlighted a tradition that was born in the solares (tenements that were former slave quarters), but by the 1940s had been adapted on a regular basis to a nightclub setting for tourists. Born of the fusion of southern Spanish song and dance with West African drumming, dance, and song, the rumba has deep roots in La Habana and Matanzas, two cities intertwined with the history of the genre. Its earliest form, the slow yambú, which was and still is played on cajónes (empty wooden crates that dock workers used as substitutes for drums when drumming was outlawed on the island in the late 19th century), accompanies a male and female figure dancing metaphorically; mimicking the movements of a rooster and a hen. The next step in the rumba’s evolution became known as guaguancó. With its characteristic brighter tempo and percussive melody, which accompanies the dialogue between a male and female dancer, its heartfelt vocals represents Cuba’s cultural fusion between Spain, Africa, and the Middle East. Finally, with the up-tempo colúmbia from Matanzas with its virtuosic display of solo male dance, the rumba became a rich tradition that has spawned generations of virtuosic hand drummers.

One of those drummers came with Carmen and Rolando as their accompanist. Not only would he signal the arrival of 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 was played by helping to develop the techniques used by everyone who has since played the instrument.

“My full name is Candido Camero Guerra,” Candido begins. “Guerra on my mother’s side; Camero on my father’s. I was named after my father. Without my parents, I would be nothing. The name means candid, simple, purity, white, innocence. I was born on April 22, 1921 at 6:30 P.M. on a Friday in the barrio of Havana known as El Cerro on the street known as Churaca 77. It is between Velarde and Washington.”

Danzón In The House, Rumba In The Yard

La Habana (as it is known by the city’s residents) was formerly made up of 43 districts, or barrios, which have since been restructured by the post-revolutionary Castro regime. Each one has its own characteristic neighborhood flavor and they each share friendly rivalries. Jesus Maria, Los Sitios, and El Cerro have long been hotbeds of the rumba tradition. “My barrio, El Cerro has its own saying, ’El Cerro tiene la llave’” — El Cerro has the key. Cerro means hill, but in this case it’s also short for cerrojo, which means a latch. So people from there say we have the key to the latch.”

Musicians abounded in the Camero family, though Candido states, “Except for a few, most of them were really amateurs.” In the household, a tradition of music was celebrated during the year at birthday parties for the six uncles Candido had from his mother’s side of the family. “We had a huge house. 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 style band that features strings, flute, timbales, guiro, piano, bass, and vocals] 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 nonstop music all day into the evening. You have to imagine that we would have those parties six times a year, one for each uncle’s birthday. I couldn’t wait, and frankly no one else could either.”

Ageless at 86, Candido’s amazing memory recalls the names of these local legends of ’la rumba’ as if it was yesterday. Candido smiles, “As you know Bobby, we have a tradition of nicknames in Cuba. Most of the time I never knew their real names. Guys like Comencubo, Quique, Chabalonga, El Niño, Alambre, Loretto, and a guy who was the most famous quinto player [drum soloist] in El Cerro, Teclo.”

Childhood Bongocero And The Son

At the age of four, Candido would embark on his journey as a musician. “My first inspiration was my Uncle Andrés. He was the bongocero of the Septeto Segundo Nacional. Alfredo León was the leader and tres player [the mandolin-like Cuban string instrument]. He was the son of another famous Cuban singer, Bienvenido León. The musicians came from the famous Septeto Nacional de Ignacio Piñeiro.” When asked why this group was formed, Candido erupts in laughter. “Let’s just say that the musicians didn’t get along with Piñeiro.”

During this time, the son was becoming the rage in La Habana, slowly overtaking the sedate, elegant danzón in popularity. Born in the eastern part of the island (Oriente) and eventually coming to Havana in the late 1890s during the Spanish American war, the son with its fusion of Spanish-influenced harmonic and melodic content and West African-rooted, clave-driven rhythms, with its emphasis on the bongo, was taking Havana by storm in the 1920s and ’30s.

Candido witnessed it all and would soon be a major participant. “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 bongocero there was a guy named Abuelito. He was 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 bongo!

“He considered it a primitive instrument, but it was just an excuse. He was offended by some of the double-meaning soneos [improvisations] soneros [lead singers of son] would make up about him and his administration. That’s how the timbalitos were invented. People would still play bongo, but you had to be careful. You’d have a set of timbalitos handy just in case the cops would come. Sometimes you could get away with it by asking the police for permission and they would let you, if they were sympathetic. That’s what would happen on a lot of the recordings. They let you because it was more of a closed private thing. But in public it was another thing. A lot of times the police, if they caught you, would confiscate the instrument or just break it right there. Just imagine, outlawing a musical instrument! It was absurd.”

Candido’s precociousness would lead him to constantly drum on tables in the house and receive frequent scolding from his mother who feared he would hurt his hands, but luckily his maternal grandfather Juan would intercede. “’Leave him alone!’ he would tell my mother. ’You will see, one day he will be famous.’

“My uncle Andrés asked me if I wanted to learn how to play ’el bongo,’ and of course I said yes. He took two cans of condensed milk, put skins on them, and put them together. That was my first instrument. He began teaching me by having me sit in front of him with my tin-can bongos while he played his set. He then would play a short phrase and would ask me to repeat it. That’s how I began learning how to play. The fun part would be when he would ask me, ’Now you play something and I will imitate it.’ That’s how I learned, through repetition.”

candido with the band

Bassist And Tresero

But the bongo was not the only instrument the young Candido would learn. “My father gave me for my eighth birthday a miniature tres.” This humble instrument is closely associated with the history of the son as it provides the harmonic and rhythmic ’impulso’ (propulsion) to the style. Made up of three pairs of double strings, its sound and rhythmic vocabulary is at the root of the figures a pianist would play in a salsa band today. “Just as with my uncle, my father would show me something and ask me to repeat it. Later, at the age of 14, my grandfather would begin to show me how to play the acoustic bass.

“I began playing tres and bass with various local groups around that time and have many great memories. The first group I played with was called La Gloria Habanera. I used to go to the Playa Marinao beach resort area all the time because they would have impromptu rumbas there. That’s how I met others who were my contemporaries, like Patato, Armando Peraza, Mongo Santamaria and characters like the famous Silvano Shueg, whom everyone knew as Choricera. He used to have this beat-up set of timbales that were held together with wires, but he would do an incredible show with this little group. He would screw in a red light bulb into a light receptacle that was above him when he was about to play. It was funny because he always carried that light bulb with him. Imagine if he would have lost it or it would have broken [laughs]. He also had a bottle of aguardiente [homemade Cuban rum] right next to him when the evening would start. By the end of the night, it was empty. I remember his conga player. He was very old and very ugly. His nickname was Cara Linda [beautiful face]. We used to laugh and say, ’That guy is uglier than a bad night.’ But whooo, could he keep time! Like a metronome. He would hold it down for as long as Chori played, which was at times very long for the rumba dancers they would accompany, Clara and Jubart.

“Mongo was playing bongo with the well-known Septeto Bolonia and she saw me playing tres with Los Jovenes Del Cerro. We eventually played together in a group called Septeto Apollo, then we played in a group that Chano Pozo led called Conjunto Azul.

“Radio was very big in Cuba. We used to do live radio broadcasts to promote our weekend appearances,” Candido laughs. “We would get paid ten kilos [ten cents]. I used to help Mongo with his delivery of the mail because he worked for the post office. This way he could finish early so we could rehearse earlier in the day with whatever group we would be playing with. Everyone would work freelance with several groups at the same time, and everyone knew each other, so it was a communal atmosphere that led to a lot of friendships on and off the bandstand and the spirit of brotherhood. I was also working occasionally as a dock worker unloading ships, so I was getting a lot of exercise.”

Birth Of The Conjunto

Although Candido is most closely associated with the conga drum, it would be the last instrument he would learn how to play. In the 1930s, the legendary blind virtuoso of the tres, Matanzas-born Arsenio Rodríguez, would revolutionize the way son was played. The previous standard of performing the style was with a tres, a guitar, a bassist, one trumpet, a bongocero, a primera voz (lead singer) playing clave, and segunda voz (background singer) playing maracas. Collectively this style of ensemble was known as a septeto, and it would be radically changed by Arsenio whose sobriquet became, “El Ciego Maravilloso” (The Marvelous Blind One).

He would replace the guitar with the piano, add a second, then third trumpet, and sometimes fourth trumpet with written arrangements, in contrast to the septeto, where the trumpet would improvise parts. He then would add a conga drummer to the band on a regular basis. “Others had done it before,” states Candido. “I saw a group called Septeto La Llave use someone playing a conga in the early ’30s, but not on a permanent basis. Arsenio made it a permanent part of his group.”

With the added lower tonal center of gravity and percussive funkiness provided by the conga drum, the bongocero could in effect play with more intensity and make use of the hand-held bell (cencerro) in the montuno (vamp) section as a standard rhythmic device, thus strengthening this section of the tune. The increased harmonic palette provided by the piano added to the tres’ guajeos (chord arpeggios in clave) and bass tumbaos (repetitive lines) could become more complex. Arsenio’s use of written arrangements, giving specific parts to his trumpets and their layering of line against line to create tension and release in the montuno section, was the root of the mambo horn concept. By making the montuno the main part of the song to feature solos as well as the singers’ improvisational inventiveness, Arsenio inspired other bandleaders and sent dancers into a frenzy. But beyond this, Arsenio’s use of African-based themes in his compositions, as well as a West African-rooted drum — a drum that was previously found only in the annual street carnival celebrations, African-based religious ceremonies, and in the rumba tradition — was a unique social-political statement and a source of pride for Afro-Cubans.

It was here that Candido made a life-changing decision. “I saw Arsenio’s group and saw the writing on the wall. I didn’t read music and I knew that the groups would all start to convert from the septeto to the conjunto format. In the conjuntos they started to use arrangements, and I couldn’t read music. I figured I wouldn’t be able to keep up as a tresero or bassist. I had played congas ever since I was a kid when I would participate at the rumbas in my home. I was 25 years old and I decided that I would begin to concentrate on playing congas professionally.

candido playing with band

Tropicana Nights

Havana, Cuba’s nightlife was in full swing. Hotels and numerous cabarets were fueled by the mob-controlled money of American gangsters who profited from the lucrative gambling, prostitution, and liquor trade. The entertainment industry in Havana would flourish under these conditions. Musicians would also benefit, as each hotel employed a show band as well as a variety of smaller groups. Large radio stations like Radio Progresso and CMQ had staff big bands that performed live on the air and accompanied musical guests.

“The first cabaret I worked at was the Cabaret Kursal. I was 22 years old and my salary was $1 a night. I was playing bongo with the house band and quinto for the rumba floor show for whatever dance team would be featured. Mongo was playing bongo with Bienvenido León Y Sus Leónes at the Cabaret Eden Conser when he got offered a job with the dance team of Pablito and Lilón to go to Mexico. He gave me the job with Bienvenido and that’s how I got more involved in the cabaret and hotel scene.”

Candido’s fame would soon spread as he made a name for himself performing on conga and bongo at such famed venues as the Cabaret Montmantre, El Faraón, El Sans Souci, and all of Cuba’s major radio stations, including a six-year stint with the CMQ Radio Orchestra and a another six-year run with the famed Tropicana Orchestra, inaugurating the club in 1943 where Candido would still play bass on occasion as well as bongo and conga.

“At the Tropicana we did a big show which featured Chano Pozo called Conga Pantera. I knew Chano from playing in his group Conjunto Azul where I played tres and Mongo played bongo. At the Faraón I met and worked with Chucho Valdéz’s father, Bebo. We’ve been friends ever since, and later in 1955 he wrote a tune called ’Batanga.’ That was important, because it was the first popular piece to use the batá drums [sacred hourglass-shaped double-headed drums of the Yoruba tradition] in a dance band context. Fello Bey [renowned vocalist who would later become famous for his jazz-influenced vocal style] even came up with a dance style for it, but it never got off the ground.” Candido would visit his homeland for the last time in 1955.

father drumming

At Radio CMQ, Candido worked with a show drummer that would greatly influence him. “Salvador Admiral was tremendous. He was very creative and played a lot of things that people would think were just recently invented. At the Tropicana, Daniel Perez played drums. He was a complete percussionist. He could also play vibes, timpani, as well as the Cuban percussion. Later Guillermo Barretto would also play there but ’Barretico’ would be the regular drummer at the Sans Souci. Guillermo was also tremendous, although he became even better known as a timbale player. He and the others were into jazz also and he once subbed for Buddy Rich in his own band when he came to Cuba in 1955. Buddy had gotten sick and couldn’t play. Barretico came in and read the music and played fantastically. People still talk about that. His brothers were also great musicians. Robert played tenor sax and Coco was a fine trumpeter, and both of them were into jazz and could play it. That was the thing with all of the musicians at that time. We all were affected by jazz. That’s what made Chico O’Farrell [famed arranger and former trumpeter who would work with Dizzy Gillespie, Machito and the Afro-Cubans, Mario Bauzá, Benny Goodman, and Quincy Jones] move to New York City. He wanted to play jazz.”

“There were many great musicians like drummer/percussionist Walfredo De Los Reyes’ father, who also had the same name. He played trumpet and boy could he sing, and Wally Jr. himself became a great show drummer playing with everyone in the cabarets and on radio. He says I inspired him to experiment with multiple percussion. Wally Jr.’s uncle, Rafael, was a fine trombonist. So many great musicians.”

Candido’s tenures at the famed Tropicana and Radio CMQ provided him with a wealth of experience in a wide range of settings — from accompanying musical guests, to performing for dancers, to concert music, and big production numbers. The drum set players he worked with inspired in him something that would revolutionize conga drumming. As fate would have it, necessity indeed would be the mother of invention.

father with the band

Doing The Work Of Two, Then Three

The dance team of Carmen and Rolando were famed performers whose rumba floor show was a highlight for any attendee at the Tropicana. Highly arranged big band dance numbers showcased the dance team’s virtuosity, as they were accompanied by two congueros. In the role of quinto player, Candido would have to follow their every move, marking their steps with solo riffs, while the other drummer provided the steady foundation. It was the soul of the rumba of the tenements, but in a nightclub setting for the high-rolling tourists and Cuba’s upper-class elite. It was inevitable that the dance team would be booked to perform in New York City — but there was a catch. The full percussion section of two conga drummers could not be taken. Candido alone was chosen for his skill as a quinto player.

“The promoter told me I would be going and I started to think. I had begun practicing playing the tumbao with my left hand while I soloed with my right and was making progress coordinating the two. When we were at the airport I brought with me a quinto and a conga, and the promoter began to ask me, ’Why do you have two drums?’ I told him, ’Don’t worry, you will see.’”

On July 7, 1946, three days after their arrival in New York, the Sunday edition of The New York Times announced that Carmen and Rolando, accompanied by Candido, would be the featured performers in a musical revue called Tidbits Of 1946 to open the next day at the Plymouth Theater. But first they would perform at the Cabaret Havana Madrid on 52nd and Broadway in front of the Capitol Theater on the evening of the 7th. In the house were the Cuban Anselmo Sacassas Orchestra, Puerto Rican Catalino Rolón’s Orchestra, and Mexican trumpeter Charlie Valera’s conjunto. What happened next would astound the audience and New York’s Latin music community. Carmen and Rolando exploded onto the stage dancing to the propulsion of an up-tempo guaguancó. It sounded like several drummers simultaneously, but one man — Candido, played it all. As the intensity grew, Candido would mark it with the quinto, soloing in his right hand while he accompanied himself playing tumbao in his left, all the while following the movements of the dancers.

“The crowd went crazy and Carmen and Rolando began hugging me. The promoter who had asked me what was I going to do with that extra drum came over to me. He smiled and said, ’I see what you mean.’” The audience roared as the musicians surrounded Candido asking how he had done that? He simply smiled and said, “Out of necessity.”

father with bandmate

Palladium Night And Birdland Flights

52nd and Broadway was the home of progressive jazz. And there stood Birdland, named after alto sax virtuoso Charlie ’Yardbird’ Parker, one of the founders, along with Dizzy Gillespie, of the virtuosic improvising style that became known as bebop. On the next block, at 53rd and Broadway, was the Alma Dance studios, whose name would soon be changed to the Palladium Ballroom — home of the mambo. Candido would soon learn that it was commonplace for musicians to sit in with whomever was playing at either club when they took a break. A fertile ground was in place for the interaction between Latino and jazz musicians. At its nexus was the Machito Afro-Cubans, a big band that, under the musical direction of trumpeter and later saxophonist, Mario Bauzá, had single-handedly fused Afro-Cuban rhythms and jazz when they were formed in 1939 in NYC’s Spanish Harlem (El Barrio) community on the east side of Manhattan.

Candido visited the Palladium and was asked by Machito to sit in. He was eventually invited to record on a version of “El Rey Del Mambo” with the bandleader. “This was my first recording date in New York City, but what impressed me was Machito’s band. There was really nothing like it in Cuba. They were so far ahead of everyone, very progressive.” Keeping pace with the forward thinking of the Machito Afro-Cubans, in 1950 at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem, Candido would demonstrate an even more spectacular innovation in percussion. While performing with Puerto Rican pianist Joe Loco (Juan Estevez), he would be the first to perform on three congas each tuned to specific pitches. “I had seen the New York Philharmonic perform and paid attention to the timpanist. I thought to myself, ’I can do the same thing with the congas.’ I began to tune the drums to specific pitches, mostly a dominant chord, so I could play melodies in my tumbaos and solos.”

Evidence of this innovative approach can be clearly heard on the Joe Loco rendition of “Tea For Two.” Candido plays the entire melody on three congas and a tuned set of bongos. “I eventually used up to six tuned congas, but today I use three because it’s easier to travel with.” Further exploring the possibilities of multiple percussion, Candido began to incorporate a foot pedal, which he used to play a cowbell with his right foot, as he played three congas with his left hand, while his right hand played a guiro attached to the right side of the congas. Now he could simulate three percussionists while also singing simultaneously.