listen

Caribbean Music History - The Mambo
By Thorne

Welcome to Caribbean Music History Column, there are over 758 different music genres in the Caribbean ranging from Bolero to Zouk. Each with a notable difference in rhythm, melody, or instrumentation. Yet they all share common threads of origin from African, European and Indian influences. Many times one type of music evolves into another creating a new category, like Ska to Reggae or Mambo to Cha Cha Cha. In these articles I hope to bring some definition and understanding to these music and dance styles.

Mambo, the music, as we know it dates to about 1938 when Oresta Lopez composed a danzon he called the "Mambo" (the most influential strains of Cuban Popular Music can be roughly categorized into two groups: the Son and the Danzón). He combined danzon with African rhythms from the street. The dancing itself came out of rehearsals where couples improvised steps to the new beat.

In the 1950s, Mambo was popularized as a specific musical genre when Perez Prado began to market his music under the name "mambo" - he was the first and many others followed. Prado took his music to New York via Mexico and basically commercialized the music by changing it to suit his "white" audience. If you listen to Prado's music and compare it to other Cuban artists of the day you'll find it contains a lot of influences outside of the Cuban tradition and was lacking emotion. Still, it must be recognized that it was he who first popularized the music in North America and Europe.

As Mambo music and dance developed, musicians experimented with new beats and tempos, the Mambo underwent subtle changes. Triple Mambo was created. This new dance used Cuban side steps. The scraping and shuffling of the feet in these steps produce a sound, that sounds like "Cha Cha Cha", which we will discuss in a future article.

The African rhythms in Cuban music came from the Yoruba, Congo and other West African people, who were transported to the Caribbean as slaves. They used them to call forth various gods. Cabillolos still exist in Cuba to keep alive various rhythms for over 200 different African gods. Mambo means "conversation with the gods" and in Cuba designates a sacred song of the Congos. The Congos absorbed a variety of foreign influences and the mambo drum rhythm became a cocktail of Bantu, Spanish and Yoruba. Coupled with Western Jazz, this beat provided the basis for the creation of the Mambo and then the Cha Cha and Salsa.

In Haiti, the "Mambo" is a voodoo priestess, who serves the villagers as counselor, healer, exorcist, soothsayer, spiritual adviser, and organizer of public entertainment. Which sounds to me like a great job to have. Master the dance and you'll find yourself in "conversation with the gods".

Considering the Mambo's origins and the fact that it can be performed in a most erotic and sensual manner, it is understandable that in parts of Cuba, Mambo is referred to as the "diabolo", the devil's dance. However, we can put that down to the people’s prudery rather than anything substantial. Well, lets face it, done to the extreme, the Mambo, Cha Cha and Salsa aren't for the faint hearted!