Mongo Santamaria enjoyed a long and successful career in Latin music. His recordings and concert performances ranged from the authentic percussion music of Afro-Cuban religious rituals through to Latin-jazz reworkings of American jazz and pop hits.
His song Afro-Blue became a contemporary jazz standard, best-known in the coruscating version by saxophonist John Coltrane. His own adaptation of Herbie Hancock’s Watermelon Man provided the biggest hit of his career in 1963, and is regarded as a classic artefact on the Lounge Music scene.
He was born Ramon Santamaria in Cuba, and nicknamed Mongo by his father (the word denotes a tribal chief in Senegal). He began learning violin, but quickly switched to drums and then congas, and left school early to work as a musician on the highly active local scene in Havana.
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