Great Albums You May Have Missed: Mongo Santamaria's Afro-Roots (1958-1959)
In every corner of the world, as far back in history as the time machines of archaeology and anthropology can take us, music has been used by humans to communicate with the gods. It’s hard to remember in our world today, steeped as it is in the bubblegum profanity of pop culture; but Mongo Santamaria’s album, Afro-Roots, reminds us. It is a gateway into the spirit-world. The conga drum itself is our metaphysical guide, bridging the gap between the visible and invisible worlds, and thus bringing us into direct contact with all those psychic forces that control the destinies of humankind (Adegbite).
Though recorded in 1958 and 59, the height of the Latin Jazz Era, here Santamaria returns to the African rhythms he grew up learning, a purer derivation of the African-based Yoruba religion: also known as Santería.
Slavery was finally abolished in Cuba in 1886, but much like in the United States, rampant discrimination remained. Secret societies of Afro-Cuban communities sprang up that cultivated African language, dress, religious celebrations and ceremonies; there they achieved a level of toleration by using Catholic symbolism as a veil, substituting the names of Catholic Saints for the names of the gods of their own religion: or Santeria. This arrangement allowed African culture to survive; and over the years, as Havana evolved into “the Latin Las Vegas,” musicians from these communities were invited to play at the touristy clubs, to offer some of the ‘wild exoticisms’ that gave Cuba its color. It was in this environment that a young Mongo discovered the magic of drumming. And by his own admission he never had a lesson. He explains that in Cuba, drumming is either something you feel or something you don't from the beginning. And he felt it.
The Yoruba believe that nature is alive and that there are certain forces or powers superior to man (gods known as the Orisas) which direct and control the course of nature and of human life in it. But the world of nature is not seen as a separate entity. The world of gods and goddesses, the world of ancestors and heroes, the world of human beings and the world of nature form a unity. Each world is alive, inter-related, and dependent upon each other in one vast circling stream of power in which visible and invisible forces interact (Adegbite).
By the time Santamaria recorded the tracks on Afro-Roots in the late ‘50s, the need for the mask of Santeria had actually dropped away considerably. Santamaria freely uses the names of Yoruba Orisa/deities, using the Yoruba language for many of the chants, with no apparent fear of oppression. In fact the drum, and its clear link to the spirit of Africa, was fast becoming the official symbol of Cuba. In the early ‘60s, in response to mass immigration of middle-class Cubans to America, Castro himself reportedly said, “"let them go, let these who wish to leave Cuba, leave. But the 'drum,' the 'drum' stays in Cuba" (Smallwood).
Mongo’s drums, however, would soon find their way back to New York City, where the great African-American choreographer Katherine Dunham was opening up her dance studio to artists and intellectuals who were interested in exploring and rediscovering elements of African culture. Dunham's monthly 'Boule Blanche' sessions served as a veritable revival tent for Yoruba traditions; yet with a heavy emphasis on intellectual and historical elements, and how these elements could be woven into dance and art in general. Dunham traveled to the Carribean, researched African-derived religions there, and was particularly and profoundly affected by Cuba and its use of music and dance to convey African religious themes. The more rural environment of Cuba, coupled with the insular adaptation of Santeria, had allowed African culture to survive more robustly there. It proved to be a lifelong inspiration for Dunham, and through her dance productions she helped bring the rhythms of Cuba to a worldwide audience. Santamaria joined the likes of Perez Prado and Tito Puente when he joined her company, participating in both discussions and performances. Through Dunham's efforts and successes, Cuba's infectious rhythms would eventually be heard on every continent in the world. The Afro-Roots recording sessions include such great musicians as Cal Tjader, Francisco Aguabella, and the incomparable Willie Bobo on timbales; but my favorite player has got to be Pablo Mozo, who was brought in to these sessions specifically to play the cowbell! In fact I’m quite certain it’s the only time I’ve ever read of anyone being brought in to a recording session specifically for their cowbell skills, but just check out the track, Timbales y Bongo, and you’ll understand why! This is Willie Bobo on timbales, Santamaria on congas, and Mozo, who starts out on a cowbell but eventually just winds up clicking sticks on a table top, or maybe the side of a drum or something. It’s mind blowing, the way the rhythms float over and around each other!
The rhythms of Timbales y Bongo are played to conjure the deities of Yoruba and drive them into a frenzy. Specific rhythms are traditionally believed to call forth specific deities who come to life. They may struggle with each other; they may dance with each other in a state of chaotic intoxication. Perhaps one rhythm/god will win out, or perhaps they will in the end find a way to celebrate together.
Musically this dance translates into multi-rhythmic patterns that defy the strict syncopation laws of other traditions, often involving completely different beats that seem to magically blend together into not-consciously-preconceived yet recognizable patterns. Here is the doorway into the chaos of the spirit-world, ruled not by laws of mathematics and logic, but guided only by pure feeling. The patterns that emerge do so because they are felt, not because they make sense mathematically. It is an invitation to celebrate the brutal absurdity of existence while simultaneously marveling at its profound mysteries; to celebrate triumphantly and carefree while dangling your soul over the haunting abyss of chaos; to realize this spirit-world was never separate from our own, we just have a tendency to forget when the music stops. But I wonder, do they forget about us too? That must be part of it, it also reminds THEM of US.
Not all the music here is meant to be so steeped in spiritual gravitas. There is the more jazz-oriented and soon to be standard tune Afro-Blue, recorded for the first time here. There is the clomping mambo feel of Mazacote featuring piano, sax, and Cal Tjader on vibraphone; And there are plenty of wonderful chants and rumbas as well. Though also based on traditional African Rhythms, in 1950s Cuba “rumba” had become a synonym for “party”. But even the light-hearted songs never seem to lose sight of their own power to conjure, often peeling away their original structures only to break out into the percussion 'battles' that make this album so impressively rich. After all, even the gods like to have a little fun! And I'm certain this is the record they throw on when it's their time to celebrate.
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"The Yoruba Orisha Tradition Comes to New York City." Marta Moreno Vega. African American Review, Vol. 29, No. 2, Special Issues on The Music (Summer, 1995), pp. 201-206
"African Cultural Dimensions in Cuba." Lawrence L. Smallwood, Jr. Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Dec., 1975), pp. 191-199
"The Drum and Its Role in Yoruba Religion." Ademọla Adegbite. Journal of Religion in Africa, Vol. 18, Fasc. 1 (Feb., 1988), pp. 15-26