In the late 1940s, a new musical genre called the mambo emerged. Along with the danzón and the chachachá, it gave rise to several debates within Cuban popular music. This new style of music introduced particular or distinctive elements in the form of the piano and saxophone, and for these and other reasons, various ideas and theories were developed that tried to define, describe and name this new style, leading to disagreements about its origin, composition and originality.

In a 1946 interview with Dámaso Pérez Prado, who is recognized as the father of the mambo, he asserts that the new musical style was something like a mambo beat. To others, the mambo was merely a Latin American dance in 2/4 time, or a spontaneous call repeated by the dancers. In another interview with Pérez Prado, he admitted that the mambo occurred to him while he was listening to the syncopated notes that Arsenio Rodríguez introduced to be played by trumpets in the Cuban montuno songs and the choruses in what was called diablo. Pérez Prado addresses the issue of the instrumental format and asserts that the mambo is syncopated and the saxophones carry the syncopation in all of the genre’s forms, depending on whether the orchestra structure is based on the saxophone or the trumpet. He concluded that the mambo was born for the trumpet, which plays the melody, and the bass, which plays the accompaniment, combined with the bongos and congas.

There are many questions about the mambo. Among the most important are the rhythmic characteristics. In the view of journalist Manuel Cuéllar Vizcaíno, the mambo is a Cuban folk song backed by an accompaniment in which the rhythmic base is four-four time, and contrasts with the melody of the montuno form. This analysis by Cuéllar Vizcaíno places the mambo within the framework of the charanga type of orchestra. Meanwhile, flutist Antonio Arcaño added to that analysis that the “new” style is a kind of syncopated montuno that takes advantage of the Cuban rhythm in which the pianist enters the mambo, followed by the flute, while the violin plays rhythmic double stop chords with the bass, the güiro, the cowbell and the maracas playing along and supporting the drum.

Cuban musicologist María Teresa Linares states that the syncopated bass of the danzón led, to a certain point, to the danceable genre called mambo, and also to the chachachá, but the bass of the new rhythm of danzón is not syncopated, Pérez Prado did not invent the mambo and Enrique Jorrín did not invent the chachachá. There are many theories about the emergence and origin of the mambo, and there is evidence of the transformations and transitions in the rhythms that have led to what is now recognized as the mambo, but it is difficult to achieve a consensus on a concrete definition of the controversial rhythm. In many cases, it all comes down to an incorrect use of the word mambo.

In addition to the questions about the rhythm, there are also disputes about the origin of the word, and whether the way it is used within the musical landscape is correct. Among the theories about the origin of the word mambo, musicologist Odilio Urfé alleges that in a vodou ceremony, the priest who officiated the religious act is called mambo. He also maintains that the word mambo is common among those who practice the Cuban dance the rumba columbia and means consent to the act of the dance. He also points out the existence of palo mambo, an African beat. In the end, he concluded that the musical phenomenon known as the mambo has always existed, but with other names and in many cases musicians have used the word incorrectly, because few play the music that is correctly called mambo. Based on this argument, in genuine mambo the instrumentalists should use rhythmic effects only on the climax. The mambo is rhythm, not defined melodies.

The idea of the mambo consolidated with the arrival of Dámaso Pérez Prado in Mexico in 1949, the year he recorded a disc titled José y Macané. But it was with the recording, the same year, of Mambo No. 5 and Que rico el mambo that he found success. In Mexico, he recorded mambos with Benny Moré as the singer and also as the creator of some of the pieces. Pérez Prado became very popular because of his original and modern style as a composer and orchestra leader and for the quality of the musicians he brought into his orchestra.

In 1963, famed writer Alejo Carpentier affirmed that Pérez Prado’s contributions to world and Cuban music were many and valuable. He brought to Cuban music the centrality of the brass instruments and a subdivision of measures, as well as breaking down the musical divisions between weak and strong meters in a way that enriched Cuban music’s diversity and the variation of basic elements.

In the 1940s, Latino traditions caught on in New York, especially in music. Afro-Cuban bands achieved great popularity and that helped mambo catch on quickly. When Pérez Prado arrived in New York in 1952, the way was already paved for the mambo to become established in the way it did.

In the end, as Leonardo Acosta notes, for a new genre to become established, it must meet various requirements, such as rhythmic patterns, style of orchestration, form, structure, etc. Based on all this, and despite the obvious influences, Pérez Prado met the standard for having established a new musical style and genre called the mambo.


Author: Grupo Editorial 
Published: February 21, 2012.

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