AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL UNIVERSITY
MASTER OF PHILOSOPHY IN MUSIC THESIS INTERVIEWS
Dario Rosendo was born in Cuba and moved to the US in 1961. He knew Mongo Santamaria personally for more than thirty years. He is a conga player, a concert and events promoter, radio presenter and an avid conga drum collector. He currently resides in Miami.
The following interview with Dario Rosendo was especially conducted for my Master of Philosophy in Music [By Research] thesis titled The Conga Drum: Development, Technique, Styles, Improvisations and the contribution of Master Drummer Ramon ‘Mongo’ Santamaria which I completed in 2008 at the ANU in Canberra. The thesis documents the conga drum’s historical development, investigates basic hand techniques and current technical hand developments, as well as the enormous contribution of master drummer Ramon 'Mongo' Santamaria, arguably the most influential player in the history of the instrument, exploring his percussive output as well as his ensemble, composition and arranging proficiency. I conducted this interview with Dario Rosendo via telephone.
PERTOUT: When did you get interested in congas?
ROSENDO: Back in Cuba there was a lot of rumba and in my neighbourhood particularly, and I just got fascinated by it. My father may he rest in peace being from Spanish background, was Galician and didn't understand why a little white boy like me was so interested in the Afro-Cuban styles of drumming. I always loved it though. I developed some things on my own and played as I felt, this was my childhood in Cuba and then we moved to the US around 1961.
PERTOUT: How and when did you commence your connection with Mongo?
ROSENDO: I had seen Mongo on an Andy Williams television show when I was young and that image and sound stayed with me. Although I was in the US and the rock’n’roll sounds were prevalent and also part of my life, I had this strong Afro-Cuban connection. Later when I was a student in the late 1960s, there was a concert here in Miami featuring an array of artists including Marvin Gaye and Mongo Santamaria. It was like a soul review type of concert. I went along with friends but had no money and could not afford the entry fee, then I noticed Mongo arriving in a bus. Now I knew he was Latin but didn't really know that he was Cuban. We approached him and asked him if we could him take the gear inside the venue to get in as we didn't have the money to pay. He immediately said you are compatriots, if you can help we'll all walk in together. And that’s how my friendship with Mongo started. The next time I saw him was at Miami Dade Community College at a concert there where he also had Armando Peraza with him. Mongo gave me a conga lesson right there and then, in front of people after the concert.
PERTOUT: What did he show you?
ROSENDO: I asked him about the basic tumbao and he explained how to develop the left hand. He had this saying ‘pura-madura’, he would tell me to make sure my left hand was sounding just like it was saying that, it had to sound like that phrase. Then he gave me his number and told me to call him if I ever got to New York. I did and spent many, many times with him. He became like family, as if he was my dad. From then on every time he came to Miami I would tell him not to bring his congas as I would take mine to the concerts. I would spend time with him and take him out and around. I spent a long time with him till he died. When he was dying in hospital I was there holding his hand. I loved him like a father, he was an amazing man.
PERTOUT: I believe in the last few years of his life he lived in Miami?
ROSENDO: Yes he was here, but I must say not very happy. He would always tell me that he didn't like the opinions of the exiled Cuban community as they are so right wing. He also felt that they were somewhat racist. As he was a black Cuban man he would often remind me that there were no black Cubans on television in Miami. Racism always bothered him. He suffered a lot when he was young. He would tell me that New York was a really different city, that in New York you could see black Latin Americans on television, that in contrast in Miami they were all white.
PERTOUT: Was he living in Miami with family?
ROSENDO: He was living with Yolanda, a woman who had been at one point in time associated with Joe Frazier, the boxer. He had a club in Philadelphia called The Knockout and Yolanda was the hostess there. Mongo used to play in that club, they developed a relationship and lived together. She used to look after him very well. That was the last eight years of his life. I think Yolanda was very good with him, she was a lot younger and really looked after him. In the last days of his life, Mongo lived alone, however he had family members close by.
PERTOUT: Where was the rest of his family?
ROSENDO: Ileana Santamaria who was his wife lived in New York. I think she worked for the United Nations. Her daughter Ileanita is the one who sings, I met her in nappies, nowadays she is a singer. Mongo was very proud of her. Mongo had six children, Ileanita is the youngest. Nancy is the oldest, then Monguito the pianist, then Felipe, Rosita, Felicia who lives in Los Angeles and then Ileanita. Monguito is in Miami and plays piano, he was with Fania records in the 1970s. He is now rehearsing a new band and trying to do a few things on the back of his father's name. Felipe who is an electrician is also a great quinto player, music in his blood.
PERTOUT: Can you tell me about his Vergara congas?
ROSENDO: Tommy Saito has the last set of Mongo's Vergara congas. He is a Japanese gentleman, who must be in his seventies and lives in California. When Mongo used to play with Cal Tjader, he was a fan of the band and would follow Mongo around. Mongo bought him three Vergara congas back when he went to Cuba to record for Fantasy records. The last set Mongo used to play actually belonged to Tommy, because Mongo's original sets had been robbed at The BlackHawk club in San Francisco. The congas Mongo has on the cover of Live At The Village Gate for example are his Vergara congas, the red one as well. Mongo use to often paint some of his congas red, as he was a santero and believed in chango. Sometimes he would leave them in the original wood colour. The ones on that cover of that particular album he had from 1961, he had them until a few months before he died. Then I packed them up for him and sent them back to his owner Tommy Saito. Generally he would paint one red and would say "that one is for chango.”
PERTOUT: What about the ones on the cover of the Soy Yo album?
ROSENDO: Those were made by Jose Garcia. When Mongo bought three Vergara congas for Tommy Saito in Cuba he also bought three for Jose Garcia, a Mexican gentleman who now lives close by here. Jose had a relative that worked in fibreglass, he made some fibreglass moulds from Vergara congas and then gave them to Mongo as a present in the mid 1980s. I also bought three of those congas made by Jose Garcia and one day doing a performance with Andy Harlow in Calle Ocho someone took them.
PERTOUT:Who was behind the Vergara brand?
ROSENDO: Gonzalo Vergara was a Spaniard in Cuba who was not a player but an artisan. He made the best congas, like Stradivarius. He made congas from the late 1940s, maybe around 1948 to around 1964. He ended up in jail in 1964 and I believe he died there.
PERTOUT: And the brands you see around now like Skin On Skin, Junior, JCR, Matthew Smith, they are all Vergara lookalikes?
ROSENDO: Yes, they are imitating the Vergara congas, all based on the Vergara model.
PERTOUT: And what sort of skins do they use?
ROSENDO: In the main they are all using cow skins, as the mule skins are extremely hard to obtain.
PERTOUT: What type of skins did Mongo like on the congas?
ROSENDO: First of all don't forget that Mongo was a bongo player, he took up the tumba later, in Cuba he was known as a bongo player. Mongo use to like a very thin skin, he didn't like thick skins, he use to say that it affected the drum. As far as drums, his favourite were the Vergaras. He was endorsed by Meinl and played those congas, but his favourite were still those Vergaras, which actually belonged to Tommy Saito.
PERTOUT: As far as Mongo teaching you, what are your recollections?
ROSENDO: He showed me some things, some Afro-Cuban things like palo and he helped me with my tumba. He used to tell me that I had a lazy left hand that I had to develop that hence the phrase ‘pura-madura’ that he kept repeating to me to hear the pattern. He would demonstrate that to me. Because he wasn't a schooled musician, he didn't read music or anything like that, it was all taught in that form. I remember meeting the great Kako who did a stint with Mongo and he asked me "did Mongo teach you ‘pura-madura’?” and I said "of course". The really helped me in my development.
PERTOUT: What about in terms of his professional friendships with colleagues in New York?
ROSENDO: At times he would tell me about his dissatisfaction with the Latin community in New York in terms of the adaptation of Cuban sounds and styles under the salsa umbrella. He was often angry about the fact that they used the terms salsa, or the ‘New York sound’. To him it was all mambo, cha cha cha, it was guaracha Cubana, it was Cuban music. He felt that players such as Eddie Palmieri and Ray Barretto had this thing going on like that, Mongo used to say "New York sound? New York sound my ass, that is Cuban music.” Ray Barretto really loved Mongo though, loved him, but Mongo never let him get close.
PERTOUT: What did he think of the new generation of players like Giovanni?
ROSENDO: Around 2001 I took him to a drum clinic by Giovanni Hidalgo and Giovanni dedicated the whole night to him. They played Afro Blue, Para Ti, Come Candela, Mambo Mongo, all those numbers. He was quite weak around that time already. Later he told me that he had felt like playing that night. He thought Giovanni was the best player around. He also loved Poncho Sanchez very much, Poncho was very sweet to him. Mongo was very proud of Poncho's career but would say Giovanni is in a class of his own. Giovanni loved Mongo as well. On that particular night Giovanni dedicated the concert to Mongo. He said that Mongo was like his father, he came down the stage and kissed Mongo's hands. Giovanni was also part of the Tito Puente Golden All Stars band that also included Mongo as an invited guest.
PERTOUT: Did he talk to you about his influences?
ROSENDO: Yes he would mention Clemente Piquero ‘Chicho’ who was Beny More’s bongo player and also played with Septeto Boloña. They were from the suburb where Mongo grew up, the Jesus Maria district of Havana. Mongo replaced him as a teenager when ‘Chicho’ went to play with the Matamoros group. He was Mongo's idol.
PERTOUT: Was Mongo close to Chano Pozo?
ROSENDO: Yes they were friends, Mongo did play with Chano. Chano had a dance review in a club, it was called Congo Pantera and Mongo played quinto. Mongo and Silvestre Mendez were in the ensemble and Chano used to dress as a panther and dance. Mongo also played bongos in Chano's Conjunto Azul. Later Mongo and Armando Peraza played with a dance review that was called Pablito Y Linon, they went to Mexico then to the US. When Pablito killed Linon in a jealous rage then killed himself, Mongo and Armando started a duo and called themselves The Black Diamonds in New York. Then he joined Perez Prado and later Cal Tjader before developing his solo career.
Telephone Interview. 26 January 2007.
© Alex Pertout. All rights reserved. No part of this article
may be reproduced without prior written permission from the author. This article forms part of the thesis ‘The Conga Drum: Development, Technique, Styles, Improvisations and the contribution of Master Drummer Ramon ‘Mongo’ Santamaria’ which was submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of the degree of Master of Philosophy in Music [by Research] Faculty of Arts, Australian National University.