Candido Camero – July 2021 WICN’s Artist of the Month
Written by Doug Hall on July 1, 2021
When the Afro-Cuban jazz sound traveled to the U.S. in the 1940s, with roots rhythmically based on Cuban popular dance music and a percussion that, in fact, incorporated the earliest sounds of a syncopated beat from ancient Africa, it became a performance vehicle for many Cuban musicians. The initial prominent modern musical force in this transition was Cuban-born musical prodigy and trumpeter Mario Bauzá, co-founder and director of the Machito and his Afro-Cubans band (led by Francisco Grillo, aka “Machito”), with early recordings in 1941, while also introducing the legendary Tito Puente as timbalero (musician using two standing drums with cowbells, called timbales). In the mid-1930s, Bauzá would perform in the U.S. with both the Chick Webb Orchestra (which included vocalist Ella Fitzgerald) and later join the Cab Calloway Orchestra. Upon meeting trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie in Calloway’s band, together they would create a “musical fusion” between Cuban music and Gillespie’s bebop, so named “cubop.” Back in Cuba, with successful popularity and commercial exposure in the 1940s, Cuban band leaders Armando Romeu Jr. and Damaso Perez Prado would be performing to sold-out shows with international audiences at the Tropicana nightclub in the capital city of Havana.
During the 1950s, Havana offered a pre-Las Vegas outlet of adult entertainment with casinos and nightclubs, running all night, offering all forms of entertainment, much of which was not available legally in the United States. With a highly rhythmic, driving, and danceable tempo, Cuban orchestras delivered a high-test sound to an audience that wanted to “cut loose.” But underlying the impassioned and sexy sound of these Afro-Cuban orchestras was a percussion that drove a beat on Cuban-style drums that would later become a featured solo instrument.
Along with his predecessors, Havana bongo and congas virtuosos Mongo Santamaría and Chano Pozo, Cándido Camero would become the “father of modern conga drumming” and credited with being the first Latin-based percussionist to bring congo drumming to jazz. Candido remains a much larger figure in the overall influence of the integration of the Afro-Cuban sound into American jazz and a legendarily charismatic and dazzling virtuoso on stage.
A multi-instrumentalist, Camero had learned to play several instruments in a musical family, including piano and bass, turning to percussion at an early age. In excerpts from Ivan Acosta’s 2006 documentary, “Cándido Camero: Hands of Fire,” Camero recalled, “At 4 years old my uncle would start to teach me congas, I had two cans of condensed milk cans and put some skins on them. My uncle was a professional bongo player and he told me, ‘I’m going to teach you – repeat what I play on the bongos’, and I would play it back to him.”
In the 1920s, Cándido Camero Guerra began his life in a small barrio on the outskirts of Havana, Cuba. As a young child, he would go on to learn several instruments by way of instruction by relatives in his extended family, who were musicians and performers. “I learned to play Tres (a six-string Cuban acoustic guitar), taught by my father and I learned to play the bass because my grandfather taught me, and I started playing the congas in 1940.” In Acosta’s documentary, Camero relates his innate and irresistible urge to keep a beat, “When I was little, at suppertime, my mother would say, ‘Let’s eat’ and I would start banging on the table as if I were playing the bongos. My mother would say ‘Stop playing on the table’ – then my grandfather used to say, ‘leave him alone – he’ll be famous someday’, and that’s something I’ve never forgotten.”
At 21, Camero would be playing both congas and bongos for a Cuban radio station (for 6 years) and then make a career breakthrough to the most important stage for all Cuban musicians, the Tropicana night club in Havana, helping gain attention and build a reputation during these formative early years. He would perform at the Tropicana for 6 years, playing with all the famous Cuban orchestras and bands and, most importantly, meeting legendary conga percussionist, dancer, composer, and choreographer Chan Pozo, considered a founder of Latin Jazz. Performing in Pozo’s band was Conjunto Azul, who would also connect Camero with Pozo’s lead percussionist, Mongo Santamaría, legendary Cuban drummer, bandleader, and innovator, who, along with Pozo, would have an enormous influence on popularizing Latin Jazz in the U.S.
Camero came to the United States in 1946 with a musical revue tour, Tidbits, backing up the Cuban dance team Carmen and Rolando, and this became an innovative and pivotal moment that would change his career. Typically, the rhythmic accompaniment for dancers was anchored by two or more conga players or congueros. Knowing there was only enough money for one conguero (him) to travel with the dancers, Mr. Camero began experimenting with the smaller quinto drum. Camero had changed the use of his instrument, which then evolved to a set of two or three congas and other Cuban drums, for accompaniment to Latin dance music and later, for jazz compositions.
“Mr. Camero played the steady, underlying rhythm with his left hand on the conga, while unfurling complex, dancelike solo figures with his right hand on the quinto, matching the dancers’ steps. It was similar to the way a pianist plays chords with the left hand, while using the right hand to play the melody and improvised embellishments.” (Matt Schudel, obituary writer, Washington Post, November 12, 2020)
Camero’s second major innovation and contribution to featuring congas as a solo instrument was to introduce tuning. “He created another unique playing style by tuning his congas to specific pitches so that he could play melodies like a pianist.” (NEA Jazz Master bio, 2008)
Coincidentally stepping into a period of fusion between Afro-Cuban, Latin music and the advent of bebop led by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, Camero would become a major influence on the percussion side of Gillespie’s musical arrangements. After a tragic turn of events in which pioneering Cuban percussionist and composer Chan Pozo was murdered in New York City, Gillespie sought out Camero as a replacement and chemistry of Latin rhythm and bebop innovation combined between both artists. Camero’s contribution was groundbreaking, as stated by world-renowned jazz vocalist Tony Bennett: “Dizzy invented bebop and he’s (Camero) the first one that put a Latin beat behind the jazz, and that changed the whole history of jazz.” Camero became part of Gillespie’s rhythm section, which developed into a fruitful and productive collaboration, culminating in the 1954 recording of Afro.
Later Gillespie introduced Camero to jazz pianist, composer, and bandleader Billy Taylor and was immediately integrated as part of the trio lineup, as Taylor reflects: “He fit right in – no rehearsal – no nothing – just started playing together as if we had been rehearsing all the time.”
From 1953-1955, Camero would perform and record with both Taylor and Gillespie and later tour with Stan Kenton’s Orchestra as a featured soloist. He cemented their respect for his musicianship while developing a lifelong bond of friendship with these bandleaders. As stated by Ray Santos, Cuban composer, arranger, and musical director, in the documentary, Candido: Hands of Fire (2006), “He (Camero) was one of the first to arrive here (U.S.) and he adapted himself to the jazz groups, with Billy Taylor, Stan Kenton – they loved his style, and he knew how to adapt his musical rhythms to the patterns of jazz.”
As a bandleader, he made his first recordings in 1956, for ABC-Paramount, and toured extensively through Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Miami, and New York.
Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, he would go on to perform and record with a wide field of jazz luminaries, including Tony Bennett, Miles Davis, Lionel Hampton, Charles Mingus, Wes Montgomery, Gerry Mulligan, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, and Clark Terry.
Moving between the jazz label Blue Note and the 70s disco craze, Camero joined a dance music label, Salsoul, releasing several singles that moved up the charts with regular airplay on popular radio stations and at U.S. discotheques.
Returning to his Afro-Cuban roots, Camero’s relationship with Dave Chesky of Chesky Records would be productive and resulted in a 2004 Grammy nomination for Inolvidable with Graciella, longtime lead singer for Machito and his Afro-Cubans band. In Acosta’s 2006 documentary, Dave Chesky speaks about the uniqueness of Camero’s playing style, “An incredible style and take (on the congas), very subtle – doesn’t bang on the drum – doesn’t hit really hard. A sweetness and lightness to his playing – complicated rhythms with both hands but effortless, a virtuoso.”
Receiving the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Award in 2008, Camero would reflect on his accomplishment as “seeing an impossible dream come true.”
He would continue to perform in jazz clubs in New York City up until the late 2010s, passing away on November 7, 2020, at his home in New York.
As a true innovator and unique artist, Camero would leave behind a distinctive legacy of Afro-Cuban musical influence on American jazz, especially bebop, and literally re-nvent the conga as a set of drums and a solo instrument that, with pitch tuning, could play a melody.