Our Top 10 Mongo Santamaria Songs introduces us to an Afro-Cuban percussionist who became influential to the salsa, Latin Jazz, Pachanga, and boogaloo music genres. Born in 1917 in Havana, Cuba, Ramon Santamaria Rodriguez alias Mongo Santamaria would have his nickname “Mongo” from his father, a Malian name believed to mean “the chief of the tribe.” Mongo Santamaria would learn to play the congas in the streets of his hometown while posing as an amateur rumba musician. After all, this is the life he would only afford like most of the other poor Afro-Cuban children in Havana. His father had died when he was young while the mother used to sell coffee and cigarettes on the streets for a living. Mongo Santamaria would later learn to play the bongos from Chicho Piquero, showcasing his skills in tour with successful bands such as Sonora Matancera and the Lecuona Cuban Boys.
It wasn’t until 1937 that Mongo Santamaria got his first big chance in music when he was inducted into the Septeto Bolona band as a musician. Moving on to New York in 1950, Mongo Santamaria was set for success, having him featured as a lead artist for Latin bands such as Cal Tjader, Perez Prado, and Tito Puente. However, his solo career would start shortly after he disagreed and parted ways with the band, Tito Puente in 1957. Mongo Santamaria moved to California, where he signed with Fantasy Records, through which he released his 1959 album “Mongo.” A few years later, he would release his version of Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man,” which became his breakthrough song. Mongo Santamaria is known for fusing native Cuba vibes with R&B and Jazz to create a unique sound that made him quite a popular Afro-Cuban artist in America. Our top 10 Mongo Santamaria songs look at the best releases from this late iconic musician trained by the streets.
#10 – Yeh, Yeh
Introducing us to the top 10 Mongo Santamaria songs is the song “Yeh, Yeh” from his 1963 album Watermelon Man. “Yeh, Yeh” was a Latin soul tune first written as an instrumental by Pat Patrick and Rodgers Grant. Jon Hendricks would later come up with its lyrics for the vocal group Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. When Mongo Santamaria performed this song, his version topped the UK Singles Chart breaking The Beatles’ long-term grasp of the number one spot on the chart with their hit “I Feel Fine.” The song later appeared on the US Billboard Pop Singles Chart, peaking at number 21.
#9 – Feelin’ Alright
“Feelin’ Alright” is one of the best pop Mongo Santamaria songs ever released. The song was written by Dave Mason, only to be released in 1968 by Traffic. Mongo Santamaria, as usual, did what he does best with covers, rebranding it to become one of his best releases. The song was featured on a self-titled album released in 1970.
#8 – We Got Latin Soul
There is no better to appreciate your roots than associate yourself with your origin. Even after getting to America, Mongo Santamaria still believed that he was an Afro-Cuban. This is best revealed in his song “We Got Latin Soul,” a hit known for its catchy vibe. You ought to love Mongo Santamaria’s vocals on this song, having them complement the superb instrumental the song comes with. The R&B/Soul song also carries some Latin vibe with it, making it a trademark song for the praise of Mongo Santamaria’s roots.
#7 – Cloud Nine
We might have mentioned that Mongo Santamaria took some while learning how to play the congas! Well, this is the song that his skills are best exhibited! “Cloud Nine” brings on a classic yet funky vibe, and before you realize it, you’re already jamming to the beat of the song. You ought to love the spice the sax tune brings to this song.
#6 – Watermelon Man
Thanks to “Watermelon Man,” that Mongo Santamaria saw brighter days for his music career. “Watermelon Man” was Mongo Santamaria’s rendition of Herbie Hancock’s original song by the same title. When you pick on a song so big as Herbie’s original release for “Watermelon Man,” it’s quite a gamble to impress the music fans. However, Mongo Santamaria didn’t struggle much with this, becoming the greatest song in his prime. The song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998.
#5 – Cold Sweat
Mongo Santamaria proved to be the king of the congas with the song “Cold Sweat” in this sublime jazz song. “Cold Sweat” was his cover for the original release by James Brown. This song served as one of the greatest reasons many put their money on Mongo Santamaria’s album Soul Bag. While many artists have covered the song, Mongo Santamaria’s version remains among the reputable ones the world has ever heard.
#4 – Me and You Baby
“Me and You Baby” is yet another song from this congas instrument master that brings on quite some deep Latino vibes to his music. And to make the song even greater, Mongo Santamaria has his voice tower over the sublime instrumental. Not only is his song quite powerful, but iconic and emotion-filled in this release.
#3 – Mambo Mongo
Number 3 in our top 10 Mongo Santamaria songs list is “Mambo Mongo,” one of the most awe-inspiring Latin jazz ballads. Mongo Santamaria disappoints in this song, presenting yet another sublime congas performance that never ceases to amaze. The song brings Latino jazz at its best, thanks to skills Mongo Santamaria had gathered from his native land Cuba.
#2 – Afro Blue
Released in 1959, “Afro Blue” was the first jazz standard to use the African cross-rhythm pattern where the bass plays six cross-beats with four main beats produced by the flute and Marimba. As its name suggests, the song tries to incorporate some African vibes into jazz. It is no lie that the song can make a perfect soundtrack for an African nature documentary!
#1 – Sofrito
Summing up, Mongo Santamaria’s music career is his best release, “Sofrito,” which brings the best of his instrumental art. The song proves to be a futuristic release thanks to the sublime and modern vibe of jazz that inspired jazz artists that came after him. Mongo Santamaria still tags along with his Latino vibe to the song making his roots part not from him at any moment. His vocals blended with the flute sound make the song a masterpiece!
Feature Photo: Associated Booking Corporation (management); photographer: Ronnie Brathwaite, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
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