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Mambo Mania

by Kate Pickett

Mambo is one of the most popular musical genres to originate from the Caribbean. Learn about its history, answer a few trivia questions, and listen to some danceable music.

Props and Preparations

  • Download the following songs for the listening portion: (See below if you are not sure how to do it.)
    • "Patricia"
    • "Oye Como Va"
    • "Mambo Number 5"
    • "Sway (Quien Sera)"
    • "Mambo Inn"
  • Print a copy of the pictures of mambo percussion instruments to show the group.

Mambo Mania

History of Mambo

Mambo arose from the island nation of Cuba in the late 1930s. Its precursor, danzón, appeared in the late 19th century and heavily influenced the country's music. One of the most popular bands in Cuba in the 1930s was an orchestra led by flute player Antonio Arcaño. It was called Arcaño y sus Maravillas, meaning "Arcaño and His Marvels." Two of the band members, brothers Orestes Lopez and Israel "Cachao" Lopez, played important roles in the evolution of Cuban music.

Cachao Lopez, the band's bassist, is considered the inventor of mambo. He and Orestes, a multi-instrumentalist, composed thousands of songs together. They introduced nuevo ritmo into their music. Nuevo ritmo (meaning "new rhythm") transformed the European-influenced danzón style by adding heavy African rhythms. The first mambo song ever recorded was Cachao's "Rarezas," and the first modern song of the genre was the 1938 composition by the Lopez brothers titled "Mambo." Although the Lopez brothers laid the groundwork for mambo, it was other artists who developed the adaptation further.

From Cuba, mambo made its way to Mexico in the 1940s and then to the United States in the 1950s. New York City newspapers began publishing articles about the emerging "mambo revolution" in music and dance, and dance teachers were advertising mambo lessons. By the mid 1950s, mambo was an international phenomenon. The New York dance hall Palladium Ballroom became a self-proclaimed "temple of mambo." The city's best dancers, such as Augie and Margo Rodriguez, would give demonstrations there. The 1950s and 1960s were the golden age of mambo in the United States, and then the 1970s made way for a salsa craze.

Name the Bandleader

(Based on the clues, see if your group can guess the names of two famous mambo bandleaders.)

Bandleader #1

  • This bandleader was a Cuban pianist, singer, and organist. His band was popular throughout the 1940s and 1950s. He moved to Mexico in 1948.
  • Two of his most famous pieces were "Que Rico Mambo" and "Mambo No. 5," both recorded in 1949.
  • He is often referred to as the "King of Mambo."
  • In 1955, he hit the U.S. charts with a cha-cha version of "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White."
  • In 1958, his song "Patricia" was a #1 hit.
  • His initials are P. P.

Answer: Perez Prado

(If you want, pause and listen to the piano recording of "Patricia." Do you recognize the music?)

Bandleader #2

  • This bandleader/percussionist was born in New York City in 1923 to Puerto Rican parents. Because of his success playing Afro-Cuban rhythms, he was often mistaken as being Cuban.
  • He is credited as "The King of Latin Music" and "El Rey de los Timbales" ("King of the Timbales," a type of drum). In the 1960s, he replaced Perez Prado as the prominent leader in the mambo movement.
  • His career spanned several decades, during which he played mambo, salsa, jazz, cha-cha-cha, and other Latin musical styles.
  • In 1979, he won his first of five Grammy awards for the albums A Tribute to Benny Moré, On Broadway, Mambo Diablo, and Goza Mi Timbal.
  • He died in 2000 and was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award three years later.
  • His initials are T. P.

Answer: Tito Puente

(Pause and listen to the piano recording of "Oye Como Va" if you want. Does the music sound familiar?)

Fun Facts About Mambo

  • The word mambo comes from the Kikongo language, which was spoken by African slaves taken to Cuba. It translates to "conversations with the gods."
  • The 1992 film Mambo Kings is about two brothers, Cesar and Nestor Castillo (played by Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas) who leave Cuba for America in the 1950s in the hopes of reviving their failed musical careers.
  • A type of mambo called the cha-cha-chá became popular in Havana, Cuba, in 1954. It featured a characteristic hiccup on the fourth beat, and was easier to dance than the mambo. The cha-cha-chá later spread to Europe.
  • "Mambo Italiano" is a popular song written by Bob Merrill in 1954 and recorded by Rosemary Clooney. Merrill actually scribbled it hastily on a paper napkin in an Italian restaurant in New York City. The song became a hit for Clooney, reaching #10 on the U.S. music charts in early 1955.
  • "Papa Loves Mambo" is a popular song written by Al Hoffman, Dick Manning, and Bix Reichner and published in 1954. The best-known version was recorded by Perry Como in New York City on August 31, 1954. It peaked at #4 on the music charts that same year.

What percussion instruments are used in mambo music?

(Pass out the pictures of the different instruments.)

Conga: Also called a tumbadora, the conga is a tall, narrow, single-headed Cuban drum. It's played by striking withthe hands.

Cajón (pronounced kah-HONE): Meaning "crate" in Spanish, the cajón is a box-shaped percussion instrument. Originally from Peru, it's played by slapping the front face with the hands.

Bongos: The bongo is an Afro-Cuban drum that comes in pairs, with one drum bigger than the other. Smaller than a conga, it is also played by striking with the hands.

Timbales (pronounced teem-BAH-lays): Timbales are shallow, single-headed Cuban drums with a metal casing. They are played with drumsticks.

Claves (pronounced CLAH-vays): Claves are a pair of wood pieces with a resonating chamber that are played by striking them together.

Other mambo instruments include upright bass, piano, trombone, trumpet, and saxophone.

Listening Exercise/Discussion

(Listen to the five mambo recordings and discuss.)

  • What do these songs have in common, and how are they different? How would you describe the rhythms?
  • Can you identify any of the song titles from the piano versions?
  • Do you remember when mambo was popular? Did you ever listen to it on the radio?
  • Have you ever tried dancing the mambo?

Additional Activities