Ramón “Mongo” Santamaría Rodríguez (April 7, 1917 – February 1, 2003) was a rumba quinto master and an Afro-Cuban Latin jazz percussionist. He is most famous for being the composer of the jazz standard “Afro Blue“, recorded by John Coltrane among others. In 1950 he moved to New York City where he played with Perez Prado, Tito Puente, Cal Tjader, Fania All Stars, etc. He was an integral figure in the fusion of Afro-Cuban rhythms with R&B and soul, paving the way for the boogaloo era of the late 1960s. His 1963 hit rendition of Herbie Hancock‘s “Watermelon Man” (recorded on December 17, 1962) was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998.
Mongo Santamaría was one of a handful of Cuban congueros (“conga players”) who came to the United States in the 1940s and 1950s. Other notable congueros who came to the U.S. during that time include Armando Peraza, Chano Pozo, Francisco Aguabella, Julito Collazo, Carlos Vidal Bolado and Modesto Durán. Many[who?] consider Santamaría to have been the greatest conga drummer of the twentieth century.
Santamaría learned rumba as a kid in the streets of Havana’s Jesús María barrio. He reminisced: “In the neighborhood where I came from we had all kinds of music, mostly from Africa. We did not leave it alone; we changed it our way. The music we made dealt with religion and conversation. The drum was our tool and we used it for everything”. Gerard points out: “Santamaría, like other drummers of his generation, learned music in the streets by observing different drummers. When he started playing professionally, he learned on the job. His approach was utilitarian, not theoretical”.Santamaría was mentored on bongos and rumba quinto by Clemente “Chicho” Piquero, who played in Beny Moré’s band. He recalled: “I would go with Chicho and play the tumbadora and also the [quinto]. I would play everything because I learned a lot from Chicho—because he could play everything”.