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Mambo is a musical genre and dance style that developed originally in Cuba. The word mambo, similarly to other Afroamerican musical denominations such as conga, milonga, bomba, tumba, timba, samba, semba, bamba, bamboula, tambo, tango, cumbé, cumbia and candombe, denotes an African origin, particularly Congolese, because it displays certain characteristic combinations of sounds (such as mb, ng and nd) which belong to the Niger-Congo linguistic complex. In modern Swahili, the word mambo corresponds to the English phrase "Hey, what's up?" The Oxford Online Dictionary lists mambo as Haitian-Creole from Yoruba meaning "voodoo priestess".
The earliest roots of mambo can be traced to the "Danzón de Nuevo Ritmo" (Danzón with a new rhythm) made popular by the orchestra Arcaño y sus Maravillas conducted by the famous bandleader Antonio Arcaño.
Antonio Arcaño was the first to denominate a section of the popular Cuban danzón as a mambo. In 1910, José Urfé added a montuno (typical son improvised closing section) as a final part of his El Bombín de Barretto. This was a swinging section consisting of a repeated musical phrase, which introduced some elements of the son into the danzón. During the mid-to-late 1930s, some members of the Arcaño group were saying vamos a mambear ("let's mambo") when referring to the montuno or final improvisation of the danzón. It was Arcaño's cellist, Orestes López, who created the first danzón called "Mambo" (1938). In this piece, some syncopated motives taken from the son style were combined with improvised flute passages.
Antonio Arcaño described the mambo as follows: "Mambo is a type of syncopated montuno that possesses the rhythmic charm, informality and eloquence of the Cuban people. The pianist attacks the mambo, the flute picks it up and improvises, the violin executes rhythmic chords in double stops, the double bass inserts a tumbao, the timbalero plays the cowbell, the güiro scrapes and plays the maracas rhythm, the indispensable tumba (Conga drum) reaffirms the bass tumbao and strengthens the timbal."
Dámaso Pérez Prado, a pianist and arranger from Matanzas, Cuba, established his residence in Havana at the beginning of the 1940s and began to work at night clubs and orchestras, such as Paulina Alvarez's and Casino de La Playa. In 1949 he traveled to Mexico looking for job opportunities and achieved great success with a new style, to which he assigned a name that had been already used by Antonio Arcaño, the mambo.
Perez Prado's style differed from the previous mambo concept. The new style possessed a greater influence from North-American jazz, and an expanded instrumentation consisting of four to five trumpets, four to five saxophones, double bass, drums, maracas, cowbell, congas and bongoes. This new mambo included a catchy counterpoint between the trumpets and the saxophones that induced the body to move along with the rhythm, stimulated at the end of each musical phrase by a characteristic deep throat sound expression.
Because his music was aimed at an audience that lived primarily outside Cuba, Pérez Prado used a large number of international influences, especially North-American, in his arrangements. This is evident in his arrangements of songs such as "Mambo Rock", "Patricia" and "Tequila", where he uses a triple meter U.S. "swing" rhythm fused with elements from Cuban rumba and son. Pérez Prado's repertoire included numerous international pieces such as "Cerezo Rosa", "María Bonita", "Tea For Two", "La Bikina", "Cuando Calienta El Sol", "Malagueña" and "En Un Pueblito Español", among many others.
Beny Moré also lived in Mexico between 1945 and 1952; it was there where people started calling him Beny or Benny instead of Bartolo. He composed and recorded some mambos there with Mexican orchestras, especially the one led by Rafael de Paz; they recorded "Yiri Yiri Bon", "La Culebra", "Mata Siguaraya", "Solamente Una Vez" and "Bonito Y Sabroso", a song where he praises the dancing skills of Mexicans and claims that Mexico City and La Habana are sister cities. Also in Mexico, Benny and Perez Prado recorded several mambos including "La Múcura", "Rabo Y Oreja", and "Pachito E'ché" . At this time Benny also recorded with the orchestra of Jesús "Chucho" Rodríguez. El "Chucho" was so impressed with Benny's musical ability that he referred to him as "El Barbaro del Ritmo".
Prado's recordings were meant for the Latin American and U.S. latino markets, but some of his most celebrated mambos, such as "Mambo No. 5" and "Que Rico El Mambo", quickly crossed over to a wider U.S. audience.
Mambo arrived in 1947 and mambo music and dance became popular soon. Recording companies began to use mambo to label their records and advertisements for mambo dance lessons were in local newspapers. New York City had made mambo a transnational popular cultural phenomenon. By the mid-1950s mambo mania had reached fever pitch. In New York the mambo was played in a high-strung, sophisticated way that had the Palladium Ballroom, the famous Broadway dance-hall, jumping. The Ballroom soon proclaimed itself the "temple of mambo", for the city's best dancers--the Mambo Aces, "Killer Joe" Piro, Augie and Margo Rodriguez, Paulito and Lilon, Louie Maquina and Pedro "Cuban Pete" Aguilar--gave mambo demonstrations there and made a reputation for their expressive use of arms, legs, head and hands. Augie and Margo were still dancing 50 years later (2006) in Las Vegas.
Some of New York's biggest mambo dancers and bands of the 1950s included: Augie & Margo, Michael Terrace & Elita, Carmen Cruz & Gene Ortiz, Larry Selon & Vera Rodríguez, Mambo Aces(Anibal Vasquez and Samson Batalla), Killer Joe Piro, Paulito and Lilon, Louie Maquina, Pedro Aguilar ("Cuban Pete"), Machito, Tito Rodríguez, Jose Curbelo, Akohh, and Noro Morales.
Pérez Firmat, Gustavo. "Mad for Mambo," in The Havana Habit. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010.