These are the original irresistible, propulsive mambos that earned Perez Prado his crown as “The King of Mambo.” The first track here is the first one RCA-Mexicana let loose on the world. “Que Rico Mambo” is a flurry of lilting rhythms the Prado orchestra laid down in a Mexico City studio just 50 years ago. Taken with the flip side of “Mambo No. 5,” this one record ignited the world and started up a global Mambomania. Mambo today is hotter than ever, and people are still learning to dance to Prado’s original irrepressible music.
It’s nearly impossible to just listen to Prado’s mambos without beginning to move in time. Here are mambos howling, chanting, and begging for a response from your rhythm bone. Mambo can be something like an upbeat version of the Cuban rumba, with the emphasis on the offbeat. In the hands of Perez Prado, mambo is not just 4/4 rhythm, but offers truly sensational orchestrations. While there may have been a rhythm called “mambo” in Cuba before Prado, it was his treatment of the rhythm that most popularized “mambo.” He transformed the meter into rapturous, scorching dance tunes.
Some people who look at history with the clarity of hindsight see why the mambo became popular in North America in the late ‘40s. After the final volleys of the Second World War began fading from earshot, this vibrant music broke through to the surface, expressing and evoking the kinds of feelings found in people celebrating their freedom from war and obliteration. The world had been won and survived. There was barely a respite between conflicts as the Korean War soon erupted in the early ‘50s, but the music continued growing in popularity. Social historians say the mambo allowed people to work off some energy and anxiety in a socially acceptable way, by dancing themselves into a tizzy. I can accept all that as being true.
Yet Prado’s mambo was a magic mix. He had apprenticed in the Orquesta Casino de la Playa, which was the most famous Cuban band of the day. Being there playing night after night, he could see what music got people going on the floor. When he began creating his own music later in a Mexico City nightclub, he developed his own unique big band horn sections. Actually, Cuban music has an old tradition of brass bands (“tipicas”) playing lively passages in dance music (the “danzons”). Prado himself obviously loved the power of brass. In his energetic arrangements, the saxophones play in syncopation while the trumpets carry the melody. High-note trumpeteers with all their fiery brass riffs are laid over not just a rhythm section but a pyrotechnics display of percussion, all working together fueling Prado’s highly original tunes.
Prado said he composed his music from the sounds he heard in nature. Once I learned that, I could easily hear these sounds used in his music. From the actual sounds of nature, to everyday sounds heard in the city. One of his tone trips begins as a simple a step out into the world to be greeted by the jangled cacophony of the busy city streets. Here, Prado quickly calls for a cab and grabs a ride with “El Taxista Espanol” (“The Spanish Taxi”). This song (also called “Mambo del Ruletero”) carries us on a bouncy, jaunty trip through series of distinct musical passages through a vivid, colorful landscape. That’s it for me, mambo is like nature. There are a number of theories as to where even the word “mambo” came from. Ethnomusicologist Isabelle Leymarie says “mambo” is a Bantu word that means a “conversation with the gods.” Which may be why nothing can really define the excitement of Perez Prado’s mambos.
His mambos are tremendously physical music that just make people want to dance. When Prado conducted, he was exuberant. He would dance as he directed, turn, dip, spin, shout, and leap high into the air. The dancers of early mambo broke away from the tradition of ballroom style dancing and did not move across the floor together in a ballroom embrace. At the most, they touched hands while everything else moved. Prado experimented with different tempos, and this record is a good sampling of his works. “Mambo 8” shows the faster mambo that Prado came up with but he acceded to the requests of the dancers who were worn out early in the evening by the faster rhythm. They begged him to slow his mambos down so they might prolong their dancing pleasure.
In 1951, “Prez” took his band to perform in Peru and alarmed the Catholic Archdioceses. Cardinal Juan Gualberto Guevara of Lima vowed to deny absolution to anyone who danced “al compas del mambo.” Undeterred, Prado composed “Al Compas del Mambo” as a retort to the cardinal, but that’s not included on this disc. What is included is that slinking off-chordal organ leading into “Patricia.” That wolfish tune evokes the spirit and mood of a young hot-blooded man catching sight of an attractive woman (or “dish” as people said back then) strolling down the street. You can easily imagine him beginning to lope along at a discreet flirting distance, keeping her in sight while hoping to catch a spark of interest in her eye for him. “Patricia” soon made it to number one on U.S. charts in 1958 and eventually found its way into a strip scene in Fellini’s, La Dolce Vita. Prado found his next number one hit in 1961 with a cha-cha, a more subdued rhythm and a dance easier to learn than the mambo. “Cerezo Rosa” is here, better known when renamed “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White,” still listed by Billboard at number seven of the worldwide top selling instrumentals of all time. That was his last big hit. Prado kept performing and recording, but his popularity was eclipsed by different dance music.
You’ve noticed that people only seem to really pay attention to something when it is endangered or near extinction. Similar to the reasons that made mambo first popular, I think that’s why mambo in particular began making a startling resurgence in the early ‘90s. It’s somehow part of a natural process. The world will win and survive. So will the mambo.
As for me, I’m delighted the mambo is back in public favor. On Coleccion de Oro are the original versions which have since been re-recorded many times in slightly different ways by “Prez” himself. Once you’re hooked, you’ll want to explore the connoisseur discs and early films of Prado performing, a collection compiled and offered courtesy of the dedication of Juan Pedro Rivera. When he talks about Prado, he knows whereof he speaks as he was recording engineer for “El Rey del Mambo” for many years. Sr. Rivera posts his recollections and priceless memories of those golden times online for all to read and learn from at the Perez Prado Homepage.
(Just remember the really good mambo dancers start moving on the second beat.)