Latin Percussionist Newsletter Issue 5 Winter 1999
by David B. Meade
At seventy-three years, Candido Camero is as busy as any musician could hope to be in New York City. I naively thought that it would be no problem to line up an appointment with someone his age. I was grossly mistaken.
It took two months to finally line up a date to meet with him. Between jingles, club dates, concert appearances, dance festivals, clinics and recordings, I was finally able to sit with him and talk about his career in January of 1994.
I had been fortunate enough to play with Candido the previous summer and welcomed the opportunity to find out more about his life.
∞ Interview ∞
DM: When did you start performing as a professional?
CC: When I was fourteen years old.
DM: What year was that?
CC: Well, I was born in 1921.
DM: Where were you born?
CC: In Havana, Cuba.
DM: What was your first instrument?
CC: My first instrument was the bongos. One of my uncles from my mother's side taught me how to play. Then my father taught me how to play the tres. That's the Cuban lead guitar. My mother, you know, was a singer. Not a professional, but just around the house. We had a little group - we had a good time. I played since I was four years old. That's when I started to play the bongos.
DM: Did you have other family members who played?
CC: Yes, I have two brothers and one sister. One of my brothers took my place at the club in Cuba when I came to the United States.
DM: What groups did you play for in Cuba?
CC: Well, I worked at the number one radio station, C.M.Q. That was the number one station in all of Cuba. Also the number one nightclub called the Tropicana night club. So between these two, I recorded with everyone - all the big names. We did concerts, recordings, broadcasts coast-to-coast.
DM: Did you always go by the name "Candido"?
CC: Yes, since I was fourteen years old. Candido is also my father's name. My full name is Candido Camero. But I only use the name Candido in the states.
DM: Today, it'v very popular for big stars to go by only one name. You must be one of the earliest musicians to go by one name.
CC: Well I started doing that since I was professional. Just Candido.
DM: Your first gigs were on the bongos?
CC: Yes, the very first ones.
DM: Did you play the tres professionally?
CC: Yes. I've recorded on tres both here and in Cuba.
DM: When did you start playing congas?
CC: I started playing congas in 1940 when I was nineteen.
DM: Why did you start?
CC: Well, it was a coincidence, really, because of the group I played with called "Gloria Habanera" ( means glories of Havana). I was playing tres at that time and the conga player got sick so they decided to use me on the congas and hire another tres player. Then in the end, they said, "Okay, let's just have a guitar, no tres, and the conga drum instead". This was in 1940. That's when I started playing congas.
DM: Who did you listen to play congas? Did you have a hero or favorite drummer?
CC: The first group I heard in Cuba with congas was Arsenio Rodríguez. His brother Kiki played congas in the group. That was the first time I heard congas with a group. Then on a orchestra, called jazz band in Cuba, it was Miguelito Valdes, Casino de la Playa, and Desi Arnaz.
DM: You knew Desi in Havana?
CC: No, no. I met him here, because he came to the United States in 1934.
DM: Did you listen to American radio broadcasts in Cuba?
CC: Oh yes. All the time. I knew all the big bands and groups at that time. All the jazz bands.
DM: You heard bebop on the radio?
CC: Oh yeah, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and then all the big bands like Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, and Woody Herman...
DM: So you knew all the bands before you ever came to New York?
CC: Oh yes, by radio and records.
DM: Did you try to play that music Havana?
CC: At the Tropicana, we would play big band arrangements. Also, big bands would come down and tour - Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Woody Herman. That was all in the forties.
DM: So why did you go to New York?
CC: A dance team asked me to come to New York in 1946.
DM: Did you think you would stay in the United States?
CC: No. Not at that time. We came with a twelve week contract to play at a club called "Havana Madrid". It was on fifty-first street and Broadway.
DM: What sort of show did you do?
CC: It was a Cuban dance production. We had comedians. The stars of the show were Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis! And we were a trio dance team. A girl, a man and myself.
DM: Did you dance also?
CC: No, no, no! I would play for the dancers. I would play congas and bongos at the same time.
DM: What other styles did you play in Havana?
CC: We had to play everything.
DM: So you were playing congas with jazz big bands in Havana?
CC: That's right.
DM: Were there other people besides yourself doing this?
CC: Oh yes, many fine players. We were all very close. People like Mongo Santamaria. We used to have a septet. That's when I was playing the tres and Mongo was playing bongos. At that time we didn't use congas yet. We had tres, guitar, bongos, claves, maracas, bass, and trumpet. Seven all together. Most bands were using bongos, but I started playing congas in 1940.
DM: Did you know Chano Pozo?
CC: Yes, he was the first one to play congas with jazz musicians in the United States.
DM: But you and others were playing jazz music with congas before Chano came to the United States?
CC: Oh yes. In Cuba, Chano was at the Tropicana night club playing in the show. He was the star of the show. After I finished my contract at the Tropicana, I went to another club called the "Sansusi". So I was playing at the Sansusi and Chano was playing at the Tropicana.
DM: Were you rivals?
CC: No, no, no. Everybody liked everybody. Everyone had their own style, you know, personality - way to play. There was no competition. It was more like friendly competition. After work all the musicians used to get together. We were always talking, eating, and staying up late into the morning talking about music.
DM: What was Chano Pozo's style of drumming like?
CC: Well, he was good. He was a composer, singer, and dancer. He wasn't just a drummer. He was a showman. He went with Dizzy Gillespie.
DM: Did Dizzy see him in Cuba?
CC: No, someone, ah, Mario Bauza recommended him to Dizzy.
DM: Did Dizzy bring him up from Cuba?
CC: No, no. He came here with another dance team.
DM: Like you did?
CC: Yes, but that dance team included his wife and his wife's partner. They came here the same way I did. He came after me in 1947. I came in 1946. Mongo came after that in 1948.
DM: What happened to you after your twelve week contract with Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin was up?
CC: We went to "La Conga Nightclub".
DM: Where was that located?
CC: One block away from the "Havana Madrid Club". That's when Machito was there with his band and Chano came to La Conga also.
DM: What street was that club on?
CC: Broadway and fifty-first. Very near Fifty-second. Fifty second Street was all the jazz clubs. Side to side. The whole block. All the greats played there.
DM: Tell me about the dance team you came here with.
CC: Carmen and Rolando were their names. We worked in a club in Cuba. They were the ones who wanted to come here. They said they needed a bongo and conga player. There were supposed to have both but they didn't have enough money. So I told them to let me try and do both and since that moment up until now, I do both.
DM: Up until then you would normally play tres, bongos or congas?
CC: Yes, this was the first time somebody would do both: congas and bongos at the same time. Normally the man who played conga would keep the time. The other man would be soloing on the bongos. I did both at the same time. I would put the bongos between my legs and the congas on the floor to my left. My left hand would play a pattern on the conga and my right hand would riff on the bongos. I would riff along with the dancers.
DM: Who were the people who came to see you then?
CC: We got everybody at the show.
DM: So it wasn't segregated?
CC: No, no.
DM: Do you think people were more open at that time in terms of music and race?
CC: I never pay attention to that. I only know that people from all over, all races, all nationalities, and all religions come to hear the music. That's the only thing that matters. That's why I never discuss religion, race or politics. I just concentrate on the music. That's how I make my living and that's how I've been able to travel all over the world and never have problems. People keep asking me, "When you coming back?" I went to Japan once for twelve weeks and ended up staying a year and when I finished that contract they came back with another and I said, " Let me finish what I have to do in the United States first". Everywhere I go, that happens-- South America, Central America, all over the United States, Canada, Japan, Mexico, Europe, the Caribbean Islands, everywhere, since 1946. I never stopped traveling until now. I do a lot of recordings, jingles, concerts, and clinics at schools.
DM: So you're busy enough?
CC: Very busy, too busy. Too-oo busy!
DM: Did you study congas with anyone?
CC: No. I basically taught myself.
DM: Did you approach the congas with bongo technique?
DM: Many players tell of how you are able to get such great sounds from your fingers that normally requires hand technique.
CC: Yes. I use a lot of technique. I like the sound. It's clean, like a crystal sound for me...when I play the bongos and then play the congas...I like the sound just by using the fingers. When I solo I use my whole hand.
DM: How do you get a slap with the fingers?
CC: Well, the slap has to use the whole hand. The four fingers.
DM: Are you pulling on the head as you come down?
CC: No, I just come down.
DM: Does the head have to be a certain tension?
CC: It depends on the sound you like. You tune your drums to the interval you want. I use the notes A, C, and D with A being the lowest.
DM: How long have you used three drums?
CC: I started using three drums in 1950.
DM: What was the common set-up at that time?
CC: In Cuba at that time, the only time you had three drums was with three different men playing. Now it's different. Sometimes one person will play one, two or three drums.
DM: What did Chano Pozo use?
DM: So the best of your knowledge, you were the first person to play bongos and congas at the same time and the first person to play three drums at the same time?
CC: That's right.
DM: What made you want to use three drums?
CC: I did it so I could play melodies. I got the inspiration from the timpani.
DM: Do you play timbales?
CC: Yes. Timbales are used in charanga orchestras to play the danzón. I was honored by having my picture in The World Book Encyclopedia in 1960. Under the letter "D" for drum on page 290. They have a snare drum, a tom tom, bass drum, and a conga. And I'm behind the conga. My picture!
DM: I'd like to ask some questions about the people you have worked with.
CC: My list is like a phone book!
DM: What do you recall about Charlie Parker?
CC: I played with him many times. I recorded with him also. We did a concert at Carnegie Hall. I played both congas and bongos with him. One of the tunes I recorded with him at Carnegie Hall is called "Repetition". I played bongos and soloed on congas. He was a beautiful man-very humble-a genius. All those great players back then--whenever they put their horn in their mouth, wow!
DM: How did you, as a Cuban percussionist, adjust your style when you came to New York and started working with the bebop jazz musicians such as Charlie Parker?
CC: You had to adjust, because the feeling is different.
DM: In what way?
CC: Well, in jazz you have a "two-feel" and a "four-feel".
DM: Did you feel more at home in a particular style?
CC: No. I like everything. Every time I play, it's like me going to the street for the first time. That's why I enjoy it so much.
DM: Concerning the clave, many American musicians struggle in trying to understand where the pattern starts whether it's in 2-3 clave or 3-2 clave.
CC: Well, it depends on the music.
DM: How do you know when something is "2-3" or "3-2" clave?
CC: You can tell by the tune.
DM: What if the tune is not in clave? What if the composer didn't know the clave when the tune was written?
CC: So you have to change the part so it's in clave. If you really know the clave, you know as soon as you play the tune.
DM: How can you develop that skill?
CC: By listening.
DM: Did you ever talk about clave with musicians such as Charlie Parker? When the early Latin-jazz forms came together, Cuban musicians working with Black Americans, were there arguments or conflicts like, "No you can't do that. That's out of clave!"?
CC: No, no, no. It never happened.
DM: How come it happens now but never happened then?
CC: I don't know why. Maybe out of respect between musicians.
DM: Were they trying to fit into you or you trying to fit into them?
CC: Well, both.
DM: So you never talked about clave with Charlie Parker?
CC: No, no. As soon as I heard him, I knew what to do.
DM: But did he know what you were doing?
CC: Oh yes. Definitely! And how! Every one of those musicians. They knew. Yes!
DM: How did they develop it?
CC: They associated the conga drum with the hi-hat. The conga drum was connected to beats two and four. (see Figure 1)
CC: In those days, the clave started on the "three" section. That's the strongest part. But it always depends on who comes first.
DM: How did you learn that? Did someone teach you that?
CC: No, no, no. That's my ear who told me. My right ear!
DM: Did you ever discuss this with Mongo Santamaria?
CC: No. This sort of thing was never an issue. Everyone just played. It's a very uncomfortable feeling to play out of clave. Oh wow! If you know clave, then it's very uncomfortable when someone you play with is not in clave. It looks like nothing, but those two little sticks...wow! It's the foundation of your house. You have to have a strong foundation, especially for Afro-Cuban music.
DM: At 73, you've still got your health and you're able to move three drums and that rack! Any secrets to your longevity?
CC: Well, when I started playing professionally at age fourteen, every time I came home from work, my father used to smell my hands. That way he could tell if I had been smoking or not. Then he used to tell me to say "HA". He wanted to know if I had been drinking. So I've stayed like that until now. No drinking, smoking, and no false inspirations because I feel I have talent and all I have to do is show it. That's all.
DM: Thank you, Candido.
CC: You're very welcome!
Many Thanks to David Meade for submitting this article and Lenny King for the front page photo.