Chano Pozo & Candido Camero

A legendary and tragic figure, Luciano “Chano” Pozo rose out of the toughest tenements in Havana, where he was born in 1915.  By the time he arrived in New York in 1947, he was already a celebrated Conga player, musician and songwriter with a reputation as a “street dude,” prone to drinking, drugs and fights. Chano was also a knowledgeable practitioner of the Afro-Caribbean religion Santería and was said to have secret knowledge of the African rhythms at the heart of the religion. 

Chano firmly planted the Conga in the rhythmic section of jazz through a masterful collaboration with the great Dizzy Gillespie, with a fusion of bebop—a modern form of jazz created by Gillespie—and Cuban rhythms.

It began when Gillespie, feeling a need to enliven the rhythmic section of his orchestra before a concert at Carnegie Hall,  asked Mario Bauzá, musical director of Machito and his Afro-Cubans, to find someone to play the Congas— “one of those tom toms,” as Dizzy put it. When the beat of Chano’s Conga drum joined the Dizzy Gillespie band in “Cubana Be, Cubana Bop” at Carnegie Hall, the audience is said to have “gone nuts.”

It was then that Chano suggested a song to Gillespie, laying out the lines of the instruments one at a time in a simple conversation that could only take place among geniuses. It was called “Manteca,and it featured a bridge of two eight-bar trumpet statements by Gillespie, percussion patterns played by Pozo, and horn lines from Gillespie's big band arranger Walter "Gil" Fuller. 

First performed in 1947, “Manteca” was very well received. Downbeat Magazine explained it as “a tribal rite, making a primitive statement;” Gary Giddins of The Village Voice called it, “one of the most important records ever made in the United States.”

One year later Chano Pozo was shot and killed in a Harlem bar, apparently over a drug deal gone sour.

After the death of Chano Pozo, a handful of Cubans who had arrived in New York along with him in the 1940s continued to build on his legacy. One was Cándido Camero.  Born in Cuba in 1921, Cándido learned the congas playing in the Son orchestras of his day and played at the famed Tropicana in Havana for eight years. In New York, Cándido would introduce U.S. audiences to an entirely new level of conga mastery, beating rhythmic flourishes and coaxing melodies not from one but up to three Conga drums, a style he pioneered while other congueros were still playing a single drum.

He played everything from pop to R&B and even disco, most notably in the track “Jingo” from the 1979 album Dancing and Prancing. But his congas grooved with jazz. Cándido played for Dizzy Gillespie, Bill Taylor Trio and eventually Stan Kenton. He was honored with the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Award in 2008.

As late as Fall 2016 the 95-year-old Cándido was still playing. “When I go onstage, you think I’m 100 years old,” he said. “But when I play the congas, I feel 20.”

Credit: Ned Sublette

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