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Mambo Music Guide: A History of Mambo’s Cuban Origins

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Sep 2, 2020 • 2 min read

In the 1940s and ’50s, mambo, a Cuban dance music style, swept through the United States, starting in New York and fanning out across the country.



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What Is Mambo?

Mambo is a Cuban music style that derives from the danzón tradition. In many Latin American countries, the style is referred to as danzón-mambo. Mambo combines elements of popular Latin dance genres with the musical sophistication of the son Cubano genre—the bedrock of the broader musical style known as salsa. In particular, mambo makes heavy use of the guajeos used in son Cubano; also known as a montuno, a guajeo is a syncopated ostinato that repeats throughout a song, often mapping a clave pattern. As the genre developed, the rhythmically complex guajeos attracted the attention of many international musicians, most notably from the American jazz scene based in New York City.

What Is the History of Mambo Music?

The mambo style evolved in Havana, where leading charangas (an ensemble that plays Cuban dance music) popularized the style in the 1930s.

  • Emergence in Cuba: Cuban flutist Antonio Arcaño pioneered mambo music in the 1930s. Arcaño was the band leader of Arcaño y sus Maravillas—a danzón orchestra or charanga. Along with his orchestra's primary composers, Orestes López and Israel "Cachao” López, Arcaño took standard danzón Cubano and added a closing section featuring the guajeos (or montunos) of son Cubano, which added rhythmic syncopation to a popular dance style. They initially called their music danzón de nuevo ritmo, which translates to "danzón with a new rhythm." Eventually, the terms “danzón-mambo” and just plain “mambo” caught on.
  • International popularity: Big band leader Dámaso Pérez Prado brought mambo to international notice. Often referred to as "The King of Mambo," Prado brought the mambo dance and musical genre to wide audiences thanks to hits like 1949's "Mambo No. 5”. Pérez Prado enhanced the style pioneered by the Arcaño y sus Maravillas, mainly by adding the harmonic sophistication he discovered in American jazz and big band ensembles. He eventually settled in Mexico City, where he, along with other Cuban musicians like Benny Moré, introduced mambo to a receptive Mexican audience.
  • United States mambo craze: By the late 1940s, mambo music and the mambo dance had gained favor in the United States thanks to orchestras led by Tito Puente, Tito Rodríguez, and Pérez Prado. One New York-based mambo group that gained particular notice was Machito, lead by Francisco Raúl Gutiérrez Grillo. Machito, Puente, Rodríguez, and Prado all helped make mambo an American dance craze that lasted well into the 1950s.
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Essential Mambo Instruments

Mambo uses a similar instrumental ensemble to other Afro-Cuban musical genres. A rhythm section may consist of percussion instruments like bongos, congas, timbales, cowbell, claves, guiro, and a drum set. Melodies can be played by flute, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, and trombone. Harmonic musical instruments include guitar, double bass, and piano.

What Is the Difference Between Mambo and Salsa?

The difference between mambo music and salsa music is that, musically speaking, mambo is a sub-genre of salsa. The term "salsa" evolved to describe a wide array of musical styles from Cuba, Venezuela, and the Caribbean isles. These styles include son Cubano, danzón, rumba, cha-cha-cha, bolero, merengue, folkloric music, and even forms of Latin jazz.

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