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For Mongo Santamaria's 100th Birthday, Hear 5 Of His Best

Mongo Santamaria performs during a concert at Central Park circa 1970.
Walter Iooss Jr
Getty Images
Mongo Santamaria performs during a concert at Central Park circa 1970.

The Jesús Maria district in the oldest part of Havana, Cuba, might be pretty much overlooked if not for the fact that, 100 years ago Friday, Ramon Santamaria was born there.

"Mongo" Santamaria was born into a deeply African-influenced Cuban life. He was just two generations removed from Cuba's involvement in the scourge of the New World — slavery. The consequent cultural trappings included an intimacy with West African drumming that he eventually carried around the world as a bandleader and groove ambassador.

Santamaria died in 2003, but we celebrate his centennial with five songs selected by his friend and former student, Miami-based conguero Dario Rosendo. Through a Facebook group called The Mongo Santamaria Appreciation Society, he shares pictures, stories and occasionally music that offer a personal insight into the great percussionist and bandleader.

From his earliest days as a sideman with the biggest names of the post-WWII big-band mambo era (Peréz Prado, Tito Puente), to setting the bar for small-group Latin jazz with vibraphonist Cal Tjader, to leading his own bands playing musica tipica and boogaloo, to the tenor sax-and-trumpet-driven Latin jazz that he played around the world, Mongo Santamaria left a musical and cultural legacy that is unparalleled.

And today we celebrate him.

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Felix Contreras is co-creator and host of Alt.Latino, NPR's pioneering radio show and podcast celebrating Latin music and culture since 2010.