Friday, August 12, 2005

Congero Cándido

The Mozart of the congas is a legend and a gentleman
His might not be a household name, but Cuban artist Cándido Camero long ago took conga playing to a new level. Tonight, he brings his show to Miami.

NEW YORK - Conga legend Cándido Camero inches around his tidy Upper West Side apartment, cane in hand, in search of this memento and that.

He speaks like he walks. Cautiously. Unhurriedly.

But put him behind his three glossy white congas and suddenly, he's not 84 anymore. Suddenly, he's not hunched over anymore. Suddenly, he's on fire.

People talk about drummers making their congas sing. Camero invented the concept. In the early 1950s, he was the first to play two, then three congas at the same time. Before him, cats played just one. He tuned them differently and coaxed melody out of them, fingers dancing on skins like a piano. In a famed 1950s recording with pianist Joe Loco, he made three congas and a bongo sing Tea for Two.

His congas sang for everybody -- Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton, Tony Bennett, Billie Holiday, La Lupe, Celia Cruz, Machito and his Afro-Cubans.

Tonight, he offers a rare Miami performance. Saturday night, he attends the Miami premiere of the documentary Candido: Hands of Fire.

''This is a true living legend,'' said Iván Acosta, the New York filmmaker who produced and directed the documentary. 'One day he was showing me old photographs and I started thinking, `It's a pity more people don't know who this man is.' ''


Camero, born in Cuba to a musical family -- his grandfather taught him how to play the bass, his father the tres and his uncle the bongos -- got the percussion career going at 8, when he began mimicking his uncle on two empty condensed-milk cans.

''My mother would scold me because she thought I was going to hurt my hands,'' says Camero, who keeps in his living room the first conga he played in New York in the late 1940s, a TV on top. ``So my uncle covered the cans in skins.''

You can press Camero, but he won't go on about the innovations he made with the congas. He's too old school to brag; the innovations came out of a basic need to do more with less.

'In 1946, I came to New York for the first time to play with a dancing duo that was famous in Cuba, Gloria y Rolando. I usually played the conga and somebody else played the bongos. But they couldn't afford to bring both of us to New York. So I said, `Maybe I can play both at the same time.' Somehow, it worked. I learned that I could play a steady beat on the conga with one hand, and improvise on the bongos with the other.''

That led to multiple congas, which wowed the New York jazz scene, which led to stints with all the greats. He was a fixture at legendary jazz clubs Birdland and the Apollo. He appeared on The Jackie Gleason Show with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, The Ed Sullivan show with Lena Horne.

He worked in a heated, heady era. But when the gigs ended, he didn't stick around for the partying.

One of the keepsakes he's most proud of is a letter of recommendation written by Stan Kenton in 1954, after Camero's two-year stint with the band:

``Personal habits that include abstinence from alcohol, tobacco and the use of profanity have made [Camero's] conduct on the road beyond reproach.''

''I've been on the road with everybody. I saw what drugs did to Charlie Parker [who died at age 34],'' says Camero, too much of a gentleman to give you any of the nitty-gritty on his old friends.

``I saw what they did to Billie Holiday, a woman with so much talent but with so many insecurities. I've been on buses with musicians smoking dope and drinking. False inspiration, I always called it. It's a shame how many careers were ruined by drugs and alcohol.''

Women ruined a bunch, too, says Camero. Which is why he insisted on contracts that spelled out first-class travel for two.

''I've only had three women, my three wives,'' he says. ``Well, the last I never married. We were together 10 years. She was like my wife. Yes, there were a lot of available women on the road, but I took my wives with me everywhere. Because I wanted to stay faithful.''


The last, Mary Ginero, died two years ago. Camero now shares his apartment with a grandson. He has a son and a daughter in Cuba, but he hasn't returned to the island since 1955.

''I'll go back when it's possible,'' he says cryptically.

Is it politics that have kept him away?

''If I went back, I would want to stay for a few weeks, but I never have a few weeks off,'' says Camero, who still gigs every weekend, mostly in the Northeast. ``I can speak about music. That's what I know. I can't speak about politics or race or religion. You know what I say? I say that you can take the Cuban out of Cuba, but you can't take Cuba out of the Cuban.''

Camero appears on more than 100 records with endless jazz and Latin greats. In 1960, he made it into the World Book Encyclopedia. Recently, Latin Percussion, the leading manufacturer of congas, launched a line named after him. A set of three Candido Camero Original Model congas sell for about $2,100.

But outside the hard-core jazz world, he remains a relative unknown.

''He should be getting $25,000 a night,'' says Stuart White, who leads the New York-based Steven Scott Orchestra. Camero has been part of the act for 22 years, playing mostly upscale weddings and private parties. He is paid considerably less than $25,000 a gig, says White, but he wouldn't be more specific.

''He was a legend then and he is a legend now,'' says White. ``He is flawless. And he's an incredible person. Never heard him say a bad word about anybody. If there were a reality show called The Last Gentleman, he'd be the star.''

Jazz musician Bobby Sanabria, who teaches Latin jazz at the the Manhattan School of Music and New School University, relishes every chance he gets to perform or record with Camero.

''He's the father of modern conga drumming. He should be on the tip of everybody's tongue,'' says Sanabria. ``Imagine if Mozart was still alive and you could sit down and talk to him. We're talking about a guy who is still here to tell the tale of the son as it became the national music of Cuba in the 1930s. He remembers who was in the orchestra when he was the conguero for the Tropicana.''

He remembers all the details from the Apollo, too. From Birdland, from the Palladium.

But he's not the type to drone on about how much better things were in the good old days.

''The musicians I play with today are just as good as the musicians were back then,'' says Camero. ``The minute you start thinking the past was better than the time you're living now, it's over.''

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