Born 100 years ago this week, the popular Cuban drummer left behind a legacy that lives on in the rhythms of today’s music.
Like Cher and Oprah, Cándido Camero was so loved and respected by his peers that he went by his first name alone. If he had lived a few more months, he would be celebrating his 100th birthday on April 22, but he died on Nov. 7.
Along with fellow Cuban émigré Mongo Santamaría, Cándido was at the forefront of popularizing his primary instrument, the conga—an Afro-Cuban hand drum—in the U.S. The conga is now a familiar sight and sound in urban parks, on recordings and on stage. It’s played not just in such Latin bands as Santana, but in many other popular styles, from salsa to Las Vegas show music. Even such rock groups as the Rolling Stones, the Allman Brothers Band and the Doobie Brothers have recorded with it. In a Smithsonian oral history, Cándido pointed to “the rhythm and the flavor that it gives the music.”
Cándido was raised in Havana by music-minded parents. As a 4-year-old child, he began drumming on homemade bongos—a smaller, more mobile version of the conga with less depth of sound—consisting of two empty condensed milk cans. By the time he was 14, he was playing the guitar-like Cuban tres professionally. After switching to bongo and conga, he became a mainstay of the orchestra at Havana’s famous Tropicana nightclub. When he toured the U.S. in 1946, accompanying a pair of Cuban dancers, Carmen and Rolando, he made his first recordings, with Machito and His Afro-Cubans.
In 1952, he moved permanently to New York, where he met the pianist Billy Taylor, who hired him to play with his trio for a year. Their 1954 album “The Billy Taylor Trio With Cándido” showcases his rhythmic variety and dexterity, especially on “Different Bells.”
For his virtuosity and velocity, he was dubbed “the man with a thousand fingers.” Modest and discreet, he developed a reputation as a gentleman with a generous spirit. Cándido never smoked, drank or used drugs.
In the 1950s, Cándido became New York’s first-call conga and bongo player, adept at playing with Afro-Cuban bands such as Machito’s and with fitting his rhythms to mainstream American jazz, thereby establishing the conga as a standard jazz instrument. He toured the nation and headlined nightclub appearances.
Within three years of moving to New York, Cándido performed with a virtual “who’s who” of jazz, including such fellow game-changers as singer Billie Holiday, saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. Duke Ellington hired Cándido to play bongos on his 1957 album and TV special “A Drum Is a Woman.” You can hear him prominently on “Rhythm Pum Te Dum” and “Madame Zajj.”
Cándido made musical history as an innovator. Before him, conga players—called congueros—normally played one drum. Cándido introduced a second conga and then a third, requiring greater bodily coordination, and tuned them—by tightening or loosening their skins—so they’d emit different pitches, like tympani. Three congas meant he could create melodies. With multiple congas, he could play a steady rhythm with one hand while improvising elaborate figures with the other. He also developed a device so that drummers could play a cowbell—another Afro-Cuban instrument—with a foot pedal. Cándido enriched every performance with another line or two of rhythms, ensuring that whatever the piece, it was polyrhythmic. Like the masters of another hand drum, the tabla of India, Cándido dazzled his audiences.
One of the epic cultural stories of the 20th century is the growth of Latin American, especially Afro-Cuban, music in the U.S. Cándido’s career represents an aspect of the outsize musical influence that Cuba—with just 4% of the U.S.’s 1950 population—has had on American music during the past hundred years. As one of the most prolifically recorded percussionists, Cándido both furthered the sounds of Cuba—its rhythms and its instruments—and epitomized their rise in prominence.
By the 1980s, Cándido increasingly focused on recording-studio work. He continued to perform until two years ago. A video of his 91st birthday party held at Jazz at Lincoln Center reveals his undimmed joy, playfulness, musicality and showmanship. I knew him late in his life and always found him humble, sweet and inspiring as an elder statesman of music.
In a 2005 documentary, “Cándido: Hands of Fire,” Tony Bennett says, “Of all the musicians I ever met, he is my favorite.” During several performances, Cándido even deploys his elbow, forehead and chin onto the congas, to the delight of his audiences.
Although synthetic skins became standard by his midcareer, the heads of bongo and conga drums traditionally are still made of animal skin, which produces a warmer, deeper sound. For more than 70 years, Cándido Camero made musical magic with the touch of skin on skin.
—Mr. Hasse is curator emeritus of American music at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. His books include “Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington” (Da Capo) and “Discover Jazz” (Pearson).