NEA Arts Magazine

Candido Camero

Rhythm Instrumentalist

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Candido Camero

Percussionist Candido Camero. Photo by Tom Pich.

So well known and respected, his first name, alone -- Candido -- is all that is necessary for jazz afficionados to know who he is. Credited with being the first percussionist to bring conga drumming to jazz, Candido Camero is also known for his contributions to the development of mambo and Afro-Cuban jazz.

Born in Havana, Cuba, in 1921, Camero worked for six years with the CMQ Radio Orchestra and at the famed Cabaret Tropicana before coming to the United States in 1946 with the dance team Carmen and Rolando.

By the early 1950s, Camero was a featured soloist with the Stan Kenton Orchestra, with whom he toured the U.S. playing three congas (at a time when other congueros were playing only one) in addition to a cowbell and guiro (a fluted gourd played with strokes from a stick). He created another unique playing style by tuning his congas to specific pitches so that he could play melodies like a pianist. Camero became one of the best known congueros in the country, appearing on such television shows as the Ed Sullivan Show and the Jackie Gleason Show.

He has recorded and performed with seemingly everybody in the jazz field, including such luminaries as Tony Bennett, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, and Charlie Parker. Among his many awards are a Latin Jazz USA Lifetime Achievement Award (2001) and a special achievement award from ASCAP as a "Legend of Jazz" (2005).

The subject of the 2005 documentary, Candido: Hands of Fire, Camero (now in his 80s) continues to perform throughout the world.

NEA: Was there any kind of situation that you can remember where you would have heard jazz that made a big impression on you?

CANDIDO CAMERO: When I was four years old I was still in the school, in kindergarten, and I used to run to the house after school to listen to the radio, mostly just because I always liked the jazz, the music. And one of my uncles from my mother's side (he was a professional bongo player), he kept asking me if I wanted to become a musician. I said, “Yes, I would like that.” So he got me two empty cans, the condensed milk, and he put on a skin like a regular bongo, and that was my first instrument, when [I was] four years old.

NEA: Two cans of condensed milk?

CANDIDO CAMERO: That was my first pair of bongos. And then my father told me how to play the tres. Tres is a Cuban lead guitar. My grandfather taught me how to play a bass by ear because I don't know nothing for do-re-mi. So that's how I started. When I was fourteen years old, then I started being a professional. I used to play dances and weddings and birthday parties and I used to get one dollar a day.