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Mongo Santamaria Dies

Mongo Santamaria, a Cuban percussionist whose unique conga-playing carried a highly conversational tone and who scored a pop-chart hit in 1963 with a Latin version of Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man,” died Saturday, February 1 at Baptist Hospital in Miami while on life support. He had suffered a stroke earlier in the week and was 85.

Born Ramon Santamaria in Havana on Apr. 7, 1922, the percussionist was first a violinist and gave up the stringed instrument for the drums shortly before dropping out of school in order to become a professional musician. Frequent gigs at Havana’s Tropicana Club during the 1940s established Sanatmaria as one of Cuba’s star percussionists, particularly on the congas. In 1948 he traveled to Mexico City to back up a dance team and in 1950 moved to New York, where he immersed himself in the burgeoning Latin-jazz scene. Throughout the ’50s he played with the stars of that movement: Tito Puente, Perez Prado and Cal Tjader.

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