CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Cándido 1921–2020

The influential percussionist and founder of Afro-Cuban jazz has died at 99

Cándido Camero
Cándido Camero performs at the 2016 Chicago Jazz Festival (photo courtesy of the City of Chicago)

Cándido Camero, a groundbreaking conguero and NEA Jazz Master known solely by his first name, died at his home in New York City on November 7. He was 99.

His death was confirmed by his grandson Julian Camero, who told radio station WBGO that his grandfather had passed away peacefully in his sleep. Cause of death has not been disclosed.

One of the founders of Afro-Cuban jazz, the Cuban-born Cándido was already a major musical figure in his home country—the longtime house conguero at Havana’s legendary Tropicana nightclub—when he arrived in New York in 1946. The move brought him into contact with the city’s nascent mambo scene but also its nascent bebop scene. Cándido thus worked with Tito Puente and Machito at the same time as he did with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. With Gillespie, he helped pioneer the sound of Latin jazz.

That said, the peak of Cándido’s commercial success as a musician came in the world of popular dance music in the 1970s. He began the decade with the proto-disco hit “Thousand Finger Man” and ended it with 1979’s classic “Dancin’ and Prancin’.”

Cándido was also a tremendously influential figure in the world of Afro-Cuban hand drumming. Where traditional Cuban dance bands used a single conga drum, Cándido introduced a second piece, then a third (and occasionally more). He further innovated by applying different tunings to each of his drums, and combining them with bongos and cowbells—the latter through a foot pedal that he invented—to add complexity and texture to his rhythms.

“I always tried to create something different—to experiment,” he said in a 2013 interview. “Something catchable and something beautiful.”

His genius made him a figure of high regard and demand, not just in the Latin music world but in many genres. He worked with everyone from Tony Bennett and Sammy Davis Jr. to Billy Taylor and Herbie Mann. Cándido famously carried a photo album with him of all the musicians he’d collaborated with over the years.

Cándido Camero de Guerra was born April 22, 1921 in San Antonio de los Baños, a small suburb of Havana. His uncle Andres was a professional percussionist; he taught his four-year-old nephew to play bongos on homemade contraptions that Cándido’s father and namesake had devised by stretching skins over two empty cans of condensed milk. The elder Cándido—a factory worker—also taught him to play guitar, which was his instrument at his first professional gigs as a 14-year-old. However, the younger Cándido was unable to read music and switched to percussion, which continued to be his focus for the next 85 years.

By the time he was 19, Cándido was getting high-profile work in Havana, appearing regularly on radio station CMQ and with drummer Chano Pozo’s ensemble Conjunto Azul (so named because it appeared on rival station Cadena Azul). He also got the job at the Tropicana, where he played behind the American and Cuban stars who crossed its stages for six years. In 1946, he joined a U.S. tour with the dance team Carmen and Rolando; the duo’s budget was so small that Cándido had to use money from his father’s savings to make the trip.

It was also too small to pay more than one percussionist—for which reason Cándido taught himself to play multiple congas at the same time. The percussionist thus caused a sensation among New York musicians in his work with Carmen and Rolando, and he decided to stay in the U.S. after their booking was complete. Pozo arrived in New York shortly afterward, giving Cándido steady employment; he also worked with Puente and Machito on the local scene.

In 1949, Dizzy Gillespie hired Cándido for his big band (replacing Pozo, who had been murdered the previous December). With Gillespie he shaped the fusion of bebop and Caribbean music that would become known as Latin jazz, carrying that sound into collaborations with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Billy Taylor, Chico O’Farrill, Woody Herman, and Duke Ellington. Though deeply immersed in the bebop scene, Pozo managed to stay clear of the pernicious influence of heroin; he also avoided cigarettes, alcohol, and all other forms of what he called “false inspiration.”

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Cándido’s profile increased yet further thanks to television performances on the Ed Sullivan and Jackie Gleason shows, as well as a number of other variety shows. From there, he signed a recording contract with ABC/Paramount, for whom he cut four albums (including the classic 1959 Latin Fire) while still making his primary living as a much-in-demand freelance player. His 1970s hits kept his career hot, as did tours throughout that decade with drummer Buddy Rich and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton.

He became a regular collaborator with French hornist David Amram as well as drummer Bobby Sanabria in the 1980s and ’90s, continuing to work with both into the 21st century. Cándido also maintained his solo career, recording the Grammy-nominated Inolvidable in 2004; the live Hands of Fire/Manos de Fuego in 2008 (the same year he received his Jazz Masters award from the NEA); and his final album, The Master, in 2014, when he was 93.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.