It's hard to believe today that there was once a time, something over a century ago,
when the waltz was considered an undignified, if not downright improper, if not
actually immoral dance. There were denunciatory sermons and angry
"what-are-we-coming-to?" newspaper editorials about it. Then Queen Victoria
danced it, and despite the bluenoses it became popular.
We've come a long way in a hundred years. There've been the Bunny Hug and the
Turkey Trot - the Fox Trot and the Charleston - the Black Bottom and the Big Apple -
and then, having run out of ideas ourselves, we began borrowing from South
America. First the rumba, then the samba and now the mambo and the
cha-cha-cha. Short of St. Vitus dance or delirium tremens, it's hard to see how we
can go any further.
Acknowledged father and king of the mambo is Cuban-born Perez Prado, who
packs a heap o' energy into his mere five-foot six-inch frame. Perez learned music
in his native Matanzas, and played with Cuba's leading orchestra, the Orquesta
Casino de la Playa. But he didn't make a dent in the public consciousness until he
dreamed up the mambo while doodling away at the piano and took it to Mexico City
in 1948. The Mexicans took to the primitive rhythms of the mambo like ducks to a
well-known non-alcoholic beverage. They've made Perez a millionaire in the few
short years since then, and recently his orchestra was awarded the Gold Record
Award - Mexico's musical Oscar - as the best orchestra of the year.
Of course Perez has more than the mambo up his sleeve. He's mastered American
rhythms so well that no less authoritative a voice of American jazz than Metronome
magazine has dubbed his "the swingiest jazz band in this country." His progressive
jazz feeling is said to offer more musical excitement per groove than any band since
Woody Herman's and Stan Kenton's.
On first hearing, the mambo sounds like nothing on earth to Yankee ears, but Prado
defines it as "a three-movement dance step to four-beat rhythm." It's characterized
by an unusual use of the trumpet section and by the rhythmic, guttural sounds Prado
makes to urge his musicians on. All mambo musicians grunt now and then during a
typical six-minute number, apparently without any musical reason. But Prado says it
is an emotional response. It sounds to uneducated ears like "ugh," but the musicians
are actually saying "dilo" - Spanish for "Give it!"
RCA Victor first introduced the mambo by Prado to this country on its International
label some years ago. A few disc jockeys heard the records and began playing them
over the air. Americans by the thousands were quickly intrigued by this excitingly
new, primitive rhythm. As the demand for Prado recordings shot up, RCA Victor
transferred him to its regular pop label.
Prado has toured the western part of the United States with great success, and
is now touring South America and playing to enthusiastic crowds everywhere.
His home base is Mexico City, where he lives with his wife and daughter. For
relaxation he favors movies and listening to the music of contemporary Spanish
composers - and Stravinsky! Could be he borrowed something of the mambo from
the latter's Rite of Spring ballet music.