Latino Studies Mambo
Gustavo Pérez-Firmat
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199913701-0075


Rooted in Afro-Cuban music, the mambo was a music and dance phenomenon that swept the world in the 1950s. Its origins go back several decades before then, and different musicians and composers have claimed or been given credit for its invention. The word “mambo” derives from the Congo religion, where it referred to the concluding section of a ceremony to take possession of the spirit of the dead. After the priest makes contact with the spirit, the act of possession is reinforced by chants called “mambo” or “mambu.” Brought to Cuba by African slaves, by the 1930s in Cuba the word had acquired a secular meaning and referred to the final section of the danzón that allowed musicians and dancers to improvise. Orestes López and his brother Israel (the legendary bassist known as Cachao), who belonged to the Arcaño y Sus Maravillas (Arcaño and His Marvels) orchestra, gradually modified the structure of danzón and gave it an Afro-Cuban flavor. The final trio section was subdivided into two parts: the montuno, where the musicians soloed while the rhythm section maintained a steady beat, and the mambo, a short passage consisting of improvisational riffs, with the cowbell accenting the strong, rapid syncopation. The brothers López also injected elements of the son into their music, and by 1934 a new rhythm had emerged; Orestes called it nuevo ritmo and in 1938 composed and recorded a danzón called “Mambo.” Other Cuban bands, notably Arsenio Rodríguez’s, Bebo Valdés’s, and René Hernández’s, soon began playing nuevo ritmo as part of the expanded danzón, and the term “mambo” became widespread. For years after Arcaño popularized the new danzón, “mambo” remained the name for the last part of these compositions. The defining moment in the evolution of the mambo came when it was detached from the danzón by Cuban composer and bandleader Dámaso Pérez Prado. By 1948 Pérez Prado, a well-known figure in Havana’s musical circles, had begun experimenting with the mixture of a US-type big-band sound and Afro-Cuban rhythms. He left Cuba for Mexico, where, on 30 March 1949, he recorded “Qué rico mambo,” the song that started the mambo craze. “Qué rico mambo” took the music world by storm, becoming a hit in Mexico and the rest of Latin America. Soon all of Mexico City, and then all of Latin America, was dancing to the new rhythm.


The works included in Cuban Music present the music and dance of Cuba, introducing and analyzing the genres of Cuban music. A second section focuses specifically on the Origins of Mambo in Cuba, including works on Israel López (Cachao), Orestes López, Dámaso Pérez Prado, and other Cuban musicians.

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