The mambo is a Cuban genre of music and dance that combines traditional Cuban music with the highly Americanized forms of swing and big band.
It’s a very syncopated type of music, a style that finds its footing in rhythm as opposed to melody (though melody, of course, plays its role). Mambo is always played in 4/4 time and uses an amalgamation of American big band instruments and those found in traditional Latin styles; mambo bands will typically have a horn section in a addition to the very percussive bongos, timbales and congas.
Though mambo is a decidedly Cuban style, it’s roots are far more European than Latin. The very first mambo was based heavily on English and French ballroom dancing music, and it was rarely intended for dancing. Though it certainly carried an inherent dance ability, early mambo was music for the sake of music; no dance had been assigned to it, nor did it seem like one would be.
The early mambo thrived as a piece of music alone until the 1940s when Damaso Perez Prado, a Cuban bandleader, began specializing in the form. His version of the mambo brought people to their feet and led to the famous mambo dance’s creation. Prado is also credited with bringing mambo music and it’s accompanying dance to the United States, though the form sustained a bit of a shift as a result of the cultural change. Prado altered the mambo to make it slightly more commercial, more ready for 1950s American consumption, and watched the form become an almost instant craze. Prado’s role in composing and popularizing the form earned him the title “Mambo King.”
Typical instruments used in mambo music are the conga drum, the bongo, timbales, claves, and a mixture of band instruments including the trumpet, trombone, saxaphone, bass (usually upright bass, but sometimes an electric bass) and the piano. It is this mixture of Cuban rhythmic instruments and instruments used in big band jazz that gives the mambo it’s distinctive sound.
Some typical mambo songs include “Papa Loves Mambo”, “I Saw Mommy Do The Mambo”, “Mambo Italiano” and “They Were Doin’ The Mambo”.
Rhythmically it is similar to, but not identical to, other Latin-American rhythms such as the samba, tango, bossa nova, beguine, and others, but is unique enough to be instantly identifiable as a mambo.
But like most instant crazes, mambo faded out of American popularity nearly as quickly as it arrived. Though the form is still heard and danced today, it morphed into a variety of different styles, including the pachanga, a mambo-like dance that also faded quickly. Mambo recently saw a resurgence of popularity in the late 1990s with a rock and roll based mambo revival, but that too was extremely short-lived.