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Candido Camero, ‘father of modern conga drumming,’ dies at 99

Candido Camero performing in 2008. (Tom Pich/National Endowment for the Arts)

Candido Camero, a Cuban musician who helped find new expressive directions for conga drumming, providing dynamic rhythmic accents to jazz and other forms of music, died Nov. 7 at his home in New York City. He was 99.

His death was announced by the National Endowment for the Arts, which had named him a Jazz Master in 2008. The cause was not disclosed.

Mr. Camero, who often performed and recorded as simply “Candido,” began his career in Cuba at 14 and was still active past the age of 95. He was considered a towering figure on the congas, which are tapered drums played with the fingers and hands.

His greatest innovation was to play more than one conga drum at a time, eventually settling on a setup of three congas, each tuned to a different pitch. He sometimes added bongos and other percussion instruments, creating a whirlwind of complex rhythms and sounds.

Mr. Camero’s invention was born of necessity, when he first came to the United States in 1946 to accompany a Cuban dance team, Carmen and Rolando.

Typically, the rhythmic accompaniment for dancers was anchored by two or more conga players, or congueros. Knowing there was only enough money for one conguero to travel with the dancers, Mr. Camero began experimenting with the smaller quinto drum.

“When we were at the airport, I brought with me a quinto and a conga and the promoter began to ask me ‘Why do you have two drums?’ ” Mr. Camero told musician Bobby Sanabria in an article published in April by WBGO-FM, a jazz radio station in New Jersey. “I told him, ‘Don’t worry, you will see.’ ”

Mr. Camero played the steady, underlying rhythm with his left hand on the conga, while unfurling complex, dancelike solo figures with his right hand on the quinto, matching the dancers’ steps. It was similar to the way a pianist plays chords with the left hand, while using the right hand to play the melody and improvised embellishments.

“The crowd went crazy, and Carmen and Rolando began hugging me,” Mr. Camero told Sanabria.

He sounded like two or three conga players, not one, and forever changed the way the instruments — close descendants of African drums — were used.

Mr. Camero continued to experiment. After seeing a performance by the New York Philharmonic, he decided to tune his congas to certain pitches, following the example of timpani.

“I thought to myself, ‘I can do the same thing with the congas,’ ” he told Sanabria. “I began to tune them to a dominant chord so I could play melodies.”

In the early 1950s, Mr. Camero became the first person to play three congas at once. Adding the smaller bongos to his array of instruments, he could play the melody of “Tea for Two” and other songs on his drums.

Mr. Camero and his congas were incorporated into the modern jazz movement of the 1940s and 1950s, spearheaded by trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and other musicians. A fellow Cuban conguero, Chano Pozo, worked with Gillespie and helped write some of the trumpeter’s most memorable tunes, including “Manteca” and “Tin Tin Deo.” Pozo was shot and killed in New York in 1948, apparently in a botched drug deal.

Mr. Camero, who never smoked, drank or used drugs, settled permanently in the United States in 1952. He spent a year working with pianist Billy Taylor at New York’s Downbeat jazz club, learning to adapt Cuban rhythms to the more flexible notion of “swing” that underlies American jazz.

“I have not heard anyone who even approaches the wonderful balance between jazz and Cuban elements that Candido demonstrates,” Taylor wrote in 1954.

For the next several decades, Mr. Camero toured or recorded with countless musicians and bandleaders, such as Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton, Tony Bennett, Woody Herman, Erroll Garner, George Shearing, Charles Mingus and Quincy Jones.

“He’s the father of modern conga drumming,” Sanabria told the Miami Herald in 2005. “He should be on the tip of everybody’s tongue. Imagine if Mozart was still alive and you could sit down and talk to him.”

Candido Camero Guerra was born April 22, 1921, in Havana. His father worked in a bottle factory, and his mother was a homemaker. Everyone in the family was musical, and several uncles were professional musicians.

When Mr. Camero was 4, one of his uncles made a set of bongos for him out of old cans of condensed milk. He learned the flute and the upright bass — using fishing line for the strings — from other uncles, and his father taught him to play the tres, a small Cuban guitar. Mr. Camero performed on all of those instruments in Havana nightclubs, which were known in the 1930s and 1940s for their extravagant floor shows and first-rate musicianship.

Mr. Camero, who never learned to read music, switched full time to the conga in about 1940, learning complex musical arrangements by ear. A constant thread of influence during those years was jazz, which he heard on the radio and from visiting American groups. Several Cuban musicians, including Mario Bauza, Chico O’Farrill and Machito, had found success in the United States, fueling Mr. Camero’s desire to move beyond his island homeland. He last visited Cuba in 1955.

Over the years, Mr. Camero appeared on hundreds of albums and soundtracks and was featured on several recordings as a leader, including “Candido” (1956), “The Conga Kings” (2000) and “Hands of Fire” (2008).

A documentary about Mr. Camero was released in 2006. In 2009, a year after the Jazz Master honor from the NEA, he received a Latin Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

Mr. Camero was married two times and had two children, who lived in Cuba. He had several grandchildren and great-grandchildren, but a complete list of survivors could not be confirmed.

When he became a working musician at 14, Mr. Camero said his father waited for him to come home at night, demanding to smell his son’s breath and hands to make sure he hadn’t been drinking or smoking. As a result, Mr. Camero never developed the habits that doomed so many musicians.

“I’ve been on the road with everybody,” he told the Herald in 2005. “I saw what drugs did to [saxophonist] Charlie Parker,” who died at 34.

“I saw what they did to Billie Holiday, a woman with so much talent but with so many insecurities. I’ve been on buses with musicians smoking dope and drinking. False inspiration, I always called it.”

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