Let’s Mambo!: Machito and His Afro-Cubans

The following is a guest post from Archivist Jane Cross: 

Portrait of Machito and Graciella Grillo, Glen Island Casino, New York, N.Y., ca. July 1947, from the William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

In a previous life as a performance librarian, one of my favorite groups to prepare music for was a Latin jazz ensemble. The players were excited about the music and enjoyed humming snippets as we put the charts together for their exciting performances that inspired audiences to get up and dance.

When I was given the opportunity to assist technician Pamela Murrell with the finding aid for the Music of Machito and His Afro-Cubans, I almost couldn’t believe it when I opened the boxes. Here were more than 150 scores and original parts for Latin jazz repertoire standards such as “Escuchame,” “Guantanamera,” “Mambo Inn,” “Miami Beach Rhumba,” and “Tico Tico.” Also included in the collection is Mario Bauzá’s “Tanga,” one of the Afro-Cuban’s biggest hits from the early 1940s and considered by many to be the first example of what we now know as Latin jazz. I had previously only worked with modern arrangements, but here was the actual manuscript and published music the Afro-Cubans performed from. Some of the scores include their names and markings. I was helping make accessible the very music that had set the stage for my own ensemble many years later.

Holograph full score for “Carioca” Box-Folder 17/4, Music of Machito and His Afro-Cubans, Music Division.

Machito was born Francisco Raúl Gutiérrez Grillo in about 1908. Growing up in Cuba, he studied music and performed professionally as a singer and percussionist before moving to New York City in 1937. There he formed his group the Afro-Cubans, with future brother-in-law Bauzá serving as musical director. They are credited with bringing together Afro-Cuban rhythms, improvisation, and big band jazz to form an influential legacy that includes Latin jazz, salsa music, and Afro-Cuban jazz, sometimes referred to as “Cubop.” According to Bauzá, the music was “like lemon meringue pie: jazz in the top and African-Cuban rhythms at the bottom.”

The group included and performed with notable musicians such as Tito Puente, Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, Dizzy Gillespie, Buddy Rich, and Stan Kenton. The first truly multi-racial ensemble in the U.S. was also a family affair, with Machito’s foster sister Graciella and daughter Paula Grillo singing, and son Mario Grillo performing and later directing. The ebullient and effervescent Machito served as front man and maracas player and is credited with establishing the triumvirate of timbales, congas, and bongo as part of the standard percussion battery in Latin jazz music.

The Music of Machito and His Afro-Cubans is an amazing peek into the world of these innovative and groundbreaking performers. If you have any questions, contact us through Ask-A-Librarian!

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