24 Feb

“Watermelon Man” – Mongo Santamaría

Guess I’m still in something of an Afro-Cuban-Latin kinda groove. Due to the usual late-for-work time constraints, let’s start shoveling content from Watermelon Man’s wiki, hey? I’ve really got to get started on this stuff earlier in the morning…

[Herbie] Hancock filled in for pianist Chick Corea in Mongo Santamaría’s band one weekend at a nightclub in The Bronx when Corea gave notice that he was leaving. Hancock played the tune for Santamaría at friend Donald Byrd’s urging. Santamaría started accompanying him on his congas, then his band joined in, and the small audience slowly got up from their tables and started dancing, laughing and having a great time. Santamaría later asked Hancock if he could record the tune. Santamaría recorded a three minute version, suitable for radio, where he joined timbalero Francisco “Kako” Baster in a cha-cha beat, while drummer Ray Lucas performed a backbeat Santamaría included the track on his album Watermelon Man (1962). Santamaría’s recording is sometimes considered the beginning of Latin boogaloo, a fusion of Afro-Cuban rhythms with those of R&B.

Hancock wrote the piece to help sell his debut album as a leader, Takin’ Off (1962), on Blue Note Records; it was the first piece of music he had ever composed with a commercial goal in mind. The popularity of the piece, due primarily to Mongo Santamaría, paid Hancock’s bills for five or six years. Hancock did not feel the composition was a sellout however, describing that structurally, it was one of his strongest pieces due to its almost mathematical balance. The form is a sixteen bar blues. Recalling the piece, Hancock said, “I remember the cry of the watermelon man making the rounds through the back streets and alleys of Chicago. The wheels of his wagon beat out the rhythm on the cobblestones. The tune, based on a bluesy piano riff, drew on elements of R&B, soul jazz and bebop, all combined into a pop hook.


Animated and Directed by Mark Hamilton and Che Poon of Hambones Productions.