In 1985 we traveled to Cuba to learn about Cuban culture, study the music and experience the Cuban lifestyle. We were young and looking for musical and cultural adventures . While staying at the hotel in Havana we met Pello el Afrokan in our lobby. We told him about our quest to study Cuban music, rhythm and dance and he took our small group of friends on as a project. Pello was famous becuase in 1963, Pedro Izquierdo, known as Pello el Afrokán created the Mozambique rhythm composition and dance choreography. It actually turned into a dance craze in many parts of the world and Pello traveled around the world performing including Europe and Russia as well.
When we asked Pello why he named the rhythm Mozambique he said, “I wanted to name it after the name of something very small..like a small country that no one recognized, so that now they will know this small place”. Mozambique is also known as the Republic of Mozambique and is a country in South Eastern Africa bordered by Tanzania, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and South Africa as well as the Indian Ocean.
Pello’s rhythm followed on the foot heels of Eduardo Davidson’s pachanga fad. Pello’s music an authentic sound of congas and rumba feel. It was very popular by all types of people from all classes of society and also won public acclaim. It has elements of many styles of music and was truly “world music and world rhythm”over 40 years before the term was coined.
Pello El Afrokán was born in 1933, not long after the dictator Machado was finished He was the grandson of African Mandingos who was an elder percussionist and conguerro (conga player). He knew and played all the African based rhythms on the island. Pello is quoted as saying, “That’s the blood running through my veins,” as well as, “My father was one of the first percussionists in Belisario López’ band. I’m a cousin of Mongo Santamaría and we grew up playing rumba and congas and congas together in the same neighborhood in Havana barrio of Jesús María. They were both well known as the top “rumberos” or rumba players when they were younger as well. Pello and others told us that when Pello would play the streets would crowd up to see him and dance to his music as well!
He worked on the docks in his Havana barrio of Jesús María and also composed commercial jingles for CMQ radio and in 1959 founded his own group, playing at the Havana’s most famous night club, the Tropicana. In 1985 Pello took us to this club. I have never been to anything like it in my entire life. It was truly amazing and must be experienced to be believed. The dancers are amazing and beautiful and seem to be coming out of the wood work at times. They stream down the aisles, in front, behind, above on catwalks and on the stage. Their beauty and grace is astounding and their movements sensual as well.
We got to go backstage and I also got to sit in with the house band simply because we were with Pello. we were on the side of the stage and he simply nodded to the conga player and pushed me out on stage! I hesitated and stumbled up to the congas and the friendly conga player slid away with a smile and I got to play. Pello also arranged for us to sit in at the Conjunto National’s Saturday Rumba which was also an epic event for us.
Back in the day when Pello El Afrokan first started, he organized a group using the conga rhythm (also known as Comparsa to some) as a basis for his music, calling it MOZAMBIQUE. The group originally had three tumbadoras, )or congas) two bells, two bombos, (or “mother drums”), trombone, chorus, and lead vocal. Timbales, bass, electric guitar, and other percussion were added later. The group performed during Carnival time on a float with all the musicians, dancers, and costumes.
In 1962 he was already experimenting creatively and musicaly and would be the talk of that decade in Latin music circles around the globe and beyond. Meanwhile, he also taught at the National Art Instructors’ School.
“The mozambique is played with 12 conga drums, two bass drums, three bells, a frying pan, four trumpets and three trombones. An innovation. The percussionists were exceptional, that’s my specialty. I created a set with five conga drummers.”
The rhythm is an Afro-Cuban fusion that Pello called a stew combining elements of many different styles of traditional African and Afro Cuban drumming. . The rhythm is connected to dance choreography whose steps were created by Pello as well. He also worked with the famous dance choreographer Guanari Amoedo.
Pello introduced the Mozambique successfully at the University of Havana. He had his television debut in July 1963, during the hey day of the Beatles craze. Pello was still popular despite the huge pop music birth that was occurring at the same time
Sadly for all of us, Pello was laid to rest on September 12 to the the sound of the mozambique being performed by his musical grandson Omar and his group.