Latin music legends Candido Camero and Graciela are two of the last survivors of the Cubop movement of the late 1940s, which fused Cuban rhythms with big band jazz. Long before Celia Cruz was anointed the Queen of Salsa, Graciela was the First Lady of Latin Jazz. She is best known as the lead vocalist for Machito and his Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra from 1943 through the '70s.
A product of Havana's El Cerro neighborhood, Candido was born in 1921 and showed a flair for music at a very early age. He learned to play bass, guitar and the tres, but he also exhibited a talent for percussion and soon gravitated to the bongo. While still only a teenager, Candido played the tres (a Cuban three string guitar) professionally with Conjunto Azul, a group led by renowned percussionist Chano Pozo. But it was on bongos, and later on conga, that young Candido would forge his legacy as one of the more innovative and dynamic percussionists in history. Before he was out of his teens, he was performing at both the Tropicana nightclub in Havana and as a member of the house orchestra for CMQ, Cuba's No. 1 radio station.
It was after emigrating to the United States in 1946, at age 25, that Candido's fame would spread with his introduction of a new drumming technique. Candido, who had accompanied the rumba dance team Carmen and Rolando to the U.S., is credited as being the first conguero to keep the beat with one hand and improvise with the other - while playing two congas at the same time, another first. With Dizzy Gillespie in the midst of pioneering the fusion of Cuban rhythms and big-band jazz that came to be known as Cubop, Candido soon became a highly-sought musician, performing and recording with some of the biggest names in jazz, including Gillespie, Charlie Parker and pianist Billy Taylor. It was while making his first Latin recording as a featured player in Frank "Machito" Grillo's orchestra, the Afro-Cubans, that Candido first met fellow Havana native Graciela - the band's lead singer and Machito's kid sister. After Pozo's untimely death in 1948, Candido was becoming widely regarded as one of the leading Latin percussionists in the world. In 1950, while appearing at the Apollo Theater in Harlem with pianist Joe Loco, Candido played three conga drums tuned to different pitches, allowing him to play melodies like a pianist. His innovative musical mastery is evident on a famed recording of the time - on Loco's "Tea for Two," Candido performs the entire melody using three congas and a bongo. And he didn't stop there. As a featured soloist with Stan Kenton's band in the mid-1950's Candido performed with his now customary three congas - plus a guiro and cowbell attached to the drums.
His mastery of the conga, in fact, led to a rare distinction for a musician - the World Book Encyclopedia mentioned Candido in its entry for "conga," practically making his name synonymous with the instrument. While Candido continued to gain international fame over the years performing with the likes of Tito Puente, Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, Buddy Rich and boyhood buddy Mongo Santamaria, it's his recent recordings with Chesky Records that have helped keep him in the public eye. With "Inolvidable," a beautiful new collection of oldtime Cuban music that reteams Candido with old friend Graciela, the elder statesman of conga adds another brilliant chapter to his legend.
Though she's been known as the First Lady of Afro-Cuban Jazz for more than half a century, Graciela was always more comfortable letting both her brother - legendary bandleader Frank "Machito" Grillo - and her brother-in-law, the equally legendary bandleader Mario Bauza, be the focus of attention. But there's no denying Graciela, now 88, continues to be one of Latin music's more renowned and revered singers - despite being semi-retired for the past ten years. The Havana-born Graciela, whose last name is Perez, began her professional career with the all-girl group El Septeto Anacaona in the early 1930's. Displaying a strong and sultry singing voice, Graciela stayed with the band for ten years. Though she performed mostly in Cuba, she got to tour New York and Paris. Her older brother Machito, meanwhile, was establishing himself as one of New York City's more popular nightclub attractions. As leader of Machito and his Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, he was a pioneering influence in the fledgeling Cubop movement. But after Machito was drafted into the U.S. army in 1943, Graciela was summoned to New York by Bauza, the band's musical director, to fill in as the Afro-Cuban Orchestra's lead singer until Machito came back. Graciela only stayed on for 30 years, becoming a top attraction in her own right. Graciela enjoyed one of her biggest hits in the early 1950s with "Si, Si, No, No." The song was a rearrangement of an old tune called "Mi Cerebro," but Graciela spiced it up by performing it with sexually suggestive lyrics, and she was thereafter known as the "Si, Si No, No Girl." The playful moniker complemented her other unofficial title as the First Lady of Afro-Cuban Jazz.
After a falling out with her brother, Graciela left Machito's band in 1973 and promptly joined up with her brother-in-law's band, Mario Bauza's Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra. She remained its lead singer for the next 20 years, but stopped performing when Bauza died in 1993. For the past decade, Graciela has taken the stage or entered a recording studio on only rare occasions. But "Inolvidable," on which she performs seven songs, was too good an opportunity to pass up. The CD reunited her with conga master Candido Camero, a fellow Habanero who first recorded with Machito and Graciela almost 60 year ago. Despite so much time having passed since their initial collaboration, "Inolvidable" shows just how much Graciela's deep, powerful voice remains truly unforgettable.