Mambo Years

When Paquito Hechavarria and German Pifferrer were kids, mambo was new and Dámaso Perez Prado ruled. "I remember when I was little, I used to sit at the piano," says the 62-year-old Hechavarria, spreading his plump fingers and pounding the air just above the glass table where he sits on the patio outside a Westchester recording studio. "GUNG, gung-gung-gung, GUNG-gung, GUNG-gung-gung," he sings, marking the melody for Perez Prado's "Mambo No. 5." His scraggly beard barely covers the stains on his cheeks from too many years of too many cigarettes, but the brightness in his eyes belongs to a twelve-year-old boy. "The bridge was a little hard," he remembers, spreading his fingers further and widening the distance between his hands, "but I did what I could." His hands freeze in the air: "And this is where he would say #@!" Hechavarria grunts ferociously, but the guttural emission is still a far cry from the original Mambo King's trademark ejaculation, the primal scream of Havana nightlife.

"Luisito, have you got that sound to play at the concert?" Hechavarria asks Luis M. Legra, sound engineer for the upcoming tribute to Perez Prado called 50 Years of Mambo in the USA. Legra is playing with his new digital camera, ostensibly taking photos for promotional material. "You should really have that sound," Hechavarria advises him, "because that's what people expect."

Then Hechavarria settles back in his chair and sighs. His entire youth can be heard in the high-pitched trumpet blasts and crazy percussion of "Mambo No. 5."

"I wish I could find that girl," he says, his eyes hazy now. "She has to be alive; she was younger than me. People would clear a space for us on the dance floor. I'm not such a good dancer, but with her ..." The piano man tells himself, "If I could find that woman again, who knows...."

Pife, as Pifferrer is known, was twelve years old too when he first heard Perez Prado on the radio in Holguín, but just now the arranger and conductor has no time for memories. He has to finish writing the medley of Perez Prado's work that will open the show and set the transcriptions of the Mambo King's recordings sent down from New York for the tribute's 28-piece orchestra -- ten chairs bigger than Perez Prado's own big band. Pife began his career as a crooner, landing in Havana at the height of the prerevolutionary high life in 1958. He stuck out socialism through the Seventies, studying to be a conductor and eventually taking charge of the prestigious Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna, a gig that gave him the opportunity to conduct the jazz greats of Irakere, including Arturo Sandoval. For this weekend's show, Pife has already decided that his friend Paquito will figure prominently. "He's going to play on just about every song," Pife plans out loud, "but he will have an especially important role in Perez Prado's “Concert for Piano and Orchestra' that I'm going to arrange."

Hechavarria, Legra, and Pifferrer were tapped by New York-based presenter and mambo fan Ivan Acosta, whose Latin Jazz USA will venture into Miami for the first time with a show that will be repeated the following week at NYC's Town Hall. The pianist is delighted. "I been here 40 years, and I don't remember nobody who did that for Perez Prado, at least not here in my hometown," he observes. This year Latin Jazz USA has decided to honor Hechavarria at the performance with its annual award, renamed the Chico O'Farrill Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000 to honor the late composer. Coming of age along with mambo, still the most powerful Latin dance craze ever to grip the United States, Paquito has had all ten of his fingers in the nation's Latin-music pastel ever since.

Throughout the Fifties mambo had been the soundtrack for the jet set: Perez Prado trounced that other hip-swiveling king on the charts, outselling Elvis and everyone else in the decade with his mambo treatment of the love song "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White." Arriving in South Florida in 1960, Hechavarria scored a seat in the seven-piece Latin outfit of the Boom Boom Room at the Fontainebleau hotel at the height of mid-Miami Beach glamour. "You couldn't even walk through the lobby without an elegant shirt or a tuxedo," Paquito remembers. "I already was known here by a few guys, so the Fontainebleau job was kind of waiting for me." During his tenure there, the Habanero found himself accompanying Beach regulars such as Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr.

Although Latin bands disappeared from the pop charts over the next decade, Cuban strains could still be heard at the Beach's swank hotels. "Can you believe that you had to wait in line to get into the [Boom Boom] room on a Tuesday?" he marvels. "The Beach was full of dance teachers, teaching the Americanos how to dance cha cha cha, mambo, tango, and the beginnings of bossa nova," Hechavarria recalls. "Every Monday and Thursday at midnight they gave away a bottle of champagne and a trophy to the best dancers." So strong was the U.S. romance with all things Latin that the wife of Fontainebleau owner Ben Novak seduced each of the Boom Boom Room's Latin band leaders in turn, until she finally divorced her mob-friendly husband and married one. When Hechavarria headed out to Caesar's Palace after his own divorce in 1971, he found himself once again under the direction of one of Bernice Novak's discarded lovers, the infamous entertainer Pupi Campo. "Let me tell you," he explains. "She was a beauuuutiful woman; she was hard to say no to."

The collapse of the Beach and the lapse in mainstream appreciation of Latin music never affected Hechavarria's ability to find work. When Emilio Estefan revved up the Miami Sound Machine, the pianist's hands were primed to launch the second great Latin-pop crossover, contributing to the MSM breakout hit "Conga" what may be the most famous Latin solo ever coaxed from 88 keys: "GUNG-gung-gung-gung, GUNG-gung-gung-gung."

"They had the whole song recorded, but something was missing. Joe Galdo was a producer working with Emilio back then, and he suggested, “If a tumbao comes in here, it will save the song. The man to call is Paquito Hechavarria!'" Estefan has been calling the pianist to the studio ever since, as have other Latin artists as diverse as Argentine rockero Fito Paez and Dominican York rapper Mangú.

For all his popularity in the studio today, Hechavarria would not mind returning to the days of Perez Prado. "You don't need an elegant shirt or a tuxedo to play today," he laments. "You need to wear clothes for the gymnasium -- and everything sounds almost the same." He waves his arms in the air and shakes his legs in mock hip-hop stance. "There's no music anymore. I'm glad that we're having this concert, especially so young people can come who might have heard the name Perez Prado, but don't know how the music sounds. I want them to come just to hear the kind of music we used to hear."