The mambo’s blend of Afro-Cuban forms and rhythms with big-band jazz instrumentation made it an internationally popular dance style in the 1950s. The mambo was first played in Cuba by conjunto ensembles of piano, bass, percussion and trumpets, including the conjuntos of Antonio Arcaño and Arsenio Rodríguez.
In the late 1940s Pérez Prado popularized the mambo internationally with a brass-heavy instrumentation similar to the big bands of the swing era, fronted by the great singer Beny Moré. Prado was born in Cuba, but relocated to Mexico in 1948 and cultivated an international following through recordings and performances of exciting numbers such as Mambo No.5 (1949) and Mambo Jambo (1950).
The mambo was further transformed at the Palladium Ballroom in New York by the bands of Machito, Tito Puente and Tito Rodríguez, who competed for the dancers’ favor by adding jazz harmonies, exciting breaks and more prominent percussion. Puente took to playing the timbales at the front of the band where he added to the show with exciting breaks and solos, as heard for example in Mambo Gozón (1958). The Palladium hired Jewish and Italian dance instructors, attracting not only Latinos, but Anglos, African-Americans, Jews, Italian Americans and others. This diverse clientele helped create a taste for mambo beyond the Latino community.
The rhythms of the mambo also worked their way into more mainstream American popular music, such as Ray Charles’ 1959 hit What’d I Say?, which features the tumbao rhythm of the conga drum played on drum set. Many Motown hits, including the Temptations’ Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, also featured a slowed-down tumbao rhythm played on congas.