Most people in the Americas have probably heard the 1948 song Mambo No. 5, composed by Cuban Perez Prado, at some point in their lives, even if they don’t realize it. It’s been sampled and remixed plenty in recent years. But the form the song is based upon— the mambo— has an interesting history full of religious and folkloric syncretism.
Although it might be tempting to associate the word mambo with the Creole word for a Vodou priestess, this is a false cognate. Mambo, meaning “conversations with the divine,” is actually a Kikongo [PDF] word, derived from the Bantu language family in parts of central Africa, and was brought to Cuba by slaves kidnapped from the region. Originally the word was loaned to be the name of a dance developed in Cuba in the 1930s, modeled on the style of Spanish, English and French folk dances. The rhythms that accompanied this type of dance, however, were heavily influenced by the sacred and ritual drumming of traditional Central Africa. In the 1940’s, the popular composer and orchestra director Prado began to specifically label his music as “mambo” jazz and moved a number of his musical performances to Mexico. The mambo later expanded in popularity to New York City in the post-WW2 era. Although this conjecture is pure speculation, it’s possible the mambo appealed to the romance of the exotic in a newly prosperous city, as well as catering to the colonialist overtones that associated non-white art forms with the perceived eroticism of African and Eastern cultures.