HAVANA (Reuters) - “King of the Congas” Tata Guines, Cuba’s most famous percussionist who shared the stage with Josephine Baker and Frank Sinatra half a century ago, died on Monday in Havana. He was 77.
Cuban state media reported that Guines, whose real name was Federico Aristides Soto, died of a kidney infection.
He was born in a poor black neighborhood in the town of Guines, just east of Havana, and made his first bongo drums from sausage and condensed milk cans.
Guines became a legend playing the conga, a tall and narrow drum of Congolese origin brought to Cuba by African slaves. He performed with the top names in Cuban music like Arsenio Rodriguez, Chano Pozo, Bebo Valdes and Israel “Cachao” Lopez.
In 1957, Guines moved to New York where he jammed with jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie, Maynard Ferguson and Miles Davis at Birdland.
Guines stunned audiences with his driving Afro-Cuban beat by playing five congas and singing at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in a solo performance that put percussion at center stage.
Guines enjoyed celebrity and owned his own car, but never got used to life in the United State due to racial segregation, he said in an interview published last year.
“Fame did not extend beyond the stage. Once you left the stage, it was like the signs said: ‘Whites only,”’ he said.
Guines returned to Cuba in 1959 soon after Fidel Castro came to power in a leftist revolution that he helped fund with contributions from his earnings as a musician.
Like other Cuban musicians who returned to fame late in life through the Buena Vista Social Club recording, Guines enjoyed renewed success in 2004 playing congas on the Latin Grammy-winning “Lagrimas Negras” (Black Tears) by pianist Bebo Valdes and Spanish Flamenco singer Diego El Cigala.
Reporting by Anthony Boadle