According to Rebeca Mauleon's indispensable "Salsa Guidebook for Piano and Ensemble," the Mambo is:
An up-tempo dance style, developed through the 1940s and 1950s, which blended several elements of North American instrumentation and harmony with the Cuban son (a style of popular dance music that combined Spanish and African elements).
The great thing about Mambo music is that it leaves space for instrumental improvisation, like in jazz. The dance form also allows for improvised dance steps, which I'm sure contributed to its incredible world-wide popularity.
One of the first to be crowned "Mambo King," bandleader Perez Prado left Cuba and toured South America, Mexico and Puerto Rico in the late 1940s. His teenaged fans caused traffic jams and near-riots wherever he appeared.
In 1951, a Catholic cardinal from Lima, Peru, denied absolution to anyone who danced the Mambo. Which, of course, made it even more popular – a "forbidden fruit" kind of thing.
In the U.S. in the 1950s, New York City's Palladium Ballroom became the home of Mambo with dance contests every Wednesday night. The Palladium hosted the legendary musical battles between the "Big Three" bandleaders: Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez and Machito.
By the 1960s, most American middle-class households owned at least one Mambo instruction book or record.
This short film from 1955 will give you a hint of the excitement of the Mambo craze. Practice your fancy steps and Mambo with me on Saturday Jazz Caliente!
Jazz Caliente airs Saturdays at 5:00 p.m. The show is hosted by Robin Lloyd and produced by KNKX Public Radio.