Marlon Brando and James Dean

Marlon Brando

 A story that has fascinated me since I first heard of it is the legendary Hollywood actor Marlon Brando's being a passionate rumbero an involvement in Afro-Cuban percussion. Apparently he was passionate enough to build a music studio in his house and host rumbas there, with among others, the ubiquitous Jack Costanzo. Here is an excellent interview with Jack where he discusses his musical relationship with Marlon Brando.

"Everybody thinks I taught Marlon Brando. I never taught Marlon how to play.  He knew how to play before I met him!" ~ Jack Costanzo 
The way the story goes with Brando, is Marlon was involved with Afro-Cuban at the early age of 15. Anecdotes of Marlon attending concerts at the Paladium and sitting in with the legendary Tito Puente, or with Cal Tjader can be read here and there. Apparently Marlon Brando was a true aficionado and had some skills as well, often being described as playing well for an amateur.
Obviously there must have been some musical respect for the A-list actor who could actually play, to be invited onto the stage with the illustrious mambo groups of the day. I have always had the impression that Marlon actually played a part of popularizing the mambo craze and bongo craze, rather than 'jumping on the band wagon'. His playing and interest just appear to be a little too strong. He actually had monographed instruments and top quality drums. Most images show him playing the legendary Gonzala Vergara Cuban made congas and bongos, the archetype of the modern conga.
Brando's interest in the subject actually led him to invent a whole new conga tuning system. Which is the subject of an article by NPR featuring Poncho Sanchez. Here is also another article featuring Poncho Sanchez where he discusses his relationship with Marlon Brando.

"It was 1976. I had been with Cal Tjader for about a year and Cal told me Marlon Brando and Merv Griffin were coming to our matinee set,'" recalls Sanchez, calling from his Whittier home. "Marlon used to sit in with Cal out in East L.A. at a place called the M Club back in the early '60s. He'd come in, have some drinks and play the bongos. So I told Cal 'introduce me, introduce me."~ P. Sanchez.
Sanchez's brief conversation with Brando revealed more than a passing familiarity Latin percussionists. "He knew everybody! Mongo Santamaria! Tito Puente!"

James Dean

Now we move onto the story of equally legendary and iconic actor, James Dean, who was also a percussionist. However James' is a very different story. There is not quite as much to say about James Dean playing congas and bongos as there is Marlon Brando. In fact most of the photos of James Dean show him with some sort of hybrid drum, not quite a conga or bongo. Anyways, the way the story goes is James Dean idolized Marlon Brando and picked up the drum as a sort of hero worship and is defintely seen as "jumping on the bongo craze bandwagon". Absolutely no disrespect intended to James Dean or his fans. Coincidentally, Jack Costanzo taught James Dean and reaffirms this assessment of James Dean's musicianship.

EEG:   How about James Dean?
JC:    I gave him two lessons, and I gave up.
EEG:  He couldn’t get it.
JC:   No, he couldn’t get it. I think that what you said it’s true; he wanted to do conga drums, because Marlon was doing conga drums. But it was not in him to be a conga drummer. But I never called him to take a third lesson. (LAUGHER)

 James Dean did record an album featuring himself on drums which resurfaces on ebay from time to time. A few of these recordings are available to listen to on video.

I love the shots in the video of James Dean taking conga lessons with a very attractive young beatnik 'chic' and a rather sophisticated looking Black conga instructor. The record does slightly remind me of the legendary recordings on the Afro Roots CD by Mongo, mainly due to the pairing of the flute with the drums.

The question regarding the quality of James Dean musicianship aside it seems quite obvious that James loved the drum, which is what really matters. I of course was not alive at the time, but bongos, congas and Afro-Cuban music, racially, have always been considered 'Black'. I have respect for these two actors playing Afro-Cuban music and publicly fraternizing with Black musicians at a time when the country was quite racially divided.

Well bongos and congas are not quite the 'craze' and so we don't hear the same stories about big Hollywood actors playing congas and bongos as you did back in the 1950's, though my compatriot at the very excellent Fidel's Eyeglasses blog has reportedly been giving lessons to Matt Dillon. Ironically of all the modern actors today Matt Dillon certainly has a flair and character that does remind one of Marlon Brando and James Dean. Perhaps Matt Dillon will help usher in the next 'bongo craze'?
photo from Fidel's Eyeglasses.