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.


  1. Jack will be stoked to find his performance with Ann Miller on the Dinah Shore show, mentioned in the interview, now available!


  2. http://www.mediafire.com/?83e7kk45nbo5wmn

    I hadn't thought about Mr. Bongo in a little while, but your post reminded me of this great bio & story. Obviously I just snapped the pics, lazy-style.

    But I could go to the library and actually use a scanner, if anyone is interested and wants something more presentable. For me, just getting the info & being able to read it is enough. Then its in my head & the physical copy or file or jpeg or pdf doesn't really matter. But of course it is also easier to read when we use a scanner, so my apologies. This was just a quickie sample...

    Also, since I'd previously mentioned (re: the Anga post) that I was interested in possibly sharing, I thought I should be a little more clear about what I actually was asking and about what I actually might have to share.

    For my own part, I'm most interested in that Banff book, specifically what Anga or Changuito are doing for their 6/8 (calling it 12/8 makes so much more sense but that's another story) and/or some of the more advanced stuff like quinto for guaguanco.

    I've emailed the people at Banff, but good luck finding the book still available after 18 years. And I can't find a listing in any of the academic catalogs, either. You could really help me just by telling me what title to search for -- maybe I'll find a copy for sale if not for loan.

    It would be great to look at the whole thing, of course, or at least the table of contents. There are obviously all sorts of gems in there. I might think "I already know plenty of guagua patterns" but there'd be a fun new one, who knows? Anyway, thanks for posting the Anga sound files and for bringing the book to my attention! You've helped me learn a lot, already. In addition to all the great info about *rumba instruments.* I've been making my own drums since the 1990's, and tinkering with them is indeed almost as much fun as playing them.

    ps. I had mentioned the Isabelo Ernesto Marrero method book "Drumming the Latin American Way," and forgot to add that unlike a lot of the older books (1940's!) where stuff is super-simplified, this one has some of those patterns but also some very un-simplified, challenging, and fun patterns. He's got some really left-handed breaks in there, for example, along with the more vanilla ones that (almost) anyone can play. Well, maybe not James Dean, but keep trying!

    1. 'm glad you enjoyed the post with Jack Costanzo, he is one of my favorite characters in the percussion world.

      It is very impressive that you make your own drums.

      Regarding the Banff book, I only have a bootleg copy of it. I tend not to distribute other artists material on the web without permission. However I have written James Metcalfe regarding permission to distribute the material on my blog.

      James Metcalfe, the author appears to be a musical educator at a college in texas. Here is his contact information. perhaps he will be able to help you acquire a copy.


      Might I suggest, since you are enjoying commenting on my blog that you create a user name and a profile so that you are no longer "Anonymous"?

    2. My Mom has the James Dean 45, Congas Drums in the original sleeve in excellent condition. She is looking to sell. Are you interested ?

  3. I just checked and I can't find the book even using the author's name and a keyword Banff or Cuba. I think its not in any library holdings, which is actually not too weird, I don't think.

    Anyway the author looks like a super cool dude -- thanks for sending the link to his web page. I really appreciate your sharing this info. Sometimes people love to be cagey and its more about "I'm so cool b/c I have this and you don't." But you are the real deal, sharing your love for the music and culture.

    I was lucky enough to take some classes with Sandy Perez, too. You and I may have been in the same one together? Probably we were, hahaha...


    I'm actually in Texas right now(!), but I'll wait and not contact Dr. Metcalfe yet, since you already did. Thanks again for your fun blog, I'm glad I discovered it!!!

  4. Hey Guys, I must admit I let the emails slip through. Life has gotten in the way of life. Anyway, If the site admin wants to contact me we can work something out with the book.

    James Metcalfe


  5. I cannot applaud you loud enough for this article! Excellent work and a couple of photos I have never seen. Thank you.