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Dancing with the Master: The life and music of Manny Oquendo, 1931–2009

Over fried pork chops one rainy April evening, at a Latin-Chinese restaurant at Broadway and 100th St., music producer Rene Lopez crystallized percussionist Manny Oquendo’s accomplishments. “Since the 1950s, every one of the most successful bands had Manny as a member,” Lopez said. “Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, Vicentico Valdez, Johnny Pacheco, Eddie Palmieri, Larry Harlow. Every one of those teams won,” Lopez added, using the baseball analogy of having an Orlando Cepeda or Manny Ramirez aboard. His comment can be taken as a measured estimation, as last summer the Smithsonian presented Lopez with its Ralph Rinzler memorial award, at the American Folklife Festival on the National Mall. Standing on stage was Grupo Folklorico y Experimental Nuevayorquino, whose influential recordings Lopez co-produced. Manny Oquendo was at the timbales, and Grupo was about to drive the crowd swirling into the aisles.

Manny Oquendo at Grupo Folklorico rehearsal, with Andy Gonzalez, 06/08. Photo by Anja Hitzenberger.
Manny Oquendo at Grupo Folklorico rehearsal, with Andy Gonzalez, 06/08. Photo by Anja Hitzenberger.

Oquendo drew acute levels of enthusiasm and respect from his devoted audiences and from the many musicians he taught and mentored. Wielding potent verve, infectious enthusiasm, and a disciplined mastery of rhythmic fundamentals, he set a benchmark of musical integrity for some six decades, from mambo’s heyday to the honorary appearance of his juggernaut band Libre at Puerto Rico’s El Dia Nacional de la Salsa 2008. In performance Oquendo exuded focus and delight, intent on his timbale heads and bongo skins—on exact points and patterns he was drumming—or inciting band mates and the dance floor with his penetrating bell, the campana. As a leader, he imparted his knowledge by rigorous example, and his natural listening skills (the capacity to hear a record and visualize how it was done) were prodigious. Polite and generous with admirers, charming and gallant with the ladies, Oquendo was also an astute mimic, keying in to people’s vocal tones with the extraordinary precision he applied to drum pitches. He died in the Bronx on March 25, leaving a recorded trove to stir hips and dance parties, and to instruct students of percussion. Libre carries on the tradition of his hard-hitting tipico sound, playing exuberant tributes this and next month. For decades, they’ve generated authenticity and sabor that are alive and compulsive, distinct from fashionable compromises that salsa chose, or our era’s taste for remaking past forms. Rather than re-create the energy of his masters, Oquendo brought on that rampant energy itself.

Oquendo was born in Brooklyn on January 1, 1931. His parents had arrived on one of the Puerto Rican passenger lines operating since the Jones Act became law in 1917. That legislation had provided citizenship, prevented participation in national elections, and made Puerto Rican men eligible for the draft weeks before the U.S. entered the First World War. (The military marching band of James Reese Europe, credited with taking jazz to the Continent, included about eighteen Puerto Ricans.) The family’s first home was on South Fourth Street in Williamsburg, one of the city’s early Rican ’hoods. A few years later, they moved to what would become El Barrio, or Spanish Harlem.

Over his career, Oquendo forged a link between Cuban masters he learned from and young Nuyoricans who’d become top players in salsa and in jazz. He’d subbed on timbales for Ubaldo Nieto in Machito’s famed Afro Cubans in the late 1940s (Libre’s wildly energetic Increible is dedicated to Nieto, and to Orestes Varona of Orquesta Aragon). He was in the powerful first bands of Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri. Palmieri, asked through an intermediary about first meeting Oquendo, said he’d been playing stickball at 14, recognized Oquendo from Puente’s band, and requested a piano solo to study. Conjunto Modelo’s track, “Viejo Soccaron,” was Oquendo’s recommendation, with Lili Martinez at the bench. They next met when Palmieri joined the band Puente’s singer Vicentico Valdez formed in the mid-1950s, in which Oquendo and conguero Tommy Lopez were the percussion team (they’d pair again in Palmieri’s astounding La Perfecta). While rehearsing a cha-cha-cha, Oquendo told the young pianist he wasn’t using his hands correctly, then told him how it was done.

Oquendo distilled the Cuban comparsa’s mozambique rhythm onto timbales around 1965, electrifying Palmieri’s Mozambique and Molasses albums. In an interview with ethnomusicologist Roberta Singer, Libre’s bassist and musical director Gonzalez said “All those beats that he plays in his solos, those are rumbero beats…Manny’s talking to the dancers. And that is very similar to what the quinto

does with the dancers in rumba.” Speaking with me, Gonzalez noted Oquendo’s work on Bamboleate, which matched La Perfecta with vibraphonist Cal Tjader. “There’s a couple of timbale solos,” Gonzalez said of “Mi Montuno” and the title track, “that were transcribed in a book called Different Drummers, by Billy Mintz. He included solos by Max Roach, Art Blakey—and one of the drummers is Manny.”

Libre, the trombone-powered ensemble formed in 1974 by Oquendo and Gonzalez (who’d played with Ray Barretto, then Palmieri), reigns as this city’s tightest, fiercest dance band. The band’s been a live university that invites comparison to Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, for outstanding alums including Grammy-winning leaders Oscar Hernandez of Spanish Harlem Orchestra and flutist Dave Valentin, trombonist and composer Papo Vazequez, and singer Herman Olivera, now with Palmieri’s band. (Former members will add fuel to the fire at Libre’s Bronx Museum memorial concert on May 30.) On a WBAI tribute to Oquendo, his music was described as always sounding “now.” At SOBs for Libre’s January gig, now was the sound, the dance floor swollen from front door to back wall, dining tables hauled aside to accommodate the elegant melee.

During my visit to his Bronx home, Gonzalez played footage of Libre at the Statue of Liberty centennial in 1986 (a year they set audiences alight in Puerto Rico, Berlin, Holland and France). The ardent crowd thrives beneath Financial District skyscrapers, with Oquendo in blisteringly brilliant form and Herman Olivera brandishing clave sticks bought from bins of replacement hammer-handles on Canal Street. Stories flowed back to 1947 and famed Cuban conguero Chano Pozo’s first New York performance, at the Triborough Theater in Harlem. The band Pozo sat in with had Oquendo on timbales, and had recently been dropped by Marcelino Guerra when that top singer hired light-skinned players to take a lucrative, discriminatory gig at La Martinique down on 57th Street. A couple of Oquendo’s side gigs in the 1950s were in jazz pianist Billy Taylor’s rhythm section and on Jackie Gleason’s TV show. “Whatever band he was in,” Gonzalez said, “he became the dominant figure. There’s jazz guys who say the actual leader of any band is the drummer—he’s the one who shapes the direction and energy, setting fire to the rhythm section.”

Sought out for his timbale and bongo playing, his mastery of the campana was unsurpassed. Gonzalez accompanied Oquendo to bell makers, where he’d test hundreds of instruments before hearing what he sought. “Bells can be shaped and welded wrong, and you hear a dissonance: boioioioing. When you hit a bell—boom!—and it’s a true sound, it has a series of overtones.” Oquendo’s exacting tone standards sing out on recordings, in timbale breaks struck during a danzon and in his direct, often volcanic solos. He’d begun his explorations even before he had drums, playing school doors, desks, mailboxes. “Hit a lunch table in a certain way with the palm of your hand,” Gonzalez described, “and you’d get a bass. It’s the science of getting tones from various surfaces.” The public school building serving his needs stands at Lexington Avenue and 106th Street. It’s now the Julia de Burgos Cultural Center, and Libre tore through one of Oquendo’s final gigs in that dance hall early this year.

Driving through wind and rain down to Columbus Circle and Dizzy’s Club, where the birthdays of Tito Puente and conga-legend Candido were being celebrated, Rene Lopez spun “Viejo Soccaron,” the 1950s track Oquendo once told Eddie Palmieri to study. Lili Martinez’s inventive piano brought to mind an exchange Lopez and Gonzalez had over dinner, about Oquendo’s solos telling stories. Gonzalez’s brother, Jerry (Libre’s first conguero, now leader of the Fort Apache Band) calls it “the talk,” likening Oquendo’s progress to a suite. “Manny’d criticize timbale soloists,” Lopez said: “‘They say it all at the beginning, and are saying nothing at the end.’ By the time he brought the band back in, the excitement level was so high.” He mentioned a phrase Cuban trumpet great Chocolate Armenteros uses that touches on Oquendo’s sense for song development, both within the ensemble and in enrapturing the audience: Manny sabia como entregar. A drive with Oquendo that Gonzalez had proposed, throughout the Bronx to cull tales of myriad music venues and musicians he’d known, was left unrealized at his death. The portal he provides into the polyrhythmic spectrum remains. One route in is ecstatic dance as his recordings play; another is tapping the clave’s limber pulse, joining an intricate musical realm as Oquendo lofts his transforming solos.

Libre celebrates Manny Oquendo at the Bronx Museum on May 30, and at St. Peter’s Church on Lexington Avenue and 54th Street on June 8. For an appendix of recommended listenings, see the web version of this piece at


Alan Lockwood


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2009

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