John Child talks in his customary depth to leader, pianist, composer, arranger and
producer Sergio Rivera.
A Conversation with Grupo Caribe's Sergio Rivera
by John Child
John Child talks in his customary depth to leader, pianist, composer, arranger and
producer Sergio Rivera about Grupo Caribe's Un Congo Me Dio La Letra
(CMS Records/Walboomers CMS 0055) - arguably the hottest salsa album released at
the beginning of 2003 - and delves into Sergio's distinguished career. Concerning
the latter, Sergio provides a fascinating insight into the life of a young musician
during the '70s New York salsa boom, working on the thriving club scene with the likes of
Ernie Agosto y La Conspiración, Kako y sus Estrellas, Chino y su Conjunto Melao and
Vilató y Los Kimbos. In addition, he speaks about his stint with the legendary Rafael
Cortijo and participation in the nascent revival of "traditional classic salsa music"
(later called salsa dura) as co-founder of Cruz Control during the height of the
salsa romántica explosion.
John Child (JIC):
I understand you were born on January 3rd, 1953, in Brooklyn, New York, of Puerto
Rican parentage. Please tell me about your upbringing in New York, early musical
education and experience?
Sergio Rivera (SR):
I was raised by my grandmother from the age of two weeks old. My grandmother was
from La Calle Calma in Santurce, Puerto Rico. When I was about 12 years old, my
uncles started talking to me about the type of music they were into. My Uncle Tomás
was playing guitar and bass, and he was listening and learning Latin and jazz. My Uncle Charlie
was a member of the 3 & 1 Club in Brooklyn that promoted dances at the St. George
Hotel, Manhattan Center, and other venues throughout New York City. This was Ralph
Mercado's club with the other three members, Tuffy Sánchez, Pete Vázquez, and my Uncle
Charlie (Baby) Rivera. Ricardo Ray recorded a tune titled "3 & 1 Mozambique" (from
Jala Jala Y Boogaloo
'67 on Alegre) that was dedicated to the club members. I remember going to the 3
& 1 Club to hear Eddie Palmieri, Ray Barretto and Ricardo Ray on any given Friday
or Saturday night in the 1960s. Sometimes the club would charge $2.99 to see five
bands on the bill in one night. The first time I saw Tito Puente with La Lupe, Machito and
Graciela, and Tito Rodríguez, was at a 3&1 Club dance at the St. George Hotel. There
was something magical about these performances. I was just a kid, but they had my
full attention. We did not have many records at home, but I remember a few 78s of Pacheco's
charanga music that everyone danced the pachanga to, and "El Watusi" by Ray Barretto
(from Charanga Moderna
'62 on Tico), and El Gran Combo's first album. In addition, my uncle Tomás also
had a doo-wop group named the Temptations, before the more popular Temptations took
on that name. Ray Cruz was the bass vocalist in the group. Ray Cruz went on to
play timbales with Ricardo Ray, and my uncle freelanced on bass and later started a group
called the New Breed. This is where I first met Frankie Rodríguez, the conga player
who later went on to perform with Ismael Miranda and also Grupo Folklorico y Experimental Nuevayorquino. I also remember listening to the Symphony Sid Show, the Dick "Ricardo"
Sugar Show, and the Joe Gaines Express Show. These were all radio shows that played
the best Latin music. I also remember going to the Paramount Theatre to see the
rock 'n' roll shows where I saw Stevie Wonder, Wilson Pickett, Little Anthony and the
Imperials, The Supremes and Patti LaBelle, to name a few. These were always great
shows with great bands.
I expressed an interest in playing the piano at the age of 10 or 11, but there wasn't
any money to buy me one. So, I fiddled around with my uncle's guitar and bass for
a little while. I learned enough on the bass to perform with the high school band.
I tried to get into the High School for Music and Art, but my guidance teacher did not
send my official transcripts to the school, because, as he later told my grandmother:
"He will be better off in the electronics field, fixing TVs and radios, rather than
being a musician." Determined to learn the piano, I cut class and spent all my time
in the sound proof piano rooms we miraculously had at my vocational high school.
I remember practicing C7 montunos, I, IV, V montunos. No one ever told me I needed
to practice my scales!
So whom did you make your professional debut with, and how old were you at the time?
When I was 15, I was recruited to play piano with a local band by the name of Orchestra
Heavy. The band consisted of two trumpets, trombone, full rhythm section and a lead
vocalist. This was the first band I ever performed with. We were all self taught
musicians, inspired by the likes of Eddie Palmieri, Ray Barretto, Ricardo Ray, Orchestra
Harlow and the big three: Machito, Puente and Rodríguez to name a few. There were
many local bands around at that time. I think "local bands" was a key phrase for
bands that were less popular, less experienced, and less in demand in the mainstream
salsa clubs. However, these 1960s local bands produced such musicians as Tito Nieves,
who performed with a local band named Orquesta Cimarrón, and Rafael de Jesús, who
sang with Orchestra Dee Jay. There were a few "big gigs" that I remember performing with
Orchestra Heavy. We performed on a boat ride to Bear Mountain, alternating with
El Gran Combo; our first out of town gig was at Buffalo University (State University of New York at Buffalo) alternating with
Chollo Rivera and the Latin Soul Drive; and we performed at the St. George Hotel at a dance
billed as the "Battle of the Bands." This was in July 1969. There were over twenty
bands on the bill, including Eddie Palmieri, Ricardo Ray, Ray Barretto, Orchestra
Harlow, Joe Bataan, Ralph Robles, Johnny Colón, Joey Pastrana, Willie Colón, Frankie
Dante, Ray Jay and the Eastsiders, the Lebrón Brothers and Orchestra Heavy, to name
a few. Symphony Sid would always laugh anytime he announced Orchestra Heavy, so
as to say: "Who are these guys??"
I never considered those times to be professional. We were kids with a little bit
of talent in the right place at the right time that enabled us to perform with our
musical idols. This was a very exciting time for salsa music.
It was the post-Palladium era, and pre-Fania All Stars. All of the established bands
were already made up of all stars that had performed with the best in the business,
i.e. Eddie Palmieri who had performed and recorded with Tito Rodríguez, and Ray Barretto, who had performed and recorded with Tito Puente.
Rafael de Jesús recorded with George [Dee Jay] de Jesús Jr.'s Orquesta Dee Jay [Pa' Alante on MGM late '60s, Orchestra Dee Jay
on Coco c '72] and Orquesta Cimarrón, which he co-led on an eponymous 1975 album on Lamp/Coco
and Erupción '77 on TR. Reportedly, Tito Nieves began his professional career as a vocalist with
Orquesta Cimarrón in 1975.)
Which was the first "name" band you played with and when?
In 1973, the pianist for La Conspiración, Willie Rodríguez, asked if I would be interested
in filling his chair with Ernie Agosto's group. He had just been offered a job with
Kako's band. I was grateful for the opportunity. I had just returned from a three-year tour of duty with the US Army and was eager to begin performing. I was 20
years old. It was then that I began performing professionally on the cuchifrito
circuit. I was also studying music theory and keyboard harmony at Queens Borough
Community College. I think it was a year later that Willie Rodríguez offered me the job with
Kako. I accepted, and left La Conspiración. Kako did not have as much work as Ernie,
so I found myself free lancing a lot during this period. I performed a lot during
that time with La Ritmo Tropical De Cuba. This was a band led by Angelo Modelo (aka
Angelo Vaillant), who has recorded a number of albums with his Conjunto Modelo (including
Angelo y su Conjunto Modelo
'80 and Angelo y su Conjunto Modelo
'81 on Guajiro, El Gran Angelo y su Conjunto Modelo
'85 on Laslos, No Me Copas Pasa Eso
'90 on Team Enterprises, and Extasis y Dolor
'93 on Mivajo, with Frankie Vázquez on lead vocals). We performed a lot at the Caborrojeño
on Broadway in Spanish Harlem, and the New York Casino, which later became the Latin
Quarter. It was during this time that "Chino" Cruz De Jesús was considering making a band that eventually became Conjunto Melao. I think Chino's inspiration came
from La Diferente. José Febles, trumpet player and arranger extraordinaire, was
responsible for the sound of La Diferente and Chino contracted José Febles to arrange
many of the songs recorded by Conjunto Melao. I learned a lot about playing piano and
arranging music by reading José Febles' charts and scores. What a talent!
I'm a great admirer of Ernie Agosto's body of recorded work: La Conspiración
'71, Ernie's Conspiracy
'72, Cada Loco Con Su Tema / Different Strokes
'74, Afecto y Cariño
'76 and Ernie's Journey
'79, all on Vaya. Though I know you didn't get the opportunity to record with his
band, La Conspiración, please could share your recollection of working with Ernie
and the band?
Every gig was an adventure with Ernie's band. I will spare you the war stories.
We had a lot of laughs and many good gigs. This was a good period for salsa as well.
There were lots of venues to play during that time. Places such as the Casino 14,
the Chez Sensual, Colgate Gardens, the Casa Blanca, the Ipanema, the Cork and Bottle,
La Maganette, etc. The music was fun and it was especially a pleasure and learning
experience playing along side Gene Golden, who was Ernie's steady conguero, and Willie
Cintron, the bass player. I remember sharing the stage with Rafael Cortijo's band for
the first time in my career. That was very special for me. On piano that night
was Pepe Castillo, who I admired very much for his work on Cortijo's classic Time Machine
album (1974 on Coco), and on bass was my uncle, Tomás Rivera, who introduced me to
music. Prior to playing with Cortijo, my uncle played bass for Pete Rodríguez, and
then Tony Pabón y La Protesta. He performed with Ismael Rivera y Los Cachimbos for
a few years in the late '70s. He composed and arranged "Todo Tiene Su Final" for Justo
Betancourt's Conjunto Borincuba band (included on Con Amor
'78 on RMQ; reissued in 2002). Tito Rojas sings on that track. He also played with
Kako and Tommy Olivencia.
Was the illustrious Afro Cuban sonero, Miguel Quintana, Ernie's regular lead vocalist
at the time?
Yes, Miguel was the Man. He was always so suave, fun loving, and of course an excellent
sonero. At times, Ernie would let Tempo Alomar sing a couple of songs. Tempo was
the timbalero in the band. This is the same Tempo who has been singing with Roberto Roena. Then there were times where they sang duets. They are two wonderful musicians.
It was a pleasure performing with them. As you may know, Miguel recently had a
stroke and has not fully recovered. Everyone hopes he will be able to come back
and continue his work with Los Soneros De Oriente.
We sure do hope Miguel fully recovers. In addition to La Conspiración, he has many
fine albums to his name (including, with Armando Sánchez y su Conjunto Son de la
Loma: Así Empezó La Cosa
'80 on Montuno and Armando Sánchez y su Grupo Son de la Loma
'95 on Caimán; with Conjunto Candela: Conjunto Candela 79
'81 on Guajiro and El Sabor Del Conjunto Candela/86
'86 on Laslos; solo albums: Don Gonzalo Fernández Presenta Miguel Quintana
early '80s, Son Habanero con Miguel Quintana
'82 on Taboga, Sentimiento y Son
'86 on Laslos and Este Se Miguel Quintana
'88 on Laslos; with Los Soneros De Oriente: No Me Asusten Más
'00 on Cobo). Can you remember what tunes Ernie and La Conspiración featured at
The only tune I remember is "La Culebra" (from Ernie's Conspiracy), which seemed to be a favorite of Ernie's fans.
Sadly, Ernie had issues with substance abuse and dropped out of performing. Then
I heard at the beginning of the '90s that he had organized La Nueva Conspiración,
but heard nothing subsequently. Can you provide an update?
Ernie called me a couple of years ago to do a few gigs with him. He had just come
back from performing in Japan and I believe he was scheduled to perform in Colombia
that year. I remember doing a gig with him in New Jersey. No one danced! Everyone
came up to the front of the stage, sang all the songs with the band, and played their
cowbells. That was a first for me. The audience was primarily Colombian and obviously
big fans from the early '70s. Miguel was on the gig that night, sounding as good
as ever. I believe Ernie went to Japan and Colombia several times during the past five
years. He recently was diagnosed with cancer in his throat, and that prevented him
from performing for a little while. I have not spoken with him in some time.
You performed, but didn't record, with the legendary Kako and his All-Stars. Please
tell me about your experience with this renowned timbalero?
I was with Kako for about a year. I loved playing his charts; they were big band
style. However, he usually never had more than three horns. He would get gigs backing
up singers like Raúl Marrero; and I think we backed up Vitín Avilés a few times.
Who were the sidemen and lead singer in Kako's All-Stars during your stint with the
The singers I remember in the band at that time were Junior Cordova, Watusi and Chivirico
Dávila. At this time, I can only remember Panama on trumpet and Roberto Roldan on
Can you recall what material Kako was featuring in his set at the time?
I cannot recall any of the tunes we performed.
Was the eponymous album, Conjunto Melao (1975 on TR), your recording debut?
I did a couple of recordings before Conjunto Melao, one on Fonseca Records (I've forgotten
the band's name) and one with a guy named Johnny Bronco. I don't know what label
it was on, but I remember Tito Nieves sang one of the tunes. I have a cassette of
one of the sessions.
You say that Tito Nieves sang one of the tunes on the Johnny Bronco album you played
on. Does this mean that Tito recorded as a lead singer prior to Johnny Ortiz y Taiborí
'79 on Fania by Johnny Ortiz's band Taiborí, which is believed to be his recording
debut as a lead vocalist?
Well the recording we did was never released, so I guess the Taiborí
debut is official.
You went on to make a further couple of albums with Chino y su Conjunto Melao, 100% Bailable (1976 on TR) and En Mi Casa Latina (late '70s on Latina Records), on which you arranged the 1950s tribute "La Bamba." En Mi Casa Latina
featured Libre alumnus Tony "Pupy Cantor" Torres on lead vocals, Ray Cruz on timbales
and David Chamberlain on trombone and flute. Please could you share your reminiscences
about your period with "Chino" Cruz De Jesús and Melao?
Let's not forget Victor Venegas on bass! Conjunto Melao was a swinging dance band.
Many people described our sound as a "Puerto Rico sound." I think that had a lot
to do with Febles' arrangements. However, we also had other great arrangers such
as Gil López, Oscar Hernández and Willie Mullings, who performed with Conjunto Libre before
expanding his career as an arranger and pianist in Los Angeles, California. In addition
to José Febles, who would perform with us at times, we had excellent musicians, including Larry Spencer, Bomberito Zarzuela. Ralph Irrizary, Jimmy Delgado and Ray Anderson,
who has gone on to be a notable trombonist and bandleader in the jazz field. The
vocal responsibilities were left to two wonderful singers Ray de la Paz and Eddie
Temporal. At one point we had three singers, including Pablo Canti, who also composed
quite a few of the songs we performed and recorded. We had a no. 1 record on commercial
radio in 1975 with "Que Bien Te Vez" (from Conjunto Melao); and in 1976 "El Bodeguero" (from 100% Bailable) also made the top 10 on commercial radio stations. Conjunto Melao was a great experience
for me. I am very proud of the work that I did with Chino and the band.
That question again: can you remember which songs from the trio of Melao albums were
mainly featured at the gigs?
We always played "El Bodeguero" and "Que Bien Te Vez." Chino would either open or
close on most nights with "Bongo." "Cositas Como Tu," arranged by Louie Ramírez
on the first album, was also featured as well as José Madera's arrangement "Fijate
Que Natural" and Gil López's arrangements, "Buen Borincano" and "A La Buena De Dios." My favorites
also included "Jazmin" and "Varón," both arranged by Willie Mullings.
"Cositas Como Tu" and " Varón" are from Conjunto Melao
; "Bongo", "Buen Borincano", "Jazmin" and "A La Buena De Dios" are all from 100% Bailable
; and "Fijate Que Natural" comes from En Mi Casa Latina.)
In addition to playing bongo on Ernie Agosto's Cada Loco Con Su Tema / Different Strokes
'74, Chino played bongo on three other notable albums on Vaya: Rafi Val y La Diferente
'71, La Sociedad
'72 and Fuerza Bruta
'75 by timbalero Rafi Val and his group La Diferente, which you mentioned earlier.
Thereafter, Val seemed to disappear from the recording scene. Can you shed any
light on his career?
I am not sure what happened to him. But what a band he had. They had a tremendous
sound with many of the best musicians in the business, including José Febles and
What became of Chino?
I last saw Chino at the Boys Harbor School. He was looking for a singer to record
some new ideas that he was putting together. I am appreciating his genius again,
after listening to Chino's three albums during the last two days. All three of the
albums had great dance music and a unique sound that stills sounds fresh today. This is
due to the arrangers he contracted and also the fact that all the compositions, except
for "Tu Me Acostumbrastes," were written by Chino and Pablo Canti Gautreau.
Then in 1976, you got the opportunity to participate in Vilató y Los Kimbos, one
of the spin offs from the mid-'70s fragmentation of Típica 73. Not only did you
play on their Cotique albums, Hoy y Mañana
'78 and Aquacero Ne Me Moja
'79, but you also arranged the title track of the latter. Please tell me about your
time with Orestes Vilató and Los Kimbos? For instance, who was the regular lead
vocalist at gigs, because Carlos Santos sang on the first album, and Miguel Angel,
an unknown name to me, sang on the second.
Carlos Santos sang for most of the time that I was in the band. I think Miguel was
only there for a few months toward the end. Orestes Vilató, master timbalero and
percussionist, was a great inspiration to me. He always would encourage me to take
piano solos. He also would instruct me to think rhythmically while soloing. I would go
over to his house, and he would play all these old Cuban recordings for me with such
excitement, as though he were listening to them for the first time. He also gave
me an opportunity to arrange a few tunes for him. I was really surprised when he decided
to use "Aguacero No Me Moja " as the title track. It was always a learning experience
and a pleasure to work in the studio with Louie Ramírez, who produced the albums,
and Irv Greenbaum the engineer. This was also the time when I first met Tony Barrero.
We were always working. I remember doing four gigs a night sometimes. We had a
contract for a year to play every Friday and Saturday at the Caborrojeño and the
New York Casino. Orestes would take gigs around that schedule and sometimes we would finish
playing at 10:00 am the next day after performing at an after-hour gig. We shared
the stage with great bands, including La Sonora Matancera, Orquesta Broadway, Mario
Bauzá and Graciela, Roberto Torres and Típica 73. Sharing the stage with Típica 73 at the
Casino 14 was a little nerve racking for me one night. I'll never forget Sonny Bravo
towering over me while I was taking a solo. I really loved all the work Sonny Bravo
did with Típica 73 and admire his piano playing and arranging.
Vilató cites disenchantment with Cotique as the reason for disbanding Los Kimbos
in New York and relocating to San Francisco in 1980. Were you with the band up to
I left the band in 1979, a few months before Orestes decided to leave for California.
I understand that Carlos Santana offered him a gig. I recently had the privilege
of performing together with Orestes Vilató again in a tribute to Tito Puente at Lincoln Center. He was invited as a special guest and I was performing with the Boys
Harbor Big Band.
Meanwhile, you made the decision to relocate to Puerto Rico. What motivated you to
I left Los Kimbos and NYC for personal reasons. It's funny how life has some curves
on the road that you don't expect, and then you find yourself going straight ahead
on a smoother path.
I believe you also performed with the group of great tres player Charlie Rodríguez,
who made a few albums before relocating to Puerto Rico (including Charlie Rodríguez y su Conjunto; Canta Rey Reyes
'80 and Charlie Rodríguez y Rey Reyes
'81 on Guajiro, and Grande
'83 on Vigo, with Jorge Maldonado).
Yeah, there was a period during the beginning of the '80s or toward the end of the
'80s when I performed with Charlie Rodríguez, who played with Johnny Pacheco and
the SAR All Stars. That was a fun gig. José Claussell was on bongo and sometimes
congas; Chocolate was on trumpet, Karen Joseph played flute, and Willie Cintron was on bass.
I don't remember all the other personnel. The highlight gig for me with this band
was performing at the Calle Ocho Festival in Miami, Florida. Roberto Torres was
one of the singers we backed up on that gig. We performed for about three hours without
Can you strain your memory, because I recall Jimmy Bosch telling me he did a stint
with Charlie Rodríguez at the beginning of the '80s. Jimmy said Jorge Maldonado
was singing with the group at the time. Does that ring any bells?
I was not with the band when Jimmy Bosch was there. Rey Reyes had his own band at
that time also. I think Miguel Angel, who recorded with Los Kimbos, was on the Charlie
Rodríguez gig when I was there.
While in Puerto Rico during 1979 and 1980 you worked with Julio Castro's Orquesta
La Masacre and Rafael Cortijo's Combo. The chance to perform with Cortijo was a
feather in your cap. Tell me about that experience?
As I mentioned before, my uncle Tomás Rivera performed with Cortijo for a few years.
He introduced me to Cortijo in Frank Ferrer's office in Puerto Rico. Cortijo was
finishing what would be his last recording, El Sueño Del Maestro
(1980 on Tierrazo). He did not have a steady piano player at the time and asked
me if I would be interested in performing with his band. Wow! Rehearsal was the
following day, and I was on my way performing with the great Rafael Cortijo. We
performed tunes from the new recording at the time. Most of the arrangements were written by
Louis García, who was one of the most sought after arrangers and musicians at that
time. He recently was musical director for Cheo Feliciano's recordings and performances. The charts were a challenge and it was a great experience performing with some of
the best musicians in Puerto Rico. It was also an exciting time because the Pan
American Games were hosted by Puerto Rico during that time in 1979. There were many
cultural events taking place as well as parties and dances where we shared the stage with
Los Papines, Orquesta Aragón, Elena Burke and a host of other international and Puerto
Rican groups. I spent many hours off the stage with Cortijo as well. Many afternoons he would take me to his sister Rosa's apartment for lunch, and then there were times
when he would invite me to the studio while they were finishing the album. It was
a pleasure working with him, his niece Fé Cortijo, his nephew Rafaelito Cortijo and
Ismael Rivera's son Ismaelo Rivera. One day Cortijo notified us that he was contracted
to perform in Carnegie Hall. This was an opportunity I definitely could not miss.
We traveled to New York, performed at Carnegie Hall and several other venues, and
then things kind of slowed down. It was around this time, that I decided to leave the music
Less well known than Cortijo, Julio Castro made a fine trio of albums:
New Generation Presenta Julio Castro & Orquesta La Masacre
(1979 on TTH; featuring Tito Nieves), Mamey
(1980 on Fania) and Julio Castro y La Masacre
(1984 on Fania; featuring sonero Nestor Sánchez). Please could you provide more
detail about this significant bandleader, conguero, flautist, singer, composer and
I only did a couple of gigs with Julio, before I began performing with Cortijo. I
met him for the first time in Puerto Rico and only knew of his music from the hit
tune "El Pregonero" that Tito Nieves sang.
Who were the sidemen and lead singer in La Masacre during your stint with the band
and can you recall what material was being featured at the gigs?
Sorry. I do not recall.
Then in 1981, you began a break from performing.
I wanted to be able to play more than I was playing on the piano. I was hearing things
that I could not play, because I did not have the proper training, and that was kind
of frustrating. I also had two children who needed a lot more of me financially.
Instead of going back to school for music and developing my chops, I decided to take
a career path that was going to give me more financial security. My intentions were
to go to law school, but I got side tracked by scholarships offered to me and instead achieved two Masters of Science degrees, one in City Planning from Pratt Institute
and one in Economic Development from New Hampshire College. This definitely put me
in a position to demand a higher salary level wherever I chose employment. However,
it did not satisfy the urge to play music.
So what motivated you to return to music in 1990 and co-found Cruz Control with Ray
Ray Cruz and I use to jam together in the 1970s at a place in Brooklyn called "Dem
Bums" Bar and Restaurant. Ray had organized a jam session there every Sunday. Musicians
such as Victor Venegas, Mauricio Smith, Carlos Francetti, Harry Aguilar, Manny Duran, José Claussell, Edy Martínez, and many others, would come down and stretch out.
People would always ask: "Hey what is the name of this band?" And Ray would say:
"Cruz Control." Well, one day in 1990, we were both at a party together and I started
talking to him about playing piano again and starting a band. We agreed that I would
write the music and he would get the gigs. He also stipulated that he would like
the name of the band to be Cruz Control. We were not clear about what type of band
we wanted to form, when Ray got a steady Friday night gig at a place called the Time Out
Lounge in Brooklyn. I did not have enough time to write two sets of music, so I
called a friend, Ralphy Marzán Jr., whose father was one of the founders and bongo
player for Conjunto Candela. Ralphy had transcripts of Johnny Pacheco, Pete "El Conde" Rodríguez,
Conjunto Candela and Ray Barretto tunes. They were written for two trumpets. We
could not find two trumpet players for the first gig, but we found two trombone players who could play the trumpet parts by transcribing on site. This is not as easy
as it sounds. The two trombone players were Dave Chamberlain and Louie Kahn, and
the people danced and loved the music. I started to do transcriptions of tunes that
I felt were really good dance tunes. Being a fan of the big three, I started doing transcriptions
of Tito Puente and Tito Rodríguez tunes. I found the Machito tunes a bit more difficult
to rearrange for two trombones. Then the concept of the band started to develop. Cruz Control would become a small ensemble performing big band dance music
of the Palladium era. I transcribed and rearranged over fifty tunes the first year.
Are Conjunto Candela still active?
No, they are no longer active.
As another aside, Dave Chamberlain, along with vocalist/percussionist Luisito Ayala
and keyboard player Igor Atalita, recently released the nice CD Direct Latin Influence
on DLI. Anyway, back to Cruz Control. I had
the good fortune to see them performing in 1990 during a trip to New York. The night
I saw the group, Lewis Kahn and David Chamberlain made up the 'bone section and Hermán
Olivera was singing lead vocals. They had a rugged old school sound and performed
covers of salsa standards. Bearing in mind that salsa romántica was booming at the
time, it was a very bold move for you and Ray to form a new salsa dura band amidst
a sea of salsa monga.
It's interesting salsa dura was not a commonly used phrase at the time Ray and I started
playing what was then called old style salsa music. I remember dancers loving what
we were playing, and some musicians criticizing us, saying: "Why are you playing
that old stuff?" We played that old stuff every Tuesday night at Bayamo on Broadway
and 4th Street in Manhattan for six consecutive years. Bayamo became the place where
dancers met to dance to what they considered good salsa music. I think that Cruz
Control was on the cutting edge of the music gradually trending toward the demand for more
traditional classic salsa music, like that of the 1960s and 1970s, now referred to
as salsa dura or salsa vieja.
However, by the time the group's debut CD Cruz Control
was released on Eva Records in 1997, on which you shared piano chores and arranged
the cha cha chá "Sopa De Bacalao," it appeared from the liner notes that you were
no longer co-leader. Presumably you had begun the Grupo Caribe project by that time?
Grupo Caribe began performing in 1996. Ray and I dissolved our partnership around
the time we were beginning to record the debut CD. We remain friends and he has
called me to play with Cruz Control and I call him sometimes to play with Grupo Caribe.
We both are members of the Boys Harbor Big Band Workshop led by Louie Bauzo and José
Madera every Monday night.
What was your defining concept for Grupo Caribe?
The concept is to perform big band style traditional salsa music with a small ensemble
of musicians. The arrangements are written in such a way to produce that sound,
and I have carefully selected the arrangers. Musicians and arrangers, such as José
Madera, Louis Bauzo and Oscar Hernández, know and have performed the music that I am
trying to produce with Grupo Caribe. The horn section consists of a trumpet, trombone
and tenor saxophone representing each section of a big band. I ask the arrangers
to use the tenor sax as it is used in a big band, such as holding down a line while the
trumpet and trombone harmonize a melodic counterpoint in the mambo section of a tune.
Of course, I would love to have a big band, but it is not economically feasible.
It is also a lot easier to write arrangements and manage a smaller group of musicians.
Why did you choose Al Acosta, Tony Barrero and Robert Suttman to consistently fill
the sax, trumpet and trombone chairs?
Al Acosta is a great saxophone player, excellent teacher, and good friend. He plays
all the saxes, clarinet and flute. Al and I performed together with Cortijo. He
and Louis Bauzo are the only original musicians from when I started Grupo Caribe
in 1996. Tony Barrero and I performed and recorded together with Los Kimbos, and I always
admired his playing. Tony has performed with the Count Basie Band, the Duke Ellington
Band and the Lionel Hampton Band. He also performed with the Tito Puente Orchestra,
the Machito Orchestra, and with Louie Ramírez's band. The man can play. Also, the
Grupo Caribe trumpet book is definitely written for a lead trumpet player. That's
Tony. Dave Chamberlain recommended Robert Suttman to me. He performed and recorded
with Cruz Control, and is an excellent musician and trombone player. His experience has
been mostly with swing bands and Broadway shows.
Tell me about the group's distinguished rhythm section?
Louis Bauzo on congas, José Madera on timbales, and David Forestier on bongo and cowbell,
are like a fine tuned clock set to clave time. It is such a pleasure locking in
with these guys. Gerry Madera is the regular bass player. However, Rubén Rodríguez
and Bernie Minoso also share the bass chair at times. All of these guys have performed
with the best bands in the business, including the Tito Puente Orchestra, Machito,
Mongo Santamaría, Eddie Palmieri, Larry Harlow and Típica 73. I could go on, but
I think enough is said about these extremely talented musicians.
During 2000 Grupo Caribe released two notable CDs, Son De Melaza and Ritmo Nativo, both on CMS Records. In addition to two arrangements by your good self, the lion's
share of five charts on the two albums were written by José Madera. José's one of
my favourite salsa arrangers; I especially liked his work for Willie Rosario.
José Madera is one of the busiest musicians and arrangers in the business. In addition
to the great arrangements he wrote for Willie Rosario, he has also arranged for Tito
Puente, and Machito, as well as Eddie Palmieri, Gilberto Santa Rosa, Azuquita, and
recently for a new CD to be released by Frankie Negrón. I feel very fortunate to
have him working and arranging for the band. I am also always learning from him
when I copy his scores.
Not withstanding the merit of Son De Melaza
and Ritmo Nativo, Grupo Caribe has really excelled itself with its 2003 release: Un Congo Me Dio La Letra on CMS Records/Walboomers. As before, there are a variety of rhythms, this time
including guaracha, guaguancó, cha cha chá, plena, mambo and Latin jazz. The CD
features five original and six classic compositions with what has been described
as "a new millennium dressing". Lets begin by talking about a couple of the new tunes. The early buzz I received from New York was about "Cambiare," sung by special guest singer
Frankie Vázquez. Tell me about that tune.
"Cambiare" is an original tune written by Juan "Paye" Rodríguez and arranged by Oscar
Hernández. Juan has literally hundreds of songs that he has composed and is working
hard to get recognized in the field. He gave me a tape with about ten songs that
I reviewed and sat on for about a year. I shared the tape with Louis Bauzo and asked
him which tune did he think would work for the band. He selected "Cambiare." I
agreed that out of all the tunes, this one had the best melody, and the best content
that I would feel comfortable performing and ultimately recording. I gave the tune to Oscar,
because it reminded me of a Ray Barretto type tune, and I loved the work that Oscar
had done for Ray on a couple of albums. Frankie did a wonderful job with the tune,
inciting faith, hope and inspiration.
Juan "Paye" Rodríguez composed another new song for the CD, "A Tite Curet," in tribute
to the great Puerto Rican composer; also sung by Frankie Vázquez. There seems to
be a Caribe tradition of praise songs, because Ritmo Nativo contained "Homenaje A Ismael Rivera" and your composition, "Machito, Puente y Rodríguez."
Would you like to comment?
What I have done with our recordings is put together material that celebrates our
culture and pays tribute to those artists who paved the way for musicians today to
continue the tradition. In celebrating our culture, you will find that I have included
a bomba on our first CD, an aguinaldo on the second, and a plena on the third.
Frankie Vázquez shares lead vocals with your second special guest singer, Hermán
Olivera, on a wonderful updating of Chano Pozo's 1942 composition "Nagüe," the earliest
recording of which can be found on Cuban Rhythms
by Miguelito Valdés with Machito and his Afro-Cubans (1992 on Tumbao) and the 3-CD
and book box set Chano Pozo: El Tambor De Cuba
(2001 on Tumbao). Who selected the song and wrote the chart?
"Nagüe" is one of those classic tunes that gets your feet going on the dance floor.
This is one of those tunes that kind of mesmerized me when I first heard it. I asked
Louis Bauzo to write the arrangement, and he added some special touches with the
shekere that I did not expect. We saw this tune and played it for the first time in the
studio when we recorded.
Moving next to the three cuts with Hermán on lead vocals. He sings the rousing opening
track, the mambo "Lindo Palomar," originally from Tito Puente's album Pa'Lante! / Straight!
(1970 on Tico). Please tell me the story behind this selection?
I love Tito Puente's music. This tune grabbed my attention, because it is very danceable,
and allowed for a format that would give the percussionist an opportunity to be featured.
This is another tune that Hermán told me he definitely wanted to sing. People have asked me; "Why do you record songs that have already been recorded and made
popular by other artists?" Well, I feel I am very selective about the music I choose
to have rearranged. I do not select tunes by artists who have recorded after the
1970s, and the music I select are tunes that people might never hear, if someone does
not bring it to their attention. I feel that recording the classics, helps the older
generation remember the past, and the younger generation curious to find out more
about the artist we are re-introducing.
Hermán provides the lead vocals to the title cut, "Un Congo Me Dio La Letra", a song
associated with Celeste Mendoza that can be found on her album La Voz De Celeste Mendoza, La Guapachosa
(1959 on Seeco; reissued 1998). Please tell me more?
The first time I heard Celeste Medoza's recordings was about three years ago. I am
not a collector, but I am always looking around for good music. I'm catching up
to everyone else who knows all these artists. I just loved her sound. And of course
there were two big bands on the recording. I was familiar with Bebo Valdés, but sorry
to say I did not know Ernesto Duarte's music. I listened to that recording a lot,
before I decided that I wanted to do a couple of those tunes with Grupo Caribe.
The first tune I selected and rearranged was "Sobre Una Tumba Una Rumba". I asked José to write
an arrangement for "Te Di Un Beso Sin Importancia" and "Un Congo Me Dio La Letra",
but he never got around to them. So, I arranged the latter. Maybe the former will
work its way into our repertoire since it is such a great tune.
"Te Di Un Beso Sin Importancia " and "Sobre Una Tumba Una Rumba" are also on La Voz De Celeste Mendoza, La Guapachosa.
Hermán's final contribution is the plena "Desilución". Please tell me the story
behind this one?
I knew that I wanted to include a plena on this CD, but it took me a while to decide
which one. I was in Puerto Rico last year and heard a band playing "Desilución"
in the lobby of the San Juan Hotel. I knew that was the plena I wanted to record.
I remembered the first time I heard it was when I was living in Puerto Rico in 1979. I
saw Quinto Olivo perform this song in concert at El Morro. I asked Pepe Castillo
to arrange the tune for me, and Hermán selected it as one of the songs he definitely
wanted to record.
Moving to your third special guest singer, Frankie Figueroa "Mr Estilo", of Willie
Rosario and Tito Puente fame. Please tell me about his two contributions?
Frankie is a great singer and a very funny and special individual. He sang with Tito
Puente for 21 years, and Willie Rosario for three years. He recorded on Willie's
first album El Bravo Soy Yo
'63 on Alegre Records and Two Too Much
'68 on Musicor Records. He also performed with César Concepción and Kako y su Estrellas.
Frankie did a few gigs with us throughout the years. It was always a riot hearing
him, Louis Bauzo, José Madera and Tony Barrero sharing their stories about being
on the road with Tito Puente. Frankie says that I brought him out of retirement,
because he has not recorded in over 15 years. I've always liked his style, and felt
that he could bring something special to the two songs selected for him. Hopefully,
I will get Frankie to sing a bolero on our next recording.
Just one more vocal track to talk about:
the original "Rumba Internacional" sung by Luis Ayala. What's the story here?
"Rumba Internacional" was written by the same person who wrote "Homenaje A Ismael
Rivera" and "Ritmo Nativo" (both from Ritmo Nativo
). His name is Emilio Rodríguez. Luisito Ayala introduced him to me. He is a young
composer and singer from Colombia, who is developing his talents here in NYC. Emilio
is telling his audience to imagine how wonderful a feeling it is, to dance and enjoy the major rumba and salsa festivals around the world, especially in Colombia, Florida
Finally, you round off Un Congo Me Dio La Letra
with two highly accessible Latin jazz tracks: "Senior Slick" and "Luisa". Do tell?
When I was gathering material for this recording, I was missing a cha cha chá. I
considered a few songs, but was not totally sure about any of them. I also wanted
to include a Latin jazz tune, and at that point had not considered using "Luisa".
So, I asked Al Acosta if he would write something for the album, preferable a Latin jazz cha
cha chá. He told me he had a tune he was working on, and that he thought would work
for us. I really like "Senior Slick". I believe this is Al's first composition
that has been recorded, and I look forward to recording more of his compositions in the
future. About a week before we were going to record "Senior Slick", I asked Al to
write a shout chorus. The horn section never got to rehearse it, we recorded it
the day he brought it to the studio. "Luisa", named after my grandmother, was a tune I composed
and arranged about 15 years ago. I recorded a demo tape of this tune with Cruz Control
in 1993, and then never played the tune much after that. I never played it because some guys in the band had a difference of opinion about the clave of the tune.
Now that it is recorded, there does not seem to be a difference of opinion.
What does 2003 hold for Grupo Caribe?
We seem to have generated some excitement with our third CD. The deejays in New York
are playing it in the clubs, and I am getting calls every day from different parts
of the country and abroad asking for a copy of the CD or information about the band.
I am talking with my distributor in Holland about having a CD release in Europe to coincide
with the CD release overseas in April. We were recently invited back to the Tempo-Latino
Festival to perform in Toulouse, France, in July of this year. If everything works out, we will be sharing the bill with Ricardo Ray, Oscar D'León, Plena Libre
and Jimmy Bosch. I am also talking with a promoter in California to have the band
perform there for the first time, and I have been approached by a couple of booking
agents who are interested in contracting the band in the US and abroad. In the meantime,
we continue to perform the on local scene in NYC.
Is it too early to ask what future projects you have in the pipeline?
It's funny, I came back to play music after quite a few years working as a businessman
and administrator. Now, I am pursuing my music, however, there is a lot of business,
marketing, contracting, selling, and administrative responsibilities that I have
to take care of as an independent producer. So, at this time, I am busy with all of
that stuff, while I still have the music floating around in my mind waiting for me
to write it down and get moving on the next project. I am thinking about the next
project, but it will take a little while before it takes shape.
Thanks for talking to me. However, before we end, is there anything you would like
Thank you so much for this opportunity to share my experiences and accomplishments
with salsa enthusiasts via the world wide web. There are so many stories to be told
by the many musicians who have contributed to this music that we now call salsa.
Thanks to persons such as yourself, documented history of this music will continue to be
available to educate and entertain present and future generations.
I wasn't angling for a compliment, but thanks for your kind remark.