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1950s timbalero/drummer/bandleader

Profile: Who Is Moncho Leña?

by David Carp

Orquestas allí hay como mil
(Machito, Tito Puente, Rodriguez)
Y a todos los tendré que oir
A un baile voy con Moncho Leña,
Y me voy si no toca
bomba puertorriqueña.

They have bands by the thousand
over there. (Machito, Tito Puente, Rodriguez)
I will have to listen to all of them.
I am going to a dance played by
Moncho Leña.
But I won't stay if he doesn't play
the Puerto Rican bomba.

excerpt "Que Rica Es" (Lito Peña)
Translation Frank M. Figueroa

Being cited in song lyrics ranks up there with imitation as the sincerest form of flattery. Moncho Leña may not have been known especially for his bombas, but even being casually mentioned in the context of "Los Tres Bravos" of New York's Palladium Ballroom in a song recorded by Ruth Fernández in the 1950s tells us something both about his music and his audience. During a June 1995 visit to Orlando, radio producer David Carp spent an afternoon studying both of the aforementioned in a singularly enjoyable classroom environment—home of timbalero/drummer/bandleader Moncho Leña. The following article is taken from that interview.

Moncho Leña made his debut on June 24, 1919, in the town of Añasco, Puerto Rico, under the name of Juan Ramon Delgado. In the early 1920s his family moved several miles to the Dulces Labios sector of Mayaguez, the largest city on the east coast of Puerto Rico. Some of Moncho's first memories center around the silent Westerns and other American movies shown with Spanish subtitles at El Teatro Yaguez, which were accompanied by a musical group including piano, violin, flute, bass and trumpet. This was his early exposure to forms of light classical music, played by the likes of Balbino Trinta, Fermin Guzmán, Juan Madera, and some of the finest "music-stand musicians" of Mayaguez. Ironically, the arrival of "talkies" coincided with the arrival of the economic near collapse caused by the Great Depression. Moncho Leña recalls, "They used to have something they called the P.R.A., that was the federal government, you know, assistance. They used to give to families two dollars a week and some food. In those days you could buy a pound of rice for two cents and then you could buy a pound of lard for three cents and you could buy ham for three cents, you could buy coffee for three cents. But you had to work from six to six, you know, cutting the sugar cane to make sixty cents a day."

Working class residents of Dulces Labios and the other barrios of Mayaguez anticipated every Sunday with eagerness—not only was it a day off and a chance to drink cañita (illegal homemade liquor), but an opportunity to sing, dance and play the Afro-Puerto Rican music known as bomba and plena. Outstanding pleneros of Depression-era Mayaguez included Felipe "El Tuerto," "Joey," "Guizi," "Valentin" and, above all, Ramón Rivera Alers, remembered by many older Puerto Ricans as the father of Efrain "Mon" Rivera. A maintenance man at the Mayaguez College of Agriculture, he was the composer of popular numbers that exemplified the plena tradition of "newspaper in song." Moncho loved bomba and plena from day one and began his musical life with a time-honored Caribbean tradition by making his own panderetas (the jingle-less tambourines used in the most typical forms of plena) out of the tin cans used to pack margarine. By the early 1930s he was playing bongos. Moncho reminisces, "Whenever we have a little gig, we got about fifty or sixty cents in those days. So I go to this man and I rent one pair for twenty-five cents. I make fifty, so I pay him twenty-five cents, so I get twenty-five cents for myself." Always good with his hands, Moncho was soon making his own bongos (homemade Puerto Rican bongos of the 1930s often had crude but effective tuning keys, contrary to any misconceptions about tunable bongos being a product of the 1950s). It was during this period that Juan Ramón Delgado got both a bad case of malaria and his moniker. His sickly appearance inspired the comment, "Moncho, estas hecho leña!" (More or less translatable as "Moncho, you look like a pile of kindling wood!) He's been known as "Moncho Leña" ever since.

By the late 1930s Moncho was playing bongos in a local group led by Chuito Nadal that played guarachas, rumbas, sones and boleros at birthday parties and at the small dances known as "vacilones." Moncho remembers an experience that he and his colleagues shared. "Sometimes Arsenio Rodriguez was on the radio at 10 o'clock at night and when I used to play in the Sexteto Borinquen we always used to wait until 10 o'clock to listen to him. We copied a lot of numbers from Arsenio that we used to play—I'm talking about 1939 and '40." The frequency of traveling theatrical companies performing los bufos cubanos and the ease of picking up Cuban short wave radio broadcasts made Cuban genres a given in the musical consciousness of most Puerto Ricans in the 1930s. (Catching weekly radio broadcasts of Arsenio Rodriguez is a cherished memory for singer El Boy, bassist Leo Fleming, and many of their peers.) For Moncho Leña, Cuban music (although derided by Hispanophile Puerto Rican writers of the period as a corrupting influence on the ostensibly pure Puerto Rican forms such as danza) is as basic as typical Puerto Rican music. A third source of influence was American popular dance and swing music (not surprising considering Puerto Rico's status as a U.S. possession). By the 1940s Moncho Leña had graduated to the orchestras of Mayaguez, led by the likes of William Manzano, Abdías Villalonga, Frank Madera and Celso Torres. The popularity of American music created a demand for groups with full saxophone and trumpet sections able to recreate the sounds of Glenn Miller, Jimmy Dorsey, and Count Basie. "We had to play not only Puerto Rican music," says Moncho, "we had to play 'In the Mood' or 'Jumping at the Woodside' from American stocks. Then we had to play samba, we had to play paso doble, we had to play tango, we had to play corrido Mexicano. You're a drummer, you have to play any kind of music."

From 1943 through 1946 Moncho served in the U.S. Army, where he taught himself the fundamentals of solfeo and of snare and dance band drumming. He utilized these new skills in two ways upon his return to the William Manzano orchestra. First, he became the trap drummer. Second, he was able to copy arrangements for Manzano who reimbursed him by providing him with a set of timbales. A rare 78 rpm William Manzano recording of the Mon Rivera composition "Puerto Rico y Santo Domingo" (Rosas 301) features an impressive, although short, Moncho Leña timbal solo. Or so I thought. Moncho confessed to me that he tuned his tom toms to one high and one low pitch to create a timbale-like effect since he didn't own timbales at the time the recording was made. Likewise, he was able to capture the baqueteo normally executed on the tops of the timbales for performing danzones by loosening the snare of his snare drum. Matching musical sound to musical style with the means at hand is the hallmark of a truly accomplished percussionist.

By 1952 Moncho Leña, Mon Rivera and a number of other musicians left the William Manzano orchestra. They jettisoned the saxophones and ended up with a four trumpet conjunto. The recordings of New York based leaders such as Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez had given this style of conjunto tremendous popularity. Pianist Hector Pellot came from New York to join the new band and brought parts for some of Puente's and Rodriguez's most successful numbers. The new band's first engagement was at a dance club called the Coconut Hut, located in the Guanajibo barrio of Mayaguez. It wasn't long before broadcaster Gilbert Mamery baptized them with the name "Los Ases del Ritmo" and began to feature them on the air and in live stage presentations. They were soon performing at the Escambron Beach Club and Caribe Hilton Hotel in San Juan and at dances and theaters throughout the island. 1952 was the year of Tito Rodriguez's first tour of Puerto Rico. His band was booked to play alongside Los Ases del Ritmo at Bayamon's Las Tres Palmas. When Rodriguez realized that the audience already knew many of his hits, courtesy of Moncho Leña and company, and that there was very little fresh material for the audience, he was absolutely furious.

It wasn't long before Los Ases del Ritmo realized that no matter how well they could copy numbers like "Abaniquito" and "Mama Guela" they were ultimately advertising Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez more than themselves. They began to feature plena heavily, but plena as arranged by Mon Rivera, lead trumpet player Jose "Chiquitín" Morales and other band members. This was plena with a mambo section inserted, with a conga in the rhythm section (two of Cesar Concepcion's innovations) and with harmonized parts for four trumpets. The percussive sounds that Moncho Leña had been hearing ever since childhood were expressed in his timbale playing; capturing the rhythms of la plena puertorriqueña without panderetas was a major innovation. Both traditional and original plenas were sung by Mon Rivera with improvisations in a style known as trabalengua (a kind of tongue-twisting scat singing introduced by Mon's father). The music of Los Ases del Ritmo combined tradition and innovation; this heady musical fusion was taken to the people through their constant traveling. This made it possible for Puerto Ricans to identify with Moncho Leña, Mon Rivera, Hector Pellot and their compueblanos in a way that would have been impossible for established orchestras such as Rafael Muñoz who had steady hotel engagements and who essentially played for Puerto Rico's upper crust.

It wasn't long before promoter Catalino Rolón heard about the sensational new conjunto from Mayaguez. After receiving round trip tickets and a contract from Catalino, Los Ases del Ritmo departed for "El Babel de Hierro" and arrived Thursday, November 19, 1953. Friday, November 20, marked their opening at La Bamba, a basement club underneath New York's Arcadia Ballroom and around the corner from the Palladium. Early in 1955 the group moved on to the Palladium where they soon achieved the status of a house band. During the summers Los Ases del Ritmo could be seen alternating with Vicentico Valdés; from fall through spring they shared the bandstand with Machito, the "two Titos" and more typical Cuban, Puerto Rican and Dominican bands. It's only fair to mention at this point that the band was usually advertised as "Hector Pellot y sus Ases del Ritmo con Mon Rivera y Moncho Leña" or words to that effect.

The relative lack of familiarity of plena among Anglo dancers didn't stop Moncho Leña from playing the legendary Wednesday nights at the Palladium, which catered to a heavily Jewish and Italian crowd. On certain Wednesdays Los Ases del Ritmo were known to break into "Hava Nagila" (arranged by Mon Rivera)! Moncho kept his book stocked with mambos, cha chas, merengues and whatever was needed to fit the ethnicity or taste of his audience on any given night. The popularity of Moncho Leña's band inspired Federico Pagani to new heights of zaniness (although almost anything inspired Federico Pagani to new heights of zaniness). The success of Ramón Rivera Alers' "Alo, Quien Ñama?," one of numerous hits for Ansonia Records, was exploited by Federico in the form of (what else) the "Alo, Quien Ñama?" contest. This was a contest held at the Palladium to see who could do the best imitation of Mon Rivera's rendition of this number. Needless to say, all contestants had the thrill of being accompanied by Moncho Leña's conjunto. A celebrated photograph of Los Ases del Ritmo (made famous by its use on the cover of the Ansonia LP entitled A Night at the Palladium) was selected by Federico for reproduction on matchbook covers; these matchbooks were given away at the Palladium. (If any of our readers has the good fortune of owning one of these matchbooks, please contact Moncho Leña immediately c/o Descarga Newsletter.) Dominican promoter Virgilio Dalmau, closely associated with Federico Pagani at one point, organized a special homenaje to Moncho Leña for a Christmas Eve dance on Monday, December 24, 1956. Moncho was awarded a silver trophy and crowned "El Rey de la Plena."

The mid-1950s was a heady period for New York timbaleros. The Latin trap drummers of the 1940s used a setup that usually included snare drums, various cymbals, bass drum, tom toms, and timbales. Following the example of Tito Puente, drummers began to abandon their bass drums, cut down on the size of their drum kits and feature more timbal solos. Moncho Leña did his share of soloing, particularly in numbers tailor-made for solo space such as "Moncho Timbalero." Drum battles between Moncho and Tito Puente were good promotional efforts for shows at El Teatro Puerto Rico. Maxwell Hyman was in the audience for one of these events and brought the concept to the Palladium.

Moncho Leña's house band status at the Palladium was over by the late 1950s. The plena had lost much of its novelty by then. Moncho had no eyes for the pachanga, the hottest new dance of the early 60s. Frustrated by the change in popular taste and general changes in the music business, Moncho broke up his band in 1963 and went to work as a contact lens technician. He took advantage of skills acquired during his boyhood and eventually got a government job as a carpenter. Although Moncho has never been willing to discuss the downfall of Mon Rivera for the record, it's obvious to all that know him that Mon's drug-related problems, departure from the band and time spent in prison were very painful to Moncho and at the very least reduced his will to continue in the business. Moncho continued to play club dates with pickup groups and was retired in Orlando, Florida by the late 1980s.

Moncho Leña's love of music is unabated to this day; the onset of arthritis has reduced his facility, but doesn't stop him from sitting in with bands. He's known locally as a distinguished musical figure and is recognized as such at public events oriented to the Puerto Rican community. He's in close contact with his children and fondly remembered by most people who ever worked with him. And he's still collecting royalties from his hit records for Ansonia, which bring beautiful memories to eyewitnesses to the Palladium era and bring new thrills to contemporary Latin music fans too young to have experienced this special period firsthand.

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