Manny Oquedo

Timbalero Legend

JANUARY 1, 1932 - MARCH 25, 2009

by Bobby Sanabria

Latin Percussion, the company, has had a long illustrious history of having been associated with some of the greatest pioneers in the history of percussion. They are what inspired Martin Cohen to give birth to the company and what give voice to the instruments the company produces. Manny Oquendo was indeed one of those voices. Coming into prominence as a soloist on timbales during the early 60’s with pianist Eddie Palmieri’s La Perfecta, he was the leader for 35 years of Manny Oquendo & Libre where he thrilled audiences not only with his timbale solos, but also with his bongo playing. On both instruments Maestro Oquendo firmly based his playing in the tradition of being understated with restraint, a style which served two purposes, by first serving the band as an accompanist and second, inspiring the dancers.

Manny (as he was known the world over) was living testimony to a now bygone era when Latin musicians performed in lavish ballrooms in New York City with orchestras that spoke through rhythm to dancers who made the cult of mambo a right of passage. Born in Brooklyn, New York to Puerto Rican parents, the Oquendo family moved to Manhattan’s Puerto Rican and Cuban enclave, Spanish Harlem, and then eventually to the South Bronx where his boyhood friends would help to develop the N.Y.C. Afro-Cuban based sound that became known as salsa.

In 1939 the Oquendo family moved to NYC’s Spanish Harlem where the early community of Italians and Jews that made up East Harlem was giving way to a rising Puerto Rican and Cuban population that brought their culture with them to the area. Early bands like Ramon Olivera’s Orchestra, Augosto Coen’s Orchestra, and Carlos Montesino’s Happy Boys were performing at the Park Palace Ballroom while a young Tito Puente was starting to emerge as a wunderkind in the neighborhood. It was also the time when the legendary Machito Afro-Cubans began establishing itself in its earliest incarnation. As was the practice of the day, music would be played on outdoor speakers at record stores to attract customers. The sounds of Cuban and Puerto Rican music abounded and they became the soundtrack of Manny’s life in “El Barrio” as the apartment his family lived in was above Almacenes Hernández, a well known barrio record store.

Recordings by the great charanga (flute and violin groups) orchestras of Cuba like Antonio Arcaño y Sus Maravillas with Ulpiano Díaz, and Orquesta Aragón with Orestes Varona on timbales, inspired Manny as a youngster exposing him to the elegant danzón style and its characteristic timbale pattern known as baqueteo. Ulpiano’s pioneering work established much of the vocabulary of the instrument as he is credited with inventing the technique of the abanico, the rim shot, roll, rim shot cue that is a characteristic lick on the timbales. Inspiration also came from Cuban born barrio residents Antonino “Tony El Cojito” Escollies who was the first timbalero with the Machito Afro-Cubans and Carlos Montesino who led his own group, Los Happy Boys. Manny would eventually make his own set of timbales by putting together two tom toms from a drum set imitating what he heard on records. But it was the sound of Cuban bandleader Arsenio Rodríguez that would dominate and change the course of Cuban music influencing not only Manny, but all of NYC’s Latino musicians for subsequent generations.

By 1945 the Oquendo family had moved to the South Bronx. It would prove to be a fruitful move for Manny. As a student at P.S. 52 on Kelly Street, Manny met a group of like minded young people who were captivated by Cuban music in all its forms, particularly the mambo. Boyhood friend, LP artist, timbalero, and bandleader Orlando Marin states, “Within a 10 block radius of that school, there were so many musicians you couldn’t believe it. We all played stickball and if we weren’t playing stickball we were talking about mambo. Percussionist Benny Bonilla, another P.S. 52 alumni, and early LP artist recalls, “Eddie Palmieri’s father had a luncheonette/candy store that had a juke box. Eddie was in charge of filling the juke box with the hippest records and Manny was one of those guys who knew what the hippest records were.” Manny’s boyhood Bronx friends included percussionists Orlando Marin, Ray Barretto, “Long Joe” Rodriguez, Benny Bonilla, Luis Goincochea, Adolfo “Lefty” Maldonado, Mike Collazo, pianists Eddie and Charlie Palmieri, Tommy Garcia, Ray Coen, flutist Johnny Pacheco, vocalist, Ismael “Pat” Quintana, bassist Dave Perez, and many others too numerous to mention.

P.S. 52 became the base of operations for Latin music in Da’ Bronx. The principal allowed youngsters in the school who were budding musicians to rehearse in the auditorium and they would perform for school dances on Friday nights.

Manny began to take formal lesson on drum set with Sam Ulano and would bump into drummer Max Roach who also was studying with Ulano. Manny would also study the style of Machito’s Ubaldo Nieto, who many consider the finest timbalero in the big band tradition, by constantly watching him in performance.

Manny’s professional playing career began with Juanito Sanabria’s (no relation to the author) small combo performing on timbales with a bass drum. His prowess made him a first call percussionist for New York's top Latin orchestras like trumpeter Charlie Valero’s Band, vocalist Marcelino Guerra, famed Cuban pianist Jose Curbelo’s orchestra (where he performed on drumset) and the early Tito Puente conjunto replacing Francisco “Chino” Poso who had left to perform with Katherine Dunham. It was here where Manny was featured on bongo alongside a recently arrived from Cuba, Mongo Santamaria on congas. Bassist Andy Gonzalez recalls, “Tito’s original conguero Frankie Colon had been drafted into the Army for service in Korea. It was Manny who recommended Mongo to Tito after seeing him perform with Johnny Segui’s band”. The recently re-issued Tito Puente – The complete 78’s Volumes 1,2,3,4, produced by Joe Conzo Sr., offer a perfect window to the early work of Manny on the bongo as can be heard on the track “Cuero Na’Ma’” which features Tito, Manny and Mongo.

In the early 60’s Manny re-joined legendary vocalist Tito Rodriguez who had formed a band that would be considered one of the greatest musical organizations of its day. Tito was a stern disciplinarian with a silky smooth voice that demanded perfection from the orchestra. Rodriguez was also a fine percussionist in his own right. His rivalry with Tito Puente became the stuff of legend as they did battle at the famed Home of The Mambo, the Palladium on West 53rd street and Broadway. At the vortex of the Rodriguez rhythm section was Manny, who arranger, composer, tenor saxophonist Ray Santos recalls, “Tito Rodriguez loved the way Manny played. It fit his disciplined no nonsense style. He also loved the way Manny played the bongo bell which Manny really got into during the horn mambos”. But in 1963, Manny would join a group that would challenge the supremacy of the established big band mambo sounds of Machito,Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez who the mamboniks affectionately called, “The Big Three”.

Eddie Palmieri had been fired from Tito Rodriguez for his so called “over enthusiasm" on the piano. Palmieri would perform at a weekly descarga (jam session) at the Triton’s Social Club in the building that housed the luxurious Hunt’s Point Palace on the corner of E. 163 street and Southern Boulevard in the Bronx. Here Palmieri would meet a kindred spirit, Bronx born musician, trombonist Barry Rogers. It didn’t matter that Rogers was Jewish, like Palmieri, he loved Cuban music.

They had similar views in regards to their musical vision. With Eddie’s deep knowledge of the rhythmic roots of the music, Barry’s background in jazz, r & b and deep respect for the culture, like Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn before them, Palmieri and Rodgers complimented each other perfectly. Their partnership would create a band simply known as “La Perfecta”. Manny would replace “La Perfecta’s” original timbalero, Julito Collazo and would become known for the practice of “doubling up”. On the cha-cha-cha, mambo, and charanga style numbers he would play timbales. On the purely son, rumba, and bolero oriented numbers he would play bongo and cencerro (bongo bell). Thus Manny was doing the work of two percussionists.  His percussive partner in the band was fellow Puerto Rican and Brooklynite, Tommy Lopez who handled the conga drum chair and had known Manny from their days in vocalist Marcelino Guerra’s band. Bassist and boyhood Bronx friend from his days at P.S. 52, Dave Perez would complete the rhythm section. Trombonist José Rodriguez who was from Brazil but had lived in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rican George Castro on flute joined Barry in the front line forming a unique horn section unheard of at the time in Cuban based dance music. Completing this perfect storm was Puerto Rican vocalist Ismael “Pat” Quintana, yet another talent from the surrounding area of the Kelly Street neighborhood who himself was a fine percussionist and a master of the maracas and guiro. With Palmieri’s fiery piano, “La Perfecta” would become legendary for its intensity and swing with Manny at its vortex.

By the 1950’s, pre-revolutionary Cuba had firmly established itself as the center of the Caribbean. The influence of organized crime that had started as far back as the 1930’s, been interrupted by World War II, and exploded under Meyer Lansky who was aided by a corrupt government in the 50’s, had built up its hotel, and casino gambling business to heights that were unheard of. The exploding entertainment business on the island was reflected by the large 50,000 watt radio stations that transmitted from Havana. The music of  Cuba’s greatest orchestras could be heard daily on Radio CMQ, Radio Reloj, and Radio Progresso, throughout Central and South America, and as far away as Florida, Mexico, and even Texas. But if someone were to tell you that they could be heard in New York, one would probably shake their head in disbelief.

Andy Gonzalez recalls, “Most people don’t know that during the winter months, particularly December, January, and February, you could hear Cuban radio broadcasts on an AM radio.  If you adjusted the radio dial to the left, near WOR 910, depending on the drift, you could catch radio broadcasts from Cuba very clearly. Manny had moved to Long Island which made the signals come in even clearer and he began taping shows on a Webcor tape recorder he had brought. You could even hear Cuban radio during those months in the Bronx!”

At the time of La Perfecta’s formation, a new musical style was developing in post revolutionary Cuba. Pedro Izquierdo, AKA “Pello El Afro-Kan” had created a musical revue that he based on the conga de comparsa carnival celebrations. Instead of the trumpets that were the norm in the comparsa, he substituted trombones and began  utilizing figures inspired by the mambo and adding variations to the initial bell and conga drum carnaval rhythms. He called his new creation, Mozambique. Listening to Cuban radio broadcasts, Manny became exposed to this new post revolutionary style coming from the island and began to hip Eddie Palmieri to it. He soon realized that he and Tommy could never fully re-create Pello’s entire massive percussive section which included various conga drummers, two bass drums, and multiple cowbell parts. Manny scaled down the rhythm to its essence and created his own New York City version of it. Heard first on the Palmieri recording, Mambo con Conga is Mozambique, the style caught fire with NYC’s mamboniks and gave Palmieri an opportunity to showcase Manny’s skills as a soloist on timbales. Today the Oquendo, Lopez adaptation of Pello’s original creation has become standard practice for every percussionist to learn.

The appearances of the Palmieri’s seven piece La Perfecta became the stuff of legend as word spread that they were featuring this new style and would wipe out any band that shared the stage with them. They tore up the dance floor at places like the Hunt’s Point Palace, The Tropicoro, Tropicana, Alahambra, Bronx Casino in Da’ Bronx, the St. George Hotel in Brooklyn, and finally after many refusals, the famed Palladium Ballroom in Manhattan. Manny’s extended timbale features on tunes like Mozambique, Bamboleate and Mi Montuno became legendary. Manny also would become the bongo player of choice for countless recording sessions for other artists and be prominently featured on the legendary Grupo Folklorico Y Experimental Nueva Yorquino record dates.

By this time another young talent from the Bronx of Puerto Rican descent, Andy Gonzalez had joined the band on bass. The Palmieri band had changed from its original concept of a two trombone, flute front line. Alfredo ‘Chocolate Armenteros had been added on trumpet as well as baritone and soprano saxophonist Ronnie Cuber. Manny’s many musical discussions with Andy regarding the rich history of the art form led to a friendship and musical kinship much like the one Palmieri and Rodgers had formed before. The result was the birth of Manny Oquendo & Conjunto Libre   It would be steeped in the tradition of playing hard core Cuban based dance music but with more freedom to experiment as well as featuring the entire band as soloists. “That word, freedom, was in the air”, recalled Andy Gonzalez. “It represented the sign of the times. Manny liked it and it became the name of the band. We did our first gig on October 24, 1974 at John Jay College in Manhattan.”

Since that first performance the ensemble has become legendary for its hard core swing as well as being an incubator for talent. Players like flautist Dave Valentin, Andy’s brother, conguero Jerry Gonzalez (who was a founding member), percussionists Georgie Delgado, Tony Rojas, trombonists Jimmy Bosch, Steve Turre, Papo Vazquez, Reynaldo Jorge, pianists Oscar Hernandez, Willie Rodriguez, vocalists Tempo Alomar, Frankie Vazquez, Herman Olivera, and many others have come to the publics attention and developed their skills as members of the school of Libre under the tutelage of Maestro Oquendo.

Manny’s attention to detail and his respect for the music’s roots has always been part of his ethos. At an appearance at N.Y.C.’s Central Park where radio host and journalist Malin Falú was the mistress of ceremonies, Manny had decided to change the name of the band to simply Manny Oquendo & Libre. As Manny stated, “You know to be a real conjunto, we have to have a tres player. I realized we never had one, so that’s why I decided to just call ourselves Libre”.

Although steeped in the tradition of Cuban music but played with a New York attitude, Libre’s repertoire also included interpretations of jazz pieces like Freddie Hubbard’s, Little Sunflower and Lester Young’s, Lester Leaps In. They would also explore the classic Puerto Rican plena, Elena, Elena and their widely known interpretation of Puerto Rican composer Pedro Flores’, Obsesión demonstrating their versatility and Manny’s pride in his Puerto Rican heritage.

Like his playing, Manny spoke volumes with his straight forward honesty. When asked by the then radio host of WRVR’s FM Latin Roots show, Felipe Luciano, how he would describe his style of timbale playing, Manny simply stated, “Heavy handed with finesse.”  When asked what he thought of the new generation of players, he simply said, “A lot of rolls, but no butter”.

The dictionary states that majesty means the greatness and dignity of someone of supreme rank or power. What better way to describe Manny. His playing on bongo and timbales demonstrated the mighty tradition that we inherited from West Africa. A tradition where the drummer speaks to the dancer in a conversational style that takes us to the spiritual level. If you want to hear an example, check out Manny's short timbale solo on a tune that he recorded with Johnny Pacheco's Charanga called Treinta Kilos on the Pacheco Y Su Charanga Volume II album. It's awe inspiring in its combination of minimalism, sabor, Cubania, clave consciousness, and monte adentro (deep soul) as played by a Freakin' Nuyorican. Manny was indeed a poet. But instead of pen and paper, he utilized his hands to create solos that have inspired countless percussionists. Manny was not one to give compliments easily. His standards were high. He was one of the pioneers of this music, and he was instrumental in formulating, and propagating the deep well of vocabulary for the rhythmic language we utilize today. A language that is so complex that it took a master like Manny to show us how to really speak it. The younger generation of players in their quest for the ultimate in technique, many times forget that it's not how much you say, but what you say. He reminded us how to speak clearly, concisely, with conviction, with pride in our culture, and most of all, la verdad, the truth. How could it not be when the person speaking to you was a true S.O.B. A son of Brooklyn, El Barrio, and Da' Bronx,  José Manuel "Manny" Oquendo.

In 2008, Puerto Rico’s Radio Station, Z93 dedicated its Dia Naciónal De la Salsa to Manny.

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