Thursday, March 26, 2009

R.I.P. Manny Oquendo

January 1, 1931 - March 25, 2009

It hasn't hit the English-language media yet, but the Latin music world is rippling with the sad news of Manny Oquendo's passing.

Photo © by Martin Cohen, used with permission.

The timbalero's legacy is towering, from Eddie Palmieri's first band, La Perfecta, to the groundbreaking Grupo Folklorico y Experimental Nuevayorquino, to Oquendo's own Conjunto Libre, which was known as a "university" of salsa for all the musicians who trained up in it, including trombonists Papo Vazquez and Jimmy Bosch, and the classy sonero Herman Olivera.

Much more to follow...this is a big one.

With the scoop: Radio Gladys Palmera, Barcelona (in Spanish - nice recent photo)

Of course, Gladys heard it here, from the mother of all Latin music sources, Herencia Latina (in Spanish). Authoritative. Contains a link to their previous interview with "Manolo" conducted by Eric Gonzalez.

Nice piece of information here at Primera Hora (obit in Spanish): Manny was honored last year, along with Larry Harlow and record store owner Rafael Viera, at Z93 FM's Dia Nacional de la Salsa in Puerto Rico.

Meanwhile, while we are waiting for an obituary to appear in English, here is a short musician profile for Manny (in English) at All About Jazz.

Puerto Rico, Spain, now Italy. AP, Reuters, where are you? Posted on Friday (3/27), 10:30 am.

The online record store and music resource has published an acknowledgment of Manny Oquendo's death. As a memorial, they offer Roberta Singer's interview (in English) with one of Oquendo's closest musical collaborators, Andy Gonzalez. My Google news searches still turn up nothing in English. I should be over being surprised that a record store on Flatbush Avenue has scooped the New York Times, NPR, etc. --Link added Friday (3/27), 2:33 pm.

UPDATES on Saturday (3/28):


Word is Felix Contreras is preparing a radio report for NPR. No doubt it will be another accessible, probing, connecting of the dots like his recent piece inspired by the passing of Joe Cuba.

Aurora Flores has sent out an extensive press release, so expect some more mainstream coverage soon. Her comprehensive obit (in English) has now been posted at Herencia Latina, with a totally smokin' photo of a young Manny Oquendo! MUST SEE

Meanwhile, here are some blurbs from fellow musicians and music aficionados reacting to Oquendo's loss, all quoted here with permission:

"One of my favorite timbaleros of all time! Why? A unique combination of sabor with a minimalist approach, while also taking risks."

--Gregory "Goyo" Pappas, music critic, philosopher, associate professor at Texas A&M University

"Manny was the one who made me a true believer of 'Less is More.' I compared Manny's playing with two people having a conversation, the first person speaking at a normal pace, clear, well-spoken, the other speaking at about 100 miles an hour. Someone may say, 'wow,' that guy sure speaks fast...BUT did you understand him?"

--John "Dandy" Rodriguez, bongocero with Tito Puente, Tipica '73, Latin Giants of Jazz, et al.

"The world is a lot less swingin' today."

--Ramon Banda, timbalero with Poncho Sanchez and Banda Brothers

"Manolo's thundering timbales as heard on the ground-breaking mid-'70s Concepts In Unity left an insistent impression which was definitive and absolutely timeless. His aesthetics of rhythmicity is like a sculptural milestone or like an ancient tale which will always live on in the culture."

--Zeno Okeanos, filmmaker/musician/record collector

"During my teenage years, we never went in a bar or a club unless the jukebox had Eddie Palmieri's 'Oye Lo Que Te Conviene' on it. There was always the excitement of that bongo solo by Manny. Even before we could put a face to the name, we felt like we knew him."

--César Diaz

"My first recollection of noticing how I really loved how Manny Oquendo played timbales was at The Embassy Ballroom in the Bronx. I became a diehard Eddie Palmieri fan. I would go see Eddie, Ismael Quintana, Barry Rogers, Jose Rodrigues, a very young Chucky Lopez whenever they performed at The Hunts Point Palace or the Colgate Gardens. Drinking age back then was 18, and we were able to get into theses gigs since we looked so much older dressing in cashmere coats, Stetson (a beaver hat), tailored sharkskin pants, alpaca knit shirts and wearing a pair of gators, lizards or playboys. Manny always looked serious and quiet offstage but when he was playing, man, oh man. We were all blown away with his solo in 'Mozambique' which was the sound I came to expect whenever I see Eddie."

--Eddie Rodriguez, producer/promoter, president of Latin Works Music. Went on to produce many shows for Conjunto Libre.

"Being able to carry Manny's timbales is and will always be one of the highlights of my career."

--Ralph Irizarry, timbalero with Ray Barretto and Ruben Blades, leader of Timbalaye and SonCafe, talking about one night in 1984 when Libre opened for Blades' band, yet Irizarry carried Oquendo's instruments for him.

"His sound and style on the timbal and handbell will stand forever as the real shizzle that separates him from the pack. He was a fierce defender of the traditions and protected them like a mother grizzly bear in the wild with her cubs. I know I am not alone in saying that we will do all we can to uphold the rhythmic traditions that Manny represented and loved and to which he dedicated his entire life."

--John Santos, percussionist

"I studied Manny's recorded timbal solos and tried to memorize as much as I could. This taught me how melodically and in clave he played."

--Bobby Matos, percussionist

"I have fond memories of Maestro Oquendo from the musican's seminar that was part of the Albert Torres Salsa Congress. Manny Oquendo taught the old school timbal class in 2004 and 2005. What a rush that was. When I joined the seminar in '04, I had only been playing one year. He was an awesome instructor and quite the jam session instigator."

--Shelly Lee, timbalera with Los Puros

"Manny is one of the primary sources of the true language of timbal and bongó. I experienced a very old timbalero at the Casa de la Trova in Santiago de Cuba (on real paila criolla) a long time ago, and having had listened to Manny so many times, I thought: Hey, he plays like Oquendo... That's the way Manny Oquendo played, old school. And so hip at the same time!"

--Nils Fischer, percussionist, leader of Timbazo

UPDATES on Sunday (3/29):


Well, it's happened. A magazine in Havana has scooped American journalism, including Manny Oquendo's hometown paper of record (New York Times?). This appreciation (in Spanish) appears in La Jiribilla's March 28 - April 3 edition.

UPDATES on Monday (3/30):


I think newspapers are officially dead. The blogosphere is singlehandedly covering this with a flowering of nice tributes and obituaries. It's a matter of dignity. There are stories that need to be told.

Here's one I missed, posted on Friday--at Latin Jazz Corner. Beautiful photo captures the ineffable moment of communication. That's Frankie Vazquez, vocal/guiro, and Andy Gonzalez, bass, with their eagle eyes on the maestro.

Also capturing the moment is independent radio. Andy Gonzalez went on WBAI 99.5 FM's "Barrio Block" yesterday from 2-4 pm to talk about his partner in Libre. The show is archived for 90 days; you can download it or listen online here (look for time slot "Sunday, March 29, 2 pm"). Hosts Ibrahim Gonzalez and Nando Alvaricci also welcome Machito saxophonist Ray Santos, a childhood friend; musical historian Rene Lopez, Oquendo's bandmate in Grupo Folklorico y Experimental Nuevayorquino; trombonist and Libre alum Jimmy Bosch; and Orquesta Broadway timbalero Charlie Santiago among other guests.

A gig that Libre was booked to play on May 30 at the Bronx Museum will go on as planned, as a memorial to Manny.

WHAT: Libre Memorial Concert for Manny Oquendo
WHEN: Saturday, May 30, 7:30 pm
WHERE: Bronx Museum, 1040 Grand Concourse at 165th Street

UPDATE added 4/13/09:

PRESS WATCH: The New York Times finally weighed in yesterday with a Manny Oquendo obituary. Better late than never. It's pretty nice, including this:
"While playing in La Perfecta...Mr. Oquendo picked up and adapted the complex carnival rhythm called Mozambique, made popular in Cuba by Pello El Afrokán, and reworked it for the timbales, introducing a hypnotic African beat to the dance halls of New York.

I think that's right. Manny's sound in La Perfecta is iconic in the ears of salsa fans, whether they are consciously aware of his presence or not. Manny Oquendo is one of those people you need in order to imagine salsa.

Note also: All About Jazz has excerpted the New York Times story on the news page of their website.

UPDATE added 5/8/09:

PRESSWATCH: One of the sweetest for last. Beautifully written piece by Alan Lockwood in the Brooklyn Rail.

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