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Manny Oquendo: A Latin Innovator Remembered

Manny Oquendo: A Latin Innovator Remembered

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Hear Songs from the Concert

Se Me Olvido

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Anabacoa

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Rumba Performance

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Grupo Folklorico 300 i

Through his recordings, improvisations and encyclopedic knowledge Manny Oquendo was influential to the development of Latin music's sound. Allen Spatz hide caption

toggle caption Allen Spatz
Grupo Folklorico 300

Through his recordings, improvisations and encyclopedic knowledge Manny Oquendo was influential to the development of Latin music's sound.

Allen Spatz

Latin percussionist and bandleader Manny Oquendo died after suffering a heart attack on March 25, 2009. The 78-year-old timbalero was a behind-the-scenes musician who — through his recordings, his improvisations and his encyclopedic knowledge — was influential to the development of Latin music's sound. In this story from 2008, Oquendo talks about reuniting with his former band, Grupo Folklorico, for the first time in 30 years.

On a recent Saturday afternoon in Washington, D.C., Latin music history was made. A handful of original members of a seminal Afro-Caribbean band reunited to play music that, after three decades, still has the power to move hearts and hips.

Grupo Folklorico y Experimental Nuevayorquino played its first gig at the Smithsonian Institution's Folk Life Festival 33 years ago. Back then, Grupo Folklorico, as the band became known, was about to shake up the Latin music world with two albums of jazz-influenced explorations of Cuban and Puerto Rican folk rhythms. Grupo Folklorico was a collective of younger musicians brought up on the music of Afro-Cuban masters, as well as a few of those legends themselves.

On this humid day, some of those masters have died, and those once-younger musicians are now considered the guardians of Afro-Cuban musical tradition and history.

A Long Time Coming

In the back of a giant outdoor tent, just blocks from the Capitol on the National Mall, musicians take their horns out of their cases, tune up congas and reminisce. While sound technicians set up the band's equipment on stage, just across the mall the rest of the group is escaping the heat in a small air-conditioned trailer. Quietly sitting across from each other amid the chaos of younger musicians excited to be part of history are two original members, timbalero Manny Oquendo and bassist Andy Gonzalez, who says the reunion has been a long time coming.

"We had been planning it for a while," Gonzalez says. "We realized that we made quite an impact when we made our original recordings."

Out Of The '70s

Gonzalez says that the music on those recordings got its start in jam sessions in the basement of his parents' home in the Bronx. Andy and his brother Jerry, who plays congas and trumpet, were already performing in the vibrant New York City salsa scene of the early '70s with musicians such as Eddie Palmieri, Ray Barreto and even jazz master Dizzy Gillespie.

But the Gonzalez brothers and other musicians felt something was missing in the salsa that was taking the world by storm back then. The music they made in those basement jam sessions became their musical statement — a look to the past to move the music forward.

"It really reflected the kind of stuff we were interested in in New York," Gonzalez says, "which was Afro-Cuban folklore and Puerto Rican folklore, and not just trying to be truthful to those roots. More like using that as a starting point and experimenting with it."

Home Schooling

Those experiments were the lab work for the home schooling they were getting in Afro-Caribbean music from Rene Lopez. Lopez was an amateur ethnomusicologist who was taking notes on his own Afro-Caribbean culture with a massive collection of historic Cuban and Puerto Rican recordings. He held listening sessions at his home, but Gonzalez says that they were much more than social visits.

"We had rules," Gonzalez says. "No talking during the playing of the record. We would talk after the record, but while they were being played, not talking. If anybody opened their mouth, we would say, 'Shut up.' We really put our minds to listening with more care than usual. It was a casual thing, [but] we were going to school. This was a classroom."

High Water Marks

In 1975, Grupo Folklorico released Concepts in Unity, which was followed a year later by Lo Dicen Todo. Both records are considered high water marks of Latin music — not only for the music, but also for the extensive liner notes written by Rene Lopez, who also produced the albums.

Lopez says that the recording sessions were just as organic as the jam sessions that spawned them.

"Fifteen people without music, they didn't believe it," Lopez says. "We did all except one on first take."

But the logistics of trying to book a band of sidemen who were making a living in recording studios and on the road led to the demise of Grupo Folklorico as a working band.

Anticipation And Nostalgia

Thirty-three years later, at the same festival where it all started, nostalgia is mixed with eager anticipation. Trombonist Reynaldo Jorge and percussionist Gene Golden were here 34 years ago.

"First time I played here, I was 26," Jorge says. "Now, I'm 56."

"It's beyond words," Golden adds.

Andy Kaufman, who co-produced the Grupo Folklorico albums with Lopez, is here to celebrate and to reminisce.

"We had the time of our lives, and we wouldn't trade it for anything," Kaufman says.

Sweaty And Joyous

After a brief ceremony, during which the Smithsonian honored Rene Lopez for his work documenting Afro-Caribbean music and culture, the band kicks off and doesn't stop for a sweaty, joyous and inspired 90 minutes.

At the end, longtime fans and newcomers rush the stage to congratulate the musicians and Rene Lopez. Tres player Nelson Gonzalez is greeting friends just outside of the massive tent where the concert was held. He was also part of the basement jam sessions three decades ago, and he's at a loss for words to describe the emotions of today's reunion. So he turns to one of the Afro-Cuban masters to explain why they've come together again.

"Imagine, after over 30 years of not playing together," Gonzalez says. "This is an incredible thing. It feels like the old times. It's like Cachao used to say: 'We cannot let tradition die.' It's up to us to continue this tradition, but to also move it forward."

Andy Gonzalez and Rene Lopez have already booked Grupo Folklorico in New York for a gig in November. And, for a band with such a formidable past, there is now news about the future: Gonzalez and Lopez say there are plans for an album of new material.

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