El Entierro De Cortijo / Cortijo's Wake NPR coverage of El Entierro De Cortijo / Cortijo's Wake by Edgardo Rodriguez Julia. News, author interviews, critics' picks and more.
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El Entierro De Cortijo / Cortijo's Wake

by Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá

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El Entierro De Cortijo / Cortijo's Wake
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Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá

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Excerpt: El Entierro De Cortijo / Cortijo's Wake

Since its publication in 1983, El entierro de Cortijo has been selling like hotcakes, or better, como pan caliente. Puerto Rican readers have avidly gobbled up this affordable and handy little book, sending it to its eighth edition and rewarding its publisher, Ediciones Huracán, with sales upward of 25,000-no small feat in a small country. Year after year, Edgardo Rodríguez Julia's engaging chronicle of the funeral of the island's most revered popular musician continues to serve as assigned reading in countless university classes, has drawn a significant readership outside of academia as well as internationally, and has received lively and appreciative critical attention. It was translated into French by the most distinguished French literary translator, Claude Fell, and has been the subject of debates and conferences in a range of countries, including Colombia, Argentina, and Martinique. The author himself attests to its being the first of his books to achieve success with a broad reading public. Along with his novels and other short works of fiction and nonfiction commentary, El entierro de Cortijo has established Rodríguez Juliá's place at the forefront of contemporary Puerto Rican literature.

The resounding success of the book is no doubt due in large measure to its subject matter: not only does the world of popular music carry an intrinsic attraction but the figure of Rafael Cortijo, who wrought a veritable revolution in Puerto Rican musical culture, looms especially large. The music of Cortijo y Su Combo has captivated Puerto Rican, Caribbean, and Latin American audiences since its emergence in the mid-1950s. It both "modernized" the traditional vernacular forms of bomba and plena and at the same time forcefully reestablished their African and working-class roots, drawing on sources from early in the century and infusing modern-day "salsa" in its formative period of the 1970s-the strongest Puerto Rican current within what is called "Latin music." In short, Cortijo's stylistic innovations span the generations, bridge cultural regions, and set social contradictions in sharp relief. It might be said that, more than any other group, the Combo arrived at the perfect complementarity between the Puerto Rican bomba y plena and the Cuban rumba-son traditions. After Cortijo, Puerto Rican and Latin music would never be the same.

Beyond that, as becomes dramatically clear in El entierro de Cortijo, this towering musical achievement carries far-reaching implications for the meaning and interpretation of Puerto Rican culture and for marginal and colonial cultures in general. Cortijo challenged long dominant and elitist, Eurocentric assumptions about black Puerto Rican music and openly defied the paternalism with which such "folk" expression is customarily treated, when he thrust the expressive ways of poor black folk onto the center stage of the national culture; in doing so, he attained a consensus of aesthetic appreciation never experienced in the country before or since.

Rafael Cortijo Verdejo was born on 11 December 1928 in Santurce, a sprawling and sociologically diverse urban concentration in the immediate San Juan area. Historically called Cangrejos (literally "crabs"), and its residents cangrejeros, Santurce prior to its urbanization as of the 1920s had consisted largely of swamplands, mangroves, and canals, home to land crabs and the semirural poor. Santurce neighborhoods such as Villa Palmeras and Barrio Obrero have long been known for their sizeable black population and as unofficial hubs of vernacular Afro-Puerto Rican culture. Cortijo, affectionately called "Rafa," spent his youth-indeed most of his life-in the neighborhoods of Santurce, and it was there, as we read in El entierro de Cortijo, that he was laid to rest at the age of fifty-three. In the Puerto Rico of the 1930s and 1940s, the years of the Great Depression when he was growing up, life was brutally hard for the young black male born into poverty, and no bright future seemed in store for him. Many black families were only a few generations out of slavery, and the harsh existence of seasonal cane-cutters and menial laborers was the best that most could expect. Racial subordination was rampant and a matter of course, though generally denied and concealed beneath the ideological appeal to an all-embracing "Puerto Rican family."

Rafa's musical proclivities became obvious at an early age. When he was nine he was already beating out rhythms on a makeshift bongo drum fashioned out of a tin milk can. Lacking in any formal musical education, Cortijo was schooled in the streets of Santurce, joining his neighborhood friends in the jams and parties that were a regular feature of daily life. The street-corner jam, "el rumbón," is the natural setting for Cortijo's music, the lifeblood of those rhythms and sounds that were to enchant audiences once they made their way to the concert stage, dance halls, recording studios, and radio and television broadcasts. Rodríguez Juliá is emphatic in reminding his readers of these humble yet spirited origins; in fact, the transcending historical importance of his book is that it is the first in Puerto Rican literature to lend extended narrative attention to this sector of the colonial society.

It was in his boyhood, too, that Cortijo met and teamed up with the neighborhood buddy who was to be of supreme importance in his life, and with whose fate his own was quickly and forever sealed: the legendary and unsurpassed vocalist Ismael Rivera. Stemming from equally impoverished circumstances, "Maelo," as he is popularly known, got by as a kid shining shoes and then apprenticed as a mason, an occupation of which he remained proud all his life. The two started hanging out together when they were attending middle school, in their early teens. "Cortijo," Maelo recalled, "has always played his drum. There are people we call 'pleneros,' you know, who make music out of the skins of their drums, and Cortijo was one of them. So that after school we'd go to the beach, a five-minute walk, and that's where we started to play. And it was back then, when we first started to jam [rumbear] together, that he would make me aware of myself. He'd tell me that what I was, was a singer, a very special vocalist, and I figured he was just trying to make me feel good or something. But he kept at it, and he'd always come to get me at the construction site where I worked as a mason. He'd be waiting for me with his barrels, his drums, and when my grandfather, who was a contractor, saw him he'd say, 'There's that black guy again with his barrels. I'm going to throw both of you out, so he doesn't come around to get you anymore.'" It was Cortijo, then, who was among the first to recognize the unique vocal abilities of "el Sonero Mayor," which was the epithet famously given to him a few years later, in 1956, by none other than the premier Cuban vocalist and bandleader Beny Moré.

Cortijo himself was discovered, or given his earliest encouragement, by "Mr. Babalú," the celebrated Cuban singer Miguelito Valdés. Getting his formal start in 1942 as a bongo player with the Conjunto Monterrey, the young Cortijo played with a range of groups in those years and made a radio appearance with the Trío Matamoros. But his breakthrough came in 1954, when he joined pianist Rafael Ithier for a few recordings on the Seeco label, with his soulmate Ismael Rivera, at the time lead vocalist for the highly prominent Orquesta Panamericana under the musical direction of Lito Peña. Maelo, singing with Orquesta Panamericana, had just achieved his first hit with the plena song "El charlatán." It was at that point that Cortijo pulled together Cortijo y Su Combo. Building on Maelo's success, their first recording, "El bombón de Elena," struck an immediate chord with the public and launched the new group on the path to historic renown of international proportions. Here, in a plena composed by the acknowledged doyen of bomba y plena, Rafael Cepeda, was Cortijo's masterful bomba-based percussion, working with Maelo's ingenious improvisations and impeccable vocal timing to make that inimitable Puerto Rican plena sound in an upbeat, up-to-date Cubanized style. Between their founding in 1954 and dissolution in 1962, Cortijo y Su Combo con Ismael Rivera went on to record some forty songs, among them the unforgettable hits "Besitos de coco," "Maquinolandera," "Alegría y bomba," "El negro bembón," "Con la punta del pie Teresa," "Te dejé llorando," "El chivo de la campana," and numerous others, compiled in three historic albums on the Seeco label titled ... Invites You to Dance, Baile con Cortijo y Su Combo, and Cortijo y Su Combo. Many of these songs, by a range of black Puerto Rican composers, have directly to do with the experience of poor black Puerto Ricans in the neighborhoods of Santurce.

Aside from its strikingly new musical sound and best-selling recordings, Cortijo y Su Combo was also an act, an all-black performative presence on the cultural stage that had the effect of challenging many of the long-held values and prejudices of the national culture. Most significantly, they achieved immense and startling visibility on television-newly inaugurated in Puerto Rico in those years-starring frequently in memorable showcase appearances in popular shows such as La Taberna India and El Show de Mediodía. "They brought the music of the poor out of isolation," recalls Roberto Cepeda, Don Rafael's son. "It went from marginalization onto television and the movies." As Maelo's mother, Doña Margot, put it, "Someone had opened the cage and let all the blacks loose." Maelo himself associates the music of the Combo with what he called "the revolution of the blacks in Puerto Rico" and refers to the prominence in those and the following years of black Puerto Ricans Roberto Clemente and Orlando Cepeda in major league baseball; in fact, "Peruchín" (as Orlando Cepeda is called) makes his appearance at Cortijo's funeral (and Rodríguez Juliá was to devote more attention to him and other Puerto Rican ballplayers in the later chronicle Peloteros, published in 1997). "It was all a thing of the people, of black people," Maelo went on. "It was like someone was opening a cage, and there was anger, and we stepped in at that point, you know, with our music." Though the cultural context is very specifically that of Puerto Rico of the later 1950s, it is striking how closely that racial breakthrough in the music and culture parallels the changes that occurred in the United States during the same years with the crossover of "race music," black rhythm and blues, into rock 'n' roll.

Coinciding with the ascendancy of Cortijo's music were dramatic historical changes in Puerto Rican society. The economic desperation and resulting social conflicts of the depression years compelled adjustments in the island's precarious colonial relationship with the United States, most prominently the introduction of commonwealth status and the implementation of an economic development plan known as Operation Bootstrap. On the official cultural front these changes also included the founding of the Institute for Puerto Rican Culture in 1955. The charismatic populist leader Luis Muñoz Marín, governor of the island through the 1950s and 1960s, oversaw this ambitious "modernization" program, the aftereffects of which are evoked so forcefully in El entierro de Cortijo; in fact, Rodríguez Juliá devoted his other masterly funeral chronicle, Las tribulaciones de Jonás, to the services for Muñoz Marín himself. Operation Bootstrap left its imprint in Santurce in the form of the Lloréns Torres public housing projects, that immense cement block compound so very visibly situated along the route between the airport and the city of San Juan. It is here that many of Santurce's working-class residents-Cortijo's people-came to live as a result of the "development plan," and it is in the community center of that housing project that the great fallen Cortijo lay in state. But that's a full generation after the Bootstrap years, and what the chronicle attests to is the utter fiasco of economic development under colonial rule. Whatever hopes the impoverished black population may have held out for some semblance of proletarian stability were dashed, as massive unemployment and "lumpenization" set in with a vengeance during the 1970s and 1980s.

The demise of Cortijo's combo came in 1962, when Maelo and others were arrested on drug charges in the San Juan airport on their return from a tour in Panama. With Maelo headed for a three-year prison term and in Cortijo's absence, the group's pianist, Rafael Ithier, brought together the remaining members and formed El Gran Combo, which went on to become one of the most popular and enduring bands of the salsa years, but whose music veered off in many ways from that of the Cortijo sound and its historical significance. Cortijo and Maelo resumed their careers for the most part independently of each other, with Rafa gaining some attention for his highly experimental 1974 album Máquina del tiempo and with el Sonero Mayor recording a slew of further hits with his own group, Los Cachimbos. But there was one all-important reunion of the full combo, which allowed a more recent audience to experience this unique cultural performance with its original cast. The historic concert took place on 25 June 1974 at the Roberto Clemente Coliseum, and the group was then recorded for posterity on the album entitled Juntos otra vez (Together Again). "There were people crying," wrote the songwriter and long-term friend and collaborator of the Combo, Tite Curet Alonso, in the liner notes. "There were people who couldn't believe what they were seeing and hearing.... It was a return to the second half of the 1950s. To say that the 'Original Combo' would get together again, maybe for the last time, was to put the lie to the phrase that 'history never repeats itself.' History that had been made in the dance halls, theaters, recordings, movies and public places.... Cortijo, Ismael, Roy, Martín, Ithier, Eddy, Héctor, Mario, Sammy, Robertito, Miguel y Kito were together again. All of them had put on some weight, and some years, but there they were giving today's young people and yesterday's fans a glimpse of that living school of music and showmanship that nobody has ever been able to match."

As is attested indelibly in El entierro de Cortijo, the musician's death in 1982 occasioned a national mourning, surpassed in emotional intensity and historical symbolism only by that for his life-long compadre Ismael Rivera five years later. The events marked the end of an era, the era of Cortijo's Combo and of Muñoz Marín's Operation Bootstrap, a full thirty years after its heyday. What remains has been the legacy, the ambiguous, conflicted aftermath of nostalgia and fear that flared up in its full irony in the bittersweet events of 1988 over the renaming of Puerto Rico's Palace of Fine Arts (a collision of values that was uncannily prophesied by Rodríguez Juliá in a passage of El entierro de Cortijo). For when one controversial legislator floated the idea of naming that hallowed institution after the great Rafael Cortijo, all hell broke loose, and the guardians of the country's "fine arts" responded with the expected indignation. How could a black drummer from the projects, who had done time for drug charges, be immortalized with such an honor? And of course, once the dust had settled, the Palace of Fine Arts ended up bearing the name of Cortijo's diametrical opposite on the social spectrum, the white, elite multimillionaire arts patron and first statehood governor of the Island, Luis A. Ferré. So much for poetic justice.

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