No me esconda la verdad (Don’t hide the truth from me)
oyeme bien sonerito (Hear me well little singer)
hoy de nuevo lo repito (Today, I’ll tell you again)
lo mio no es falsedad (Mine ain’t false)
y si por casualidad (and by chance)
tu me pones atencion (you pay attention to me)
notaras que hay emocion (notice the emotion)
y seguro fundamento (and the secure foundation)
cada vez que al elemento armonioso (every time in the harmonious element)
canto el son, mi son. (I sing the Son, my Son)
– “Armonioso Cantar” (With A Little Help From My Friend LP, 1973; Tite Curet Alonso)
Like most Latinos, Puerto Ricans, those freely associated citizens, think they’re white. The lighter they get the brighter their prospects get. Just like their Spaniard conquerors they can continue to hide their Black roots and embrace the linear, ethnocentric, westernized viewpoints that joyously fuck the world. From Moors to West Africans and all the indigenous it’s all washed into the grounds of inquisition to born a strangled fruit. Manly mangos assimilate as okaying oranges and Queen quenepas gmo to alrighty apples. Boot strapped and mind clipped, we are taught that we’re a sad trail mix of proper Spaniard conquistador, rhythmic yet barbarian African slave and the indigenous exotic Taino Arawak. So by the late 60’s, after Cubans had led the African polyrhythms of our hearts into Jazz, the first genre of New York City starts being formed. Not Hip Hop but Salsa. Before there were no instruments, there were a few and brash brothers and sisters jamming their glorious anti-assimilationist rebellion and pure Soul into too many percussion instruments left and the rusty horns and dusty pianos lasting.
This Original man scribbling blasphemy of the most righteous sort learned his Boricua roots from Hip Hop. And Salsa was cocolo music, subhuman scores that didn’t advance us, from an earlier era. Just like Hip Hop ain’t shit, Salsa was even different than other island nigger music as Merengue. Merengue could be rationalized as respectable party music, a beautiful Black music of dynamic tempos and swing that Trujillo put in its place. Salsa couldn’t be pontificated as proper because the rebelliousness and street stories came through the Moorish inspired Jibaro chants and the mantras in Yoruba dialect. Diggin’ in the crates to find your sound and sense is part of the elements and I learned with one to get another…
The Sonero isn’t what we hear today. The Sonero is a crate, a master of ceremony singer from yesteryear. Primarily Boricuas cutting through East Harlem, the South Bronx and the organs of Medina as Brooklyn’s Lebron Brothers. They didn’t R&B wail their vocals like Marc Anthony. They used their voices ingenuously calm, to wildly pierce through the tumbao bass of the conga, the thick polyrhythmic snaps of the bongo and the abanico drumrolls of the timbales. They weren’t stuck in the romantic syrup verses that became of Salsa from the strong (i.e. Tito Rojas) or the weak (i.e. Eddie Santiago) in the 1980’s. They Jazz extended the Cuban Son in improvisation and Blues’d their street wise and Jibaro ethos through all the endless tempos from guajira and guaganco to rumba and danzas, even infiltrating Boriken’s as well from Bomba to Plena to Aguinaldos. The greatest Soneros didn’t just interpret the lyrics handed to him but by the call and response choruses they had to MC. MCing where like the trabalengua roots in Puerto Rico, the Sonero tongue twisted rhyme verses engaging in all the techniques. They flowed with assonance, compounding their word coupling through chants, sharing punchlines and metaphors through slang editorials representing. They battled their Sonero counterparts and all the streets and island provinces were repped.
This Salsa epoch has at least three Boricua legends that may be considered the greatest Soneros ever. All of them men of the people and all can be claimed the greatest ever. There is El Cantante De Los Cantantes, Hector Lavoe’s completely rebellious Jibaro pride, trapped in NYC and all its vices, with the high pitch Jibaro vocals, like Chuito or Ramito, laced with pure power, refrains forever and endless cleverness. Of course, Rafael Cortijo’s legendary Sonero, Ismael ‘Maelo’ Rivera. Maelo is the Sonero that is the purest voice of the peoples slang of Puerto Rico, the most lyrically deft and the greatest overt bridge of our alike Blackness and alike Indigenous cultural roots so often separated to graft Euro-ness easier. But this Salsa was developed in NYC and while Lavoe is that archetypal Jibaro off the island and the star young Sonero emerging raw and Maelo develops as a Sonero of Bomba and Plena’d Son into the Salsa, there is one great angle left.
The Cuba of the Batista regime was a disgusting place. An island sanctuary for corporate thieves and mafiosos, guided by USA imperialism, the beautiful forms of Cuban music of Rhumba and its developed Son is degenerated into Mambo. Mambo, with its larger horn section swallowing the percussion when necessary and easy clave rhythm for the Caucasian castrators of Cuba, soon cut off by Fidel Castro. An unexpected leader of principled integrity and rugged determination, willing to destroy and rebuild, Fidel sent all forms of capitalist enterprise away. And so went all the burgeoning musicians too. It isn’t as gorgeous an exile of Reggaeton but it forced remaining musicians to recreate themselves (i.e. Los Van Van) with ingenuity on the island. And the others met the Boricuas in Nueva York. As Dizzy Gillepsie noted, ‘it gave Jazz polyrhythms’ overtly and dance bands soon thrived in Manhattan. From the 40’s through the 50’s, the top bands were Machito, Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez. All extremely gifted, the Jazz’d innovations were merged into a pure dance Son music. This is where the Master we Remember In Perfection now arises out of, Jose Cheo Feliciano.
Cheo, musically gifted out of the poverty stricken Ponce, Puerto Rico (as Hector Lavoe and so many others), was merely a valet. Tito Rodriguez would soon learn of him and offer him to Joe Cuba’s band, a fellow Boricua with a young upstart band. The type of upstart that defines Salsa–technical limitations exist but a fury of youthful experimentation and a brash perspective of the real New York streets are in them. Cheo dominates in this hornless band with vocals of an immediate soaring power (i.e. much like the opening power Stevie Wonder ushers in his verses) and elegance that the legends after from Adalberto Santiago to Ruben Blades would all be influenced by. As a Sonero of call and response bars, he was swift and Kool G Rap’d longer verses than the melody demanded. Yet his pacing was never rushed and control was ever present so the wildness of Lavoe or the brashness of Maelo wasn’t exuded. Instead, Cheo, like his idol Tito Rodriguez, was to develop into the elegant master of all tempos.
This control became Life imitating Art as he fell in the late ‘60’s, leaving Joe Cuba’s band because of drug abuse problems. He took a few years to regroup and began the works that made him a legend. After getting back in the game as part of the Impacto Crea LP, made of fellow drug abuse reformers, dropping a classic cut with Eddie Palmieri (“Busca Lo Tuyo,”) his first solo LP came through. In 1971, he released the Cheo LP. Now officially, Cheo was a Lou Rawls of Salsa, with his smooth baritone elegance displayed his Bolero ballad timing softly and effortlessly crooning pain to sophisticated blues (“Mi Triste Problema”) to immediately turn to high speed soneos (call and response verses) on the up tempo guagancos (“Este Si Es Mi Guaguanco”) or mid tempo guajira through the classic lyricism of the great Boricua song writer Tite Curet Alonso constantly offered him, as with his signature song, “Anacaona.” This LP is one of the LPs that established the depth of Salsa, proved Cheo’s emergence and displayed the dignity of the Boricua, the Original man off the little island colonized by the Yankee.
Cheo’s diversity made him the only Sonero able to record popular ballad LPs (La Voz Sensual De Cheo 1972, Looking For Love 1974), record an entire classic LP with diverse tempo songs written by Tite Curet Alonso (With A Little Help From My Friend, 1973) and put Puerto Rico’s reality back into the lyrics (Mi Tierra Y Yo, 1977) or dive deeply into socio-political issues via the lyrical tale as his Estampas (1979) and Sentimiento Tu (1980) LPs explored. Except for the all ballad LPs, Cheo executed his ideas through all the tempo forms that Salsa re-envisioned via the street experience, Jazz’d improvisation influence and genre fusion (i.e. Bomba, Plena, Aguinaldo, Merengue, Funk, Reggae, etc.) with an equality of mastery no other Sonero of Salsa can claim.
The Soneros we love were real, talented and rebellious. With Cheo Feliciano, the rebellion was quiet. The Salsa era of the 70’s is heralded through the dominance of the Fania label of which Cheo was one of its All Stars. However, it is also the label, led by Jerry Masucci, that embraced Industry Rule No. 4080 (Record Companies Are Shady), by jacking artists and pitching forth a lighter Sonero to the forefront. With all time legends as Lavoe and greats as Adalberto Santiago and ill ones as Ismael Miranda, it goes unnoticed as them yellow brothers were ill. However, while Pete El Conde Rodriguez, a darker brother was there along with Cheo, groups as Lebron Brothers and its Sonero leader Pablo Lebron were ignored and deliberately shunned. This doesn’t taint the talent Fania presented but even in the most Blackest and indigenous of musical forms, whitening cream was being applied when they could. And Cheo Feliciano was that legend that repped a level of success in righteousness our other legend soneros, Black Brown or Yellow, couldn’t achieve. Cheo couldn’t and wouldn’t be white washed and he helped the music mightily stay Original, Black and Indigenous. Salsa needed Cheo more than Cheo needed to be called a Salsa Sonero. As the most purest of Soneros, he fired through Harlem streets toughening Joe Cuba’s wabble cha’s, he was a Bolerista the roots of Mexico could respect, he passed embargos in Cuba and was respected as a great Sonero of the original Son formats, he was a Jibaro Negro that was part of our exalted Boriken family always making sure the brothers ate.
A Sonero isn’t just a singer of memorable dance tunes but songs on our lives as a statement of excellence. Diggin in the crates I found Cheo Feliciano, a brother from the Ponce, Puerto Rico I am also rooted through. Sampling, I learned about the beauty of the Borken via NYC Salsa Sonero’s depth that helped unstrangle the fruit from the modified trees. Now, with an air filled with “Amada Mia,” an alpha mango and his ripe quenapa querida dance freely…otra vez….Salsaludando the legend Cheo Feliciano!
Pero por eso es que me quedo ya (And that’s why I stay surely)
con mi pobre gente pobre (with my truly poor people)
sencilla flor de papel (with just simple paper flowers)
y mucho amor de verdad. (and lots of love for real)
y en este último viaje (And in this last trip)
camino del campo santo (I take through the cemetery)
a ese amigo del alma Rumbero! (as that friend of Soulful Rumba.)
Lo acompañamos cantando. (I’ll accompany you singing)
– “Los Entierros” – Estampas LP, 1979