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Michele Rosewoman's Tribute to Orlando 'Puntilla' Rios

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Legendary Cuban percussionist and vocalist Orlando 'Puntilla' Rios passed away August 12, 2008. Along with several tribute concerts to him taking place in the coming months, Puntilla's former student and colleague, pianist Michele Rosewoman, paid tribute to him with the below article.



Born in Havana, Cuba, percussionist/vocalist Orlando 'Puntilla' Rios is revered in Cuba and the Americas as a master of the many Cuban musical folkloric forms. When 'Puntilla' arrived in New York in 1980, he brought with him a wealth of knowledge of the profound folkloric music unique to Cuba and became a teacher and mentor to many. Orlando Rios was also the foundation of the religious community here in New York, providing and guiding the music at ceremonies and celebrations throughout the tri-state area. He performed with great musicians from the worlds of both Latin music and Jazz throughout the United States, South America, Europe, and Japan. Puntilla passed away on August 12, 2008.

I met Puntilla in 1980 during the first months of his arrival in New York from Havana. Soundscape, a performance space on W. 52nd Street in NYC run by the ethnomusicologist and producer Verna Gillis, was the site of an explosively collaborative period between jazz and Cuban musicians during the early 80's.

In my home town of Oakland in the early 70's, I was playing piano in the big band and taking a harmony class at Laney Community College. During the summer I came across a posting for a class in Afro-Cuban percussion; this was the beginning of my life-long journey into the music of Cuba. From instructor and now great friend Marcus Gordon, I learned bembe/guiro rhythms and songs in Yoruba for the Orishas. As I felt the transformative nature of this powerful and profoundly sophisticated music, my own musical quest took on 2 distinctive paths. One was the improvisational creative tradition of jazz; the other was the folkloric musical traditions of Cuba—including rumba, a uniquely Cuban music—and the sacred bata drums and cantos (songs). At that time, recorded music was scarce and shared like gems.

The bata drums and songs to the Orishas came to Cuba and other parts of the Caribbean with the slaves from West Africa. The bata speak the Yoruba language and address the deities. The cantos are songs of praise to the Orishas.

Although seemingly opposite in nature in that one constantly expands tradition and the other strives to maintain an ancient tradition, I was completely and helplessly immersed in both jazz and Cuban musical traditions from that point on. I saw parallels between the subtle and sophisticated rhythmic and harmonic aspects of jazz and the highly evolved rhythmic and vocal language of both rumba and bata traditions —the obscuring of the obvious, the ability to play time on a sophisticated level where the 'one' is not stated but implied by everything around it.

I moved to New York in 1978 and I met many jazz musicians, as well as percussionists who were into Cuban music. I was in various groups and formed various groups—I continued to write and to study African-based hand drum and vocal traditions alongside friends who were into the same thing.

Verna Gillis was in the audience at my first New York performance as a leader, with Baikida Carroll on trumpet, Abdul Wadud on cello and Skip Bernie on congas. She invited me to perform at Soundscape. I found out that wherever there were new faces and musical contributors, Verna was there to check it out. She was very much into contemporary jazz and I learned that she was also behind many field recordings on the Smithsonian Folkways label. Her involvement in both worlds throughout the years is what made Soundscape a natural home for both the influx of Cuban musicians and the New York-based jazz experimentalists. For me, it was perfect. We all thank her to this day for what she made possible.

Nuyoricans and Afro-Americans were prominent among those who had managed to study Cuban folkloric music at a time when information and recordings were hard to come by. Puntilla brought and shared musical knowledge that had never been available in the United States before, including songs in the Arara dialect from Dahomey that are equally a part of the spiritual musical traditions in Cuba and address the same deities. Folks here were more hip to the Yoruba songs.

My percussionist friends surrounded Puntilla, absorbing everything like sponges. For the first time, there was someone here with musical and spiritual knowledge of sacred and private practices who wanted to share his knowledge. A master batalero, congero and vocalist, Puntilla was full of ideas and needed drummers and singers to understand his traditions in order to present them at the highest level.

Puntilla started giving bata classes at percussionist Eddie Rodriguez's studio in Brooklyn. Eddie was one of my first friends here—we had been playing in a latin jazz group together. He had a beautiful feel and had been studying rumba and bata traditions for years. His passion for this music and his energy were infectious. He was often the center of a learning environment that others rallied around and these classes were intensive and ongoing. There was one in the group who had a problem with my being given access to all the information, but this was neutralized by the fact that I was there at Puntilla's request. I was deeply honored that Puntilla had invited me.

We had jammed and performed together at Soundscape many times. I was often in the coro for the rumbas and Orisha songs and also played piano when the music pulled the traditions together.

Puntilla came to know me for what I was musically about. In 1978–1979, in my dreams I had begun to hear this sacred music in a contemporary jazz setting and I started writing instrumental environments for them. With few exceptions, this music had only been performed with drums and vocals at ceremonies ( the group Irakere used some of the sacred music in a latin jazz setting). Puntilla was aware of my direction and that the more knowledge I had of both traditions, the better able I would be to bring them together in a righteous way. I studied the bata without playing them—a very hard way to learn, but I was absorbing a rhythmic perspective that would permeate my playing and writing in the years to come. In Cuba and here, especially at that time, women did not play bata. I didn't feel the need to challenge this: my desire was to absorb everything I could and I became aware of the intricacies of what I consider to be the most profound rhythmic language on earth.

There were certain Arara songs I learned from Puntilla that haunted me until I did something with them for my own groups. I was compiling a body of music that was based in part on a repertoire of Puntilla's favorite cantos and sequences. Also I was using bata, rumba and Orisha songs in the context of my original music.

In 1983 I received a National Endowment for the Arts grant for the formation and presentation of “New Yor-Uba, A Musical Celebration of Cuba in America." The premiere took place in December of 1983 at Joseph Papp's Public Theater in New York City and featured Puntilla. It also featured many of my close associates, which amounted to a super-strong line-up of great jazz and folkloric musicians including Rufus Reid, Pheeroan akLaff, Kelvyn Bell, Oliver Lake, Baikida Carroll, John Stubblefield, Howard Johnson, Bob Stewart, Rasul Siddik, Butch Morris, Eddie Rodriguez, Gene Golden, Olu Femi Mitchell and Oscar Hernandez.

It was sold out with folks standing outside in the rain. Sitting across from each other on the stage, I will never forget the awe on the faces of the jazz musicians when the drummers and folkloric tradition were featured, and equally I will always remember the deep respect and curiosity on the faces of the drummers as they listened to the soloists. None of them had ever heard each other's music at this level and I had brought them together through my own passion for both worlds. I also will always remember how after the 1st set, behind the curtain, everyone fell into a big group hug—like a football team who was winning the game at halftime. Puntilla was super- excited.

As we all reminisce about Puntilla, friends pull out old VCR tapes that show me just how much I actually performed with Puntilla y Su Nueva Generacion. Mostly singing coro, he also had me playing piano on occasion. I am on recordings and at venues I don't even remember. It was like being in a dream, woven into a fabric, carried on the wave of my own destined direction, and staying on that crest took all my focus. I was completely absorbed in a world where I was trying to learn a tradition defined by nuance. I am in awe today as I was then. I study today as I did then. I have more to learn than ever. The more I learn about this tradition, the more I know there is to learn. I need three lifetimes just for this.

I met my godfather-to-be, the great Cuban dancer/singer/actor/artist Alberto Morgan, through Puntilla. Alberto was his choreographer, featured dancer and partner in special folkloric presentations. The shows were spectacular. The costume, dance, bata cantos, and rumba were clean, precise, traditional and open-minded at the same time. My godmother-to-be, Olu Femi Mitchell, was the voice that paired with Puntilla like no other—she grew up in Harlem and was his perfect match. He also used Nuyorican Ibrahim Rodriguez on vocals, the other perfect match that Puntilla found here. Abie, as we call him, was into putting doowop to clave and Puntilla incorporated that into his shows. Puntilla was a keeper of the key to tradition and taught the oral history impeccably with little tolerance for mistakes or lack of subtlety. He was rough on everyone who studied with him. One had to hang and one had to take it. (Ultimately, it was for their own good!) At the same time he was open to music in ways that surprised everyone.

Puntilla relished the music that I constructed around the tradition. His presence in my New Yor-Uba ensemble and the pride he took in being a part of it was further evidence of his openness. He always said, with a very serious tone, “Michele, hay que graver New Yor-Uba".

The name New Yor-Uba reflects the progression of the music of the Yoruba people from Nigeria, through Cuba, to present-day New York. The music of New Yor-Uba salutes the Orishas (Yoruban deities) in a contemporary jazz setting using both original compositions and contemporary arrangements of traditional Yoruban (Nigeria) and Arara (Dahomey) chants. My writing was so influenced by my study of congas and bata that when I added bata or rumba after the fact, we could always find particular rhythms that fit almost perfectly. With Puntilla's help, I kept the spiritual elements in tact - if the drums and vocals were picked up and set down at a ceremony, they would be correct. He took pride in knowing the horn parts and telling newcomers what to play.

I was excited when Puntilla called one day to say he was giving a special class and wanted me there. This one was to learn the agpon part for the Orisha songs. We had all been busy learning the coro, but here was an opportunity to learn something which no one had access to through instruction. There are only a handful of singers in this country who can sing lead at a ceremony. Puntilla was always busy trying to fill the gaps in the spiritual community by teaching anyone who had the dedication to learn.

Puntilla started dialysis in 1994. At first he was weakened, but he adapted quickly and continued playing ceremonies, special presentations and shows. He performed with me at Sweet Basil and at Tischman Auditorium. Throughout the years, he had come all the way from the Bronx to my downtown apartment many times to make rehearsals. I began to feel a sense of responsibility for his welfare. He had shed all his vices, could only eat certain things, and was there solely for the development of the music. I could see that he was struggling. But he would take breaks and continue on. He was adamant about rehearsing and getting things tight.

I had the honor of being the one to take him to the west coast, where so many waited to hear him perform live. Dr. Richard Bains and the Cal State Summer Arts program brought members of New Yor-Uba to Cal State Fresno to do workshops and a performance. With this, I was able to put together some other dates and we performed several nights at Yoshi's in Oakland and at Kuumbwa in Santa Cruz. Puntilla had to go in for dialysis every couple of days. I will always remember and deeply regret an incident where the hotel shuttle took Puntilla at 5 am to the wrong hospital which was closed, and left him in the streets of Oakland. Somehow he got back to the hotel and when he called me he was furious and extremely concerned about missing his dialysis appointment. I managed to get him to the right place where they accommodated his need. The image of him stranded out there at 5 am in the dead quiet streets of a city he'd never been in and in need of the medical procedure that kept him alive distresses me to this day.

His force, his ability to recuperate and regenerate, his focus and strength of purpose moved all of us. Rumors spread often in the last few years that he was very sick, couldn't talk, couldn't walk, etc…. I would always call to see about him-- “ Puntilla, que bueno oir tu voz. The people are saying that you blah blah blah…" He always laughed and said, “Michele, you know de peeple tawk alatachit!" Someone told me he once said that every time this happened, it made him stronger. To the public he presented a facade of invincibility. When folks didn't expect him to show up, he was there. When folks expected him to sing but not play, he played. But in the last few years, when we would go to his home to visit, there was no faade and it was easy to see how things really were. He chose to let us know at those moments, wanted some of us to know. He was truly welcoming of our visits which were our pronouncements of love and respect and he was full of humor and laughter.

I couldn't imagine the world without Puntilla and was in a constant state of concern--was calling him often at the hospital in the Bronx during the last 2 weeks. And in the early hours of the morning of August 12, I got that dreaded phone call— within 5-10 minutes of his passing. from my godfather who was in Miami at the time. That's how fast word spread. Puntilla's signature “heh heh" was how he signed off our last phone call a few days before his passing. With a laugh --with that effort in that moment.

His contributions to my New Yor-Uba ensemble are immeasurable. New Yor- Uba honors the Orishas and will from now on be my vehicle to honor Puntilla as well. I made Ocha in October of 2007. Puntilla played for my Ocha and I was presented to his drums and had the chance to receive his Achè as a Iyawo. I could see he was proud of me and that had always meant a lot to me, but in this context, it meant the most.

Laughter punctuates the recordings I have --from cassettes to ipods ---of our sessions, classes, and rehearsals. In the middle of his conveying extremely deep musical and spiritual concepts, and the thicker the air was with the magnitude of what he was showing us, the more likely he might say something out of nowhere, like “Pero, caballero, ya! I need a ham and cheese sandwich! Now!" As I listen to him and to us falling out of our chairs laughing—it always had to do with his impeccable timing---I'm laughing out loud like I'm in the room all over again and I realize that he is very much here. He continues to guide and inspire all of us.

Wherever I go that people know Puntilla, it is truly amazing the number of times I hear his name mentioned. No one can take his place in the musical and spiritual communities that he so profoundly helped to shape. His knowledge, personality and generosity – his quiet mastery, his touch on the Iya and his immediately recognizable sound on quinto resound in our hearts and minds. But what brings tears to my eyes each time is the warmth and timbre of one of the most beautiful voices I've ever heard.

Orlando Rios, Chani Ilu Aña, we love and miss you. Maferefun, Ibaye.

Orlando 'Puntilla' Rios will be honored in three forthcoming events:

9th Annual Moment in Time Festival: Tribute to Puntilla, Part 1
Sunday, December 7, 2008, at 6:00 p.m.

The Brecht Forum, 451 West Street
Featuring Gene Golden and Friends (with members ofNueva Generacin, Quinto Meyor and Raices Habaneras), Xiamara Rodriguez, Rita Macias, Pedro Domech, & others
$6 Suggested Donation
For more information, call 732-290-0967 or e-mail Puntillatribute@aol.com

9th Annual Moment in Time Festival: Tribute to Puntilla, Part 2
Saturday, December 13, 2008, at 1:30 p.m.

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, 515 Malcolm X Boulevard
Featuring Amma McKen and Omi Yesa (Afro-Cuban Orisha Folklore), Michele Rosewoman and members of New Yor-Uba (Cuban Folklore/Jazz), with Pedro Martinez, Armondo Gola, Roman Diaz & Mauricio Herrera
Free Admission
For more information, call 732-290-0967 or e-mail Puntillatribute@aol.com

Caribbean Cultural Center Presents:
A Tribute to Orlando 'Puntilla' Rios
Sunday, January 10, 2009

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, 515 Malcolm X Boulevard
Featuring Puntilla's Nueva Generacion, directed by Olu Femi Mitchell and Michele Rosewoman with members of New Yor-Uba featuring Pedro Martinez
Free Admission
For more information, call 212 491-2200

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