Born: December 11, 1928 | Died: October 3, 1982 Primary Instrument: Composer/conductor/leader
In the annals of Afro-Antillian music the name Cortijo is synonymous with the heartbeat rhythms of the music of the common people of the islands with a strong acknowledgement of its African roots. He played specifically for them and never forgot his ancestry or where he came from; they in turn have never forgotten him or his contribution to their culture.
Music legend Rafael Cortijo was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, on 11 December 1928. He was a significant figure in the history of Latin music and noted as a percussionist, (timbales, conga, bongo, maracas and other percussion), bandleader and composer. He was the musical hero of the common folk of Puerto Rico and Latin America; admired for his qualities as a creative and talented musician. He took the bomba and plena out of the slums and with his all-black band, and introduced them into all levels of society in Puerto Rico and abroad.
His early childhood was filled with the sounds of the drumming and singing of pleneros like Cornelio and Maria Teresa. He learned how to make the timbas from them; the barrel drums which he used to entice a young vocalist Ismael Rivera to join his descargas at the beach. For the next three decades, these close friends lived a life in which they shared the good and the bad… whatever they experienced as individuals, was lived by them both, as one: fame, alcohol and drug addiction and even jail.
Cortijo knew that there were several varieties of the bomba cangrejera (crabber’s bomba). With this background and with the experience gained by participating in the traditional street carnivals, such as the Carnavales de San Mateo and San Juan, featuring bombas and plenas, Cortijo was well prepared to organize an authentic bomba and plena group. He developed his own style by including trumpets and saxophones, but kept the flavor of the traditional bomba and plena by means the typical, strong rhythmic base. Cortijo wanted his combo to play music spontaneously and to avoid the inflexible routines of the big bands that kept the musicians fixed on a stage behind their written musical arrangements. Cortijo’s band played standing up, danced on stage, and sometimes even joined the dancers on the floor. Their arrangements were really just minimal sketches as an orderly baseline for the musician’s improvisations. The style ignited the crowd and helped them compete with the big bands of Machito, Tito Rodriguez and Tito Puente.
Cortijo’s music was also popular in other parts of Latin America. When asked why other countries so readily accepted music so closely linked to Puerto Rican folklore, Rafael said, “...African-derived drums are understood in all parts of the world. For example, I fully understand Haitian music and my music is understood and appreciated in Haiti as well. Humble people everywhere have no problem identifying with my music because it is essentially their music. We try to play it honestly, with spontaneity and without any sophisticated variations that may alter its original form.” Cortijo served his apprenticeship playing bongos and congas with Moncho Muley’s Conjunto Monterrey and later with the orchestras of Frank Madera and Miguelito Miranda. He toured abroad for the first time with the band of singer Daniel Santos and worked on the radio programs of singer and composer Myrta Silva and Cuban vocalist Miguelito Valdés.
The defining moment, however, came In 1954, he was playing congas with the Mario Roman Combo when the bandleader decided to retire. This gave Cortijo the opportunity to organize his own group. He knew exactly what sound he wanted and the musicians that could produce it for him. The group’s first vocalist was Sammy Ayala. Singer Ismael Rivera joined the group in 1955.
Cortijo and his Combo were a true audiovisual attraction and Puerto Rican television soon beckoned them. The popular Show del Mediodia featured the group Monday through Friday for five years. They maintained close touch with the people by playing dances throughout the island, especially at the traditional “fiestas patronales” (patron saint celebrations). The Combo recorded a long series of hits, starting with El Bombón de Elena to his futuristic “Time Machine”, released in 1974. In between came many classics such as “Maquinolandera”, “Oriza”, “Perfume de Rosas”, “Tuntuneco”, “El Chivo de la Campana” and “Déjalo que Suba”.
In 1962, after Rivera was imprisoned for a drug offence, members of his combo, led by pianist Rafael Ithier, split to become El Gran Combo.
More than four years passed before Cortijo And His Combo reunited with Ismael Rivera to provide accompaniment for his “Bienvenido!”. This was followed by another reunion in 1967 that resulted in the album “Con Todos Los Hierros.” Cortijo then organized a new orchestra called Bonche and debuted with them on “Sorongo,” which included his daughter, Fé Cortijo, as one of the vocalists, despite her weak voice. Fé continued to work with her father up to his last album. Cortijo then went on to collaborate with Puerto Rican percussionist and bandleader Kako; reviving some of his earlier popular plenas and bombas.
On June 25, 1974, Coco Records sponsored a concert at the Roberto Clemente Coliseum in San Juan; bringing together the original members of Cortijo and his Combo. Participating that night were Rafael Cortijo, Ismael Rivera, Roy Rosario, Mart�-n Quiñones, Rafael Ithier, Eddie Pérez, Héctor Santos, Mario Cora, Sammy Ayala, Roberto Roena, Miguel Cruz, and Kinito Vélez. The concert produced the album “Juntos Otra Vez,” the album was reissued In 1982 as “Ismael Rivera Sonero Numero 1.”
Cortijo died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 54, on 3 October 1982. He was honored by the common people and public leaders alike, for his contributions to music and the culture of Puerto Rico, and is highly revered today. Five years later, his lifelong friend and collaborator Ismael Rivera died of heart failure.