Born: January 1, 1931 Primary Instrument: Percussion
Manny Oquendo - timbales, latin percussionist
Latin Bandleader Manny Oquendo, is a veteran of the days when Latin bands crowded into a studio to polish off a recording in an all-night session. Oquendo’s musical education consisted of the old-school, just play approach, and he was in the right place to learn. He grew up on Kelly Street in the Bronx, New York, not far from the great Cuban tres player, Arsenio Rodriguez and famed pianist Noro Morales. And a lot of kids who’d later make their names in Latin music-such as Joe Cuba, and the Palmieri brothers, One floor down from the Oquendo apartment was the Almacenes Hernandez record shop. There was music constantly coming out of that store, and that was my education, Oquendo recalls. He became an expert on Cuban rhythms and began playing bongo and timbales with a sucession of New York’s top bands-with Jose Curbelo and Vicentico Valdes before moving into the orchestras of Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez.
In 1963, he joined La Perfecta, the conjunto organized by pianist Eddie Palmieri. La Perfecta was struggling at that time, trying to compete with all the other bands at the Palladium, says Oquendo. I’m talking about big bands with 15 people in them. Eddie’s was a small conjunto group. But what made us different was the music and the playing-we were looser, more free.
Oquendo’s alliance with trombonist Barry Rogers resulted in the driving, imaginative arrangements that made La Perfecta a dance hall favorite. Oquendo settled in with Palmieri's influential La Perfecta in 1963, about the same time that a rhythm known as the Mozambique was being popularized in Cuba by Pello El Afrokan. In Cuba, the Mozambique was a complex carnival rhythm (a camparsa) played by a large ensemble of percussionists. Oquendo heard recordings of the Mozambique, and adapted it for timbales by playing the comparsa with one hand and the basic drum beat with the other. He persuaded Palmieri to incorporate his new Mozambique and other Cuban rhythms into La Perfecta's dance numbers, thereby introducing the hypnotic beats to North America. The Oquendo-style Mozambique is now part of the repertoire of timbal players everywhere.
La Perfecta eventually disbanded, and in 1974 Oquendo co-founded Libre (originally Conjunto Libre) with Perfecta's bassist Andy Gonzalez. Their musical concept was to maintain Latin roots, but to be free (libre) to incorporate jazz, Afro-Cuban, and alternative influences. Libre's rugged sound drew devoted fans across Europe, South America, Africa, and the US. Their notable albums include On the Move and Mejor Que Nunca, The band kept a solid schedule of performances and records releases ever since their formation and has built up a loyal fan base especially within the New York Latin community.
In the years since, Manny Oquendo and Libre have become preservationists of the t�-pico sound, nurturing some of the most dedicated sidemen in the business. Jerry Gonzalez was a founding member of the group; singer Herman Olivera made his recording debut on 1979’s Los Lideres de la Salsa. At various times Barry Rogers, Jose Rodrigues, Angel Papo Vazquez, Jimmy Bosch, Reinaldo Jorge, Dan Reagan, and Steve Turre held down the trombone line, while Oscar Hernandez and Joe Mannozzi have romped on piano.
Though Manny Oquendo has recently announced his retirement, or maybe just a slow down, he has left an indelible impression on those who have been lucky to enjoy his music and contributions to Latin music.