Cortijo’s Wake

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Cortijo’s Wake / El entierro de Cortijo

by Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá (2004)

Duke University Press

Written by widely acclaimed Puerto Rican writer Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá, professor emeritus of literature at the University of Puerto Rico. Author of a number of titles, including La renuncia del héroe Baltasar (1974, translated into English in 1997 as The Renunciation) and more recently San Juan: memoir of a city (translated into English in 2007).

Cortijo’s Wake was first published in Puerto Rico in 1983 as El Entierro de Cortijo where it gained bestseller status. No fewer than eight reprints have since been made and this is a welcome English version, albeit a bilingual edition – so both English and Spanish texts are presented. Professor/author Juan Flores is responsible for the translated version, he also provides an introduction. In it’s 152 pages Rodríguez Juliá tells the story of his involvement at and among the funereal experience of legendary musician Rafael Cortijo.

Why you might buy it:

The quality of the writing here is superb. Flores introduction does a fine job of setting the scene before Rodríguez Juliá takes over and guides us through his experience. His observations are extremely well made and help give the reader a genuine sense of the feelings expressed by those in attendance and the cultural significance of the event, and of Cortijo’s immense contribution to the worlds of Latin music.

Why you might leave it:

If you discount the Spanish text at the rear of the book then this is only 82 pages long – or short I suppose.

Contents:

Acknowledgements

A note on the artist Rafael Ferrer

Introduction

Cortijo’s Wake (English)

El Entierro de Cortijo (Spanish)

Selected extracts (from):

Introduction by Juan Flores

The resounding success of the book is no doubt due in large matter 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-1950’s. It both “modernized” the traditional vernacular forms of bomba and plena and at the same time forcefully re-established 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 complimentary between the Puerto Rican bomba y plena and the Cuban rumba y son traditions. After Cortijo, Puerto Rican and Latin music would not be the same.

Cortijo’s Wake

I stepped up my pace, the deceased Cortijo was awaiting me like a lifesaver over there in the community center, that federal funds-style building that was already visible halfway between Loiza and Baldorioty Streets. You’re at the entrance, I had been warned by the cab driver, who was somewhat surprised that a brain with glasses was getting out at the Llorens hell house in order to touch the corpse of the master conga and timbal player, the great Cortijo, favourite son of Cangrejos folk. There’s a traffic jam up ahead, maybe it’s better if you get out here and walk, it’s real close…When he left me at the entrance like that, was he following the example of those frightened New York cab drivers who won’t risk driving to the South Bronx or black Harlem? Damn, it looks like the impoverished New York city ghetto might have set up its terrifying presence.

Cortijo’s Wake

There, up above is Cortijo…Orvil Miller taps me on the shoulder…Hey, what’s happening?…”Look, this is Cheo Feliciano, Cheo, meet Rodriguez Julia, a writer friend of mine”…”Hey, my pleasure”…Cheo, the Cheo Feliciano, that unique voice, special, brilliant as a son improviser and a master at the bolero, like a perfectly interchangeable Maelo…Cheo from the Joe Cuba Sextet shakes my hand with his sincere and questioning look…What am I doing here?

Cortijo’s Wake

Nineteen fifty-four…Cortijo isn’t just the last of the great pleneros – without forgetting Mon Rivera of course – but the very flavour of the plena in the fifties, years that seem so long ago to us today, closer in fact to the thirties of Canario’s day than to those apocalyptic eighties. But let’s figure it out…In 1954 you were twenty years from 1934; in 1984 you’ll be thirty damn years those shows when Cortijo’s band performed at the Taberna India featuring Reguerete and Floripondia. I was born in 1946, just ten years after the beginning of the Spanish Civil War…On 9 October I’ll be thirty-six, and I’ll have to explain to my son, who’s a rock fan, that Cortijo’s very first band still wore rumba shirts…

Cortijo’s Wake

Cortijo, just like Maelo, let his goatee grow in later years, he got funky to be cool and in tune with the new groove of salsa. All of the clean shaven guys, from Johnny Pacheco to Eddie Palmieri, made the leap from the konk or the razor-cut hairstyle like that of Tito Rodriguez to the African trend of the seventies, mounting the new colt of the time, salsa, with their slightly greying beards and Afros. If you don’t believe me, just compare the covers of these two albums: Descargas at the Village Gate- Live Tico All Stars on Tico (S) LP1155 and Fania All Stars, Live at the Cheetah (volumes 1 and 2) on Fania (S) LP00416. On the first of these, the musicians look like accounting professors at the Interamerican University, that is, they’re respectable but squares, while on the second it looks like salsa was made with the spices of black Harlem, as the musicians begin to take on their beards, hairstyles, and the mean eccentricity of the black jazz man.

Cortijo’s Wake

We’ve almost gotten to Eduardo Conde Street. They’re fanning Maelo with cardboard boxes, as the last stretch up the slope of Abercromby has to be the final gasp of his Nazerene expiation…Give him air, give him air…Space has to be cleared so that Maelo can be given strength by the last signs necessary for his Via Crucis. Maelo needs air, he needs to inhale in a space where only his own damaged breath fits. But it doesn’t matter, as Maelo has set himself the impossible task of climbing the slope of the Englishmen in order to erase all trace of egoism. And this sacrifice would be capable of transforming him, the way it happened to him over in Panama. That kind of sacrifice makes us into witnesses of a privileged moment, that moment when Ismael Rivera, the master singer, succeeded in having friendship take on epic proportions. Between expiation and vanity, how well did that tragic, strange, monumental testimony flourish.

[end of extracts]

Other Reviews:

 

jazzreview.com by Lee Prosser
This is a well-written account of the funeral of Rafael Cortijo (1928 – 1982). Cortijo was a master of percussion and one of the most beloved interpreters of Nuyorican salsa music. He had a tremendous influence on fellow Puerto Rico musicians and in the United States. Translated and with an informative introduction by Juan Flores, the work is written by Julia who remains one of the most important Puerto Rican authors. Julia’s other internationally acclaimed writings include The Renunciation (1997).

What makes this work unique is that it successfully combines elements of musical journalism with memoir. Julia gives the reader an autobiographical approach, complete with descriptions of the mourners and other motifs. An important part of this fine book is the manner in which Julia expresses his personal feelings as a middle-class, light-skinned writer in the world of the poor black Puerto Ricans. Stunning in its direct honesty and simplicity of style, this book is considered a contemporary classic of Puerto Rican literature. This is a bilingual edition. There are many photographs. This is a book you will find both informative and enjoyable reading. Cortijo’s Wake is highly recommended.

Review of Popular Music by Vanessa Knights
“This autobiographical chronicle is a fundamental work for those wishing to understand more about the island’s social and cultural make-up and the key role of popular musicians . . . . For English-speaking readers who are unfamiliar with Puerto Rican music, it is to be hoped that after reading this engaging chronicle, you might be inspired to seek out recordings by some of the artists featured and discover the lively rhythms of bomba and plena which were influential in the creation of the salsa sound.”

The Americas by Mark A. Hernandez
“Flores has provided a nuanced translation that is attentive to the inherent difficulties of making intelligible Afro-Puerto Rican working-class colloquial expressions for a non-Spanish-speaking audience. . . . I highly recommend this edition for historians who wish to explore how literary texts employ icons from popular culture to address reimaginings of the Puerto Rican nation in the late twentieth century. It will also be an invaluable teaching tool for Black studies scholars who do not speak and read Spanish but wish to incorporate Afro-Caribbean topics into their classroom.”

Amazon.com by A Customer
A wonderful memory of a dear friend and one of the kindest human beings I’ve had the pleasure to know. I left Puerto Rico in 1980 and still, in my heart, think of it as home.

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