One of the best articles ever written about rumba, Leonardo Acosta's "La rumba, el guaguancó y Tío Tom" was first published in his book of essays "Del tambor al sintetizador" (1983). It was later translated to English and published in Peter Manuel's "Essays in Cuban Music: North American and Cuban Perspectives" (1991).
Unfortunately both those books are out of print and hard to find. I will reproduce here excerpts from the English translation.
So what did this "rey del guaguancó" sound like? As far as I can tell there is only a single recording of Tío Tom floating around out there, "Camina a Trabajar" with Los Papines. (You will find it at the end of the article.) If anyone knows of any others, please let me know.
(Tío Tom died on February 10, 1991.)
(The photo is from María del Carmen Mestas book "Pasión de Rumbero," also essential for any rumba library, but more on that later.)
The Rumba, the Guaguancó, and Tío Tom
by Leonardo Acosta
What is the boundary between legend and reality, and where does it lie? Sometimes a genuine person or event becomes a legend, obscuring the reality and at other times someone becomes legendary to the detriment of the person himself, who is relegated to obscurity. Such cases are common in the realm of popular music, where we find such men and women of flesh and bones, who are forgotten or ignored as people, but whose legends continue to enjoy renown. And such is the case of “Tío Tom” [“Uncle Tom"], of whose hundreds of songs, several are well known to us, yet who remained to us like an entelechy, a legend. . . Until finally he was paid homage in a fete in the Casa de la Cultura of the Plaza de la Revolución district, which was attended by dozens of distinguished rumberos of the country — and there he was, in person, singing and dancing, as real as any of us.
Who is Tío Tom?
We may start by clarifying that our Uncle Tom has nothing to do with the famous character of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who is certainly neither historical nor legendary, but a fictitious person, subsequently attaining the status of an archetype of the "good and submissive" negro of the southern United States, according to the standards of a sector of the North American bourgeoisie. This other Tom, by contrast, is Cuban and rebellious, although, like his namesake, is also black and aged. His real name is Gonzalo Asencio, and he is the best and most prolific author that our country has produced in the field of the type of rumba called guaguancó.
Although he cultivated other genres, especially within what our musicologists call the "rumba complex" (yambú, tahona, columbia, guaguancó, papalote, jiribilla), the special contribution of Tío affirms, without any exaggeration, that if Pérez Prado can be called the "King of the Mambo," then Gonzalo Asencio, whose crown no one has been able to usurp, should be called the "King of the Guaguancó."
Who among us has neither danced, sung, nor at least listened to some melody of Tío Tom's without knowing it? For outside of his circle of friends and musicians — especially rumberos — there are very few who have seen him or known him personally, but almost everyone has heard and danced to numbers like "Consuelate como yo," with its much-loved refrain that says: "Por eso ahora ya yo no vuelvo a querer" ["That's why I'll never fall in love again"]. The same has happened with several other pieces of his, like "Los cubanos son rareza," "Bombón,""Color de alelí," "Se ha vuelto mi corazón un violin"["My heart has turned into a violin"],"Aí señor marques,""Changó va vení,""La Reforma va,""Ya me estoy poniendo viejo," and "Siento que me regaña el corazon," with its famous refrain "Si tu me lo das, por que me lo quitas?" ["If you give it to me, then why do you take it away?"]
The Adventures and Misadventures of Tío Tom
Gonzalo Asencio Hernández, or Tío Tom, was born on April 5, 1919. An old acquaintance of his tells us, "He was born in El Modelo house, a typical old house, with its fights, its music. and its poetry." It was located at San Rafael y Hospital, in the Cayo Hueso barrio. Tío's father, Nicanor, loaded sacks for a pittance in the dock La Machina. His mother, Carmelina, was a beautiful negro pastry cook, who always had work in the kitchens of the rich. She brought something from there to her children. Gonzalo, Hilda, and, the youngest, Santa. In the 1920s they moved to an apartment in San Nicolas street between Marques de la Torre and Calzada del Diez de Octubre. At that time Gonzalo was attending Public School #65, where he studied up to the third grade and later on took night classes. Life was hard, as he worked as a boule cleaner, magazine vendor, a mason's peon, and a day-laborer.
In the thirties the family moved again to Estevez y Nueva del Pilar, where his father died in 1946. They then moved to Consejero Arango y Zequeira, in Carraguao, El Cerro, and thence to Pila street, in Atarés, and later, in the fifties, to Güines, on Reina street, and finally to their present place in Camarera street in Guanabacoa (outside Havana]. Such, in a few words, have been the taxing peregrinations of Tío Tom and his family. Gonzalo composed his first rumba at the age of fifteen. He already knew some rumbas from the colonial period, like "Tú ves yo no lloro,""Coco mangurria", and the one which went "En la puerta del presidio yo vi cantar un gorrión"["At the prison gate I saw a sparrow singing"]. He knew the leading rumberos of his time: Roncona, Mario Alan, Alberto Noa, Carburo, El Güinero, El Checa, and others. And making the rumba his medium, he composed another that became genuinely popular: "Mal de yerba," which narrated a love story using the titles of contemporary popular films:
El cartero llama dos veces,
Mal de yerba, El suplico de una madre,
Tener o no tener, El gran bar,
La luz que agoniza, ya lo ves. . .
Murieron con las botas puestas.
En todas estos parrafitos que componen mi rumbón
hay mas de un peliculón
que yo llevo en la memoria
para grabarlo en la historia
del libro de mis amores.
The Postman Calls Twice, Herb Sickness,
The Pain of a Mother, To Have and to Have Not,
The Grand Bar, The Dying Light, Now You See,
They Died with their Boots on. . .
In all these little paragraphs
which make up my rumba,
there is more than one film which I carry in my memory
to record it in the storybook of my loves. . .
In those days, when wages were low and work hard to get, Tío lived from rumba to rumba, where aside from partying he could earn some money. His voice, his dancing, his drumming, and his creative talent enlivened the houses called El Palomar (in la Víbora), La Siguanca (El Cerro), El Africa (Cayo Hueso), and others in Belén, Atarés, Jesus María, Los Sitios, Pueblo Nuevo, and other rumbero barrios of Havana. Undoubtedly many of these fiestas ended in fistfights, from which Tío did not always emerge unscathed. Nevertheless, the worst problem was that which he faced for political reasons, during the misrule of Carlos Prío Socarrás.
The Rumberos are Many
As can be guessed, Tío Tom didn't spring from barren earth, but from the same fertile soil that produced a legion of distinguished rumberos. Although impossible to honor them all in a brief space, we should mention a few of the most distinguished, who would include Calixto Callava, Peñita, Ignacio Quimbundo, Silvestre Méndez, Juancito Núñez, Chano Pozo, Wilfredo Sotolongo, Remberto Bequer, Jorgito Tíant, Evaristo Aparicio ("El Pícaro"), Mario Dreke ("Chavalonga"), Macho el Guanqui, Macho el Guapo, Alambre, Francisco Borroto, Santos Ramirez and others from different provinces, like Juan Bosco, Saldiguera, and Virulilla from Matanzas. Among the distinguished quinto players have been Angel Contreras ("Caballerón"), his brother Orlando, Julio Basave ("El Barondó"), Pedro Izquierdo ("Pella"), Félix Xiqués, Eloy Martí, Juan Romay, los Embales, los Papines. Candito, El Patato, Armando Peraza (Mano de Plomo), Aristides Soto ("Tata Güines"), and many more.
We might also mention here a few "classic” pieces from this inexhaustible genre, such as “Xiomara por que," of Evaristo Aparicio. “El telefonito," of Silvestre Mendez, "No te detengas, voy pa Pueblo Nuevo" of Mario Dreke, "Tiene mi barrio de Atarés" of Angel Contreras, "Nicasia la Escolera” of Alambre, “Diran de mi todo lo que quieran" of Juancito Núñez, "Crucé de las Antillas el mar," of Guillermo Valdés Quintana, "Baila Catalina con un solo pie" by Víctor Marín, and "La rumba tiene valor" by Pablo Cairo. And we should remember that many composers renowned for other genres also contributed familiar rumbas, like Julio Cueva ("Alamán, alamán con chevere"), Jose Antonio Méndez ("La ultima la traigo yo"), or Bienvenido Julian Gutierrez (“Cuatro platos por un coco"). The latter prolific and versatile composer, the co-author of "Convergencia” may well have been inspired by Tío Tom's mother, who, according to him, lived "easy" through his composition "Carmelina." One wonders if his song was the origin of the familiar phrase "to live like Carmelina," or if he took it from another source. The field is open for research.
In this account we have not yet mentioned composers like Ernesto Lecuona, Eliseo Grenet, and Armando Orefiche, who popularized the rumba internationally, although in a more "sophisticated" salon style. Similar contributions were made, in their own way, by singers like Desi Arnaz and, above all, Miguelito Valdes, who popularized Chano Pozo's classic rumba [about the death of the famous rumbero Malanga] "Malanga murió": "Siento una voz que me dice, Oguaniyé-ó" (or sometimes "Aleriye-ó"). This latter phrase, which we find in several variants, brings us again to the question of African words which are found in rumbas from the nineteenth century to the present (including in Perez Prado's mambos). Some refrains of the last century, like "Senseribó, senseribó, epe manco-ó" and the aforementioned "Oñaña-ó" have reached the present in many variants. To mention just one example, we recall the tense and troubled Daniel Santos shouting "Anacobero, mi rumba, o-yamba-ó. . .”
From Lecuona to Tío Tom
The influence of the rumba in our music is scarcely limited to the above names. Mentioning Ernesto Lecuona, it is interesting to note that a composer who achieved great renown in the forties and fifties, Juan Arrondo, used to say, “My music goes from Lecuona to Tío Tom." And, indeed, Tío's impact on our music has been considerable, although seldom acknowledged so explicitly as did Arrondo. The point is that the rumba has exercised great influence on other Cuban music genres and on their various interpreters. For just as the son, as we have noted elsewhere, has permeated and revitalized, at different times, the most varied styles of our music (from the danzón to nueva trova), so must we realize that the rumba gave new life to the son when the latter reached Havana and Matanzas. It is not coincidental that the leading sonero of Havana, Ignacio Pineiro (who was born in Jesus María and raised in Pueblo Nuevo), was an inspired rumbero, who in 1906 formed part of the clave and guaguancó group "Timbre de Oro," and later directed the guaguancó group "Los Roncos."
Benny Moré himself, although generally associated with the son, trova, bolero, and mambo, was an ardent rumbero, as is reflected in his style, his improvisations, his refrains, and his own big-band guajeos (instrumental ostinati]. He himself proudly proclaimed to be a rumbero and guaguancosero in "Elige tú, que canto yo"["You choose it, and I'll sing it"], whose refrain has an ineffable guagllancó flavor, and is essentially identical to that of Chano Pozo's "Cubano be, Cubano bop” performed with Dizzy Gillespie's jazz band. In rumba parties I've also heard very similar refrains, like "Con un solo pie, con un solo pie." The rumba remains present in the most dissimilar groups, from Rumbavana to Irakere, and in authors of boleros and canciones like Guillermo Díaz. Similarly, one of the most popular nueva trova songs, Pablo Milanes's "Los caminos," is a typical guaguancó, which starts with a short, traditional nana.
Tío and the Rumba: Prejudices and Plagiarisms
If I have insisted on the importance of the rumba in our culture, it is because the rumba has been so disparaged, and at the same time so adulterated in deformed versions, especially, though not only, in commercial Yankee music. Denunciations of the rumba date from the nineteenth century, when diverse chroniclers — noted by Fernando Ortiz — castigated it as immoral, licentious, savage, and primitive, etc., leading to the classic definition of the rumba as "a popular Cuban dance cultivated in a certain licentious ambience by happy people." Even during the neo-colonial republic period, despite the great work undertaken by Fernando Ortiz, Amadeo Roldán, Alejo Carpentier, Alejandro García Caturla, Nicolás Guillén and others who militated against elitist and racist traditional prejudices, the rumba continued being the object of derision and persecution by the upright and proper bourgeoisie. Something similar had happened with the danzón and son, but undoubtedly it was the rumba which had to wait the longest for its total vindication.
As for plagiarism, the rumba proved to be quite favorable as a victim, since the rumberos traditionally had little to do with the mass media and commercial mechanisms in general; their compositions spread spontaneously from house to house, street to street, and barrio to barrio, sometimes falling into the hands of "professional" musicians who registered the "anonymous" compositions as their own. Such practices Were exacerbated by the musicologists who promoted the myth of "anonymous folkore." In innumerable cases, it was eventually discovered that some or other "anonymous" composition had an author, with a name, address, and identity card.
Many rumberos were deprived of the fruits of their work by such practices, as was Peñita, the author of “Sepárate mujer, suelta ese reja”[“Out of the way, woman, let go of those bars”].
But the most deprived, plagiarized, and imitated author was Tío Tom. For example, there is an old rumba of his which describes a cockfight in the old stockade at the corner of Tejas, with the refrain “Veinte le voy a mi gallo pinto” [“I’ll put twenty on my spotted cock”]. While Tío's authorship remained largely unknown, the piece became famous, with a few changes, and with "gallo" replaced by "pelón"["bald"]. Another celebrated guaguancó of his, which has also traveled "anonymously" abroad, is called "Siento que me regaña el corazon"["I feel my heart scolding me"], whose refrain is well known: "Si tu me lo das, por qué me lo quitas..."
More recently, a Venezuelan group performed that song. How did it reach there? Not even the musicians themselves knew of the author. Even his masterpiece "Consuélate como yo" had various supposed authors or claimants until the Revolution, which cleared everything up and did justice to Gonzalo Asencio, who today is the registered author of his songs and goes on giving the people more songs, one after another.
Gonzalo Asencio's production is so copious — reaching the hundreds — that not even he remembers it all, in its variety of themes and ambiences. For example, Tío has ventured into the forgotten genre of the pregón [based on the street-vendor's call]: "Estiro bastidores, cunitas de niño y camas de mayores" ("I stretch bed-springs, of cradles and adult sizes"). He also turned to traditional themes dealing with neo-African beliefs, like "Changó va veni”
Ya empezó el tambó, oye la tambo tá soná
y todos los santeritos cantan así:
Changó va veni (3x) con el machete en la mano
Tierra tiembla y sara banda manomo, mundo acaba
The drumming has already started, listen to it,
and all the little devotees are singing:
Changó is coming, with a machete in his hand,
The earth trembles and, sarabanda manomo, the world ends.
Among Tío's themes are comic situations, domestic tragedies, social problems and more. One feature that is particularly notable in his compositions is his treatment of barrio machismo and bravado, a favorite subject of our authors, especially in the context of women and infidelity in romance: Thus, in "Ya ves que me la jugué"["See, I took a chance"] and "De qué me sirve una mujer?"["What good would a woman be to me?"], Tío Tom sagely combines love, nostalgia, violence, irony, tenderness, Cubanness, and so on. Never does he lapse into the tastelessness characteristic of so many boleros, tangos, rancheras, canciones, and even rumbas throughout Latin America. For example, Tio knows how to present the infidelity of a woman in a remarkably graceful and picaresque manner, as in his guaguanco "Tun tun, quién es." Thus there are several compositions of his which our singers, after fifteen and more years, have never tired of singing, such as: "Tú era una coqueta, que a nadie respeta. . ."[You were a flirt whom nobody respects. . ."].
But he also has pieces like "Con ese caminaíto que tienes tú, ""Caballeros que mujer, ""Corazon que naciste conmigo,""Cuando yo la vi por primera vez,""Escondido en las aguas,” “Pense darte mi nombre,” “Yo no tuve la culpa," and many more, in which the woman appears like a true companion rather than an untrustworthy seductress. And, of course, as mentioned above, revolutionary and anti-imperialist themes have always occupied an important place in his works, as in: "Este es mi país"["This is my country"],"Tierra brava,""La Reforma va"["The reform proceeds"], "Camilo Cienfuegos,” “Ché Guevara,” “Viva Fidel,""Ahora tenemos armas y aviones" ["Now we have arms and planes"], "Señor Marqués, váyase pa España" ["Señor Marqués, go to Spain"]. "Que canten los bandoneones, que ha nacido el Ché Guevara” ["Let the accordions sing, Ché has been born"), "Vamos pa el cañaveral,” “Y siempre es 26,” and "Quita la mano, americano" ["Get your hands off us, Americans"].
The above was excerpted from "The rumba, the guaguancó and Tío Tom" by Leonardo Acosta, in "Essays in Cuban Music: North American and Cuban Perspectives," Peter Manuel, Ed.
Listen to Tío Tom with Los Papines performing "Camina a Trabajar." If anyone knows of any more recordings of Tío Tom, please let me know. Also, I am interested in hearing recordings of any of the lesser-known songs mentioned in the article.