Born on September 16th 1946, Rogelio Ernesto Gatel Cotó “El Gato Maravilloso” turned 60 a few months ago. (His cumpleaños de santo is Dec 20.) You may not know his face, but his voice has enlivened many of the best afrocuban recordings of the past 20 years, having worked with Clave y Guaguancó, and Tata Güines, among others, and most recently with Los Rumberos de Cuba. Thanks to Patricio for this article.
"El Gato" was born in the Havana barrio of Santos Suárez, where he lives today. His family was of modest means and soon moved to Regla, on the other side of the Havana bay, which along with neighboring Guanabacoa is considered to be one of the most "African" barrios of Havana. (The first plante de Abakuá was founded in Regla about 1830.)
While Ernesto suffered his share of racial prejuidice as he grew up (his was the only white family in the solar where they lived), he began studying percussion as a hobby, eventually joining the comparsa "Los Guaracheros de Regla."
He then studied traditional percussion, learning all Habanero folkloric styles (rumba, abakuá, arará, etc.) except batá drums, for he always considered batá drumming a huge task (which it really is!). He sometimes plays okónkolo when such a player is needed. In 1988, at the age of 42, he finally became a professional drummer.
Among his teachers were such rumbero luminaries as Maximino Duquesne Martínez “El Moro Quinto”, Luis Chacón “Aspirina” Mendivel and Francisco “Pancho Quinto” Mora (1933-2005).
(Photo Credit: Pascal Gouy "El Chévere." Standing, from left to right: Yosvani Diaz, Ernesto, Lázaro Rizo, Aidita. Drummers left to right: Marquito, Mario "Aspirina", Maximino Duquesne)
Conjunto Clave y Guaguancó
In 1990 El Gato joined Cuba’s oldest rumba group, Conjunto de Clave y Guaguancó, directed by Amado Dedeu, staying with them for 3 years. Though Ernesto was hired as a percussionist, Amado once found the group lacking a male singer and asked him to fill in and sing a few rumbas. Thus "The Cat" began a new life as a singer.
At that time the members of Clave y Guaguancó were:
Amelia Pedroso (Lázaro Pedroso’s niece and famous as a
yoruba female singer, who passed away in May 2000)
“Lalí” González Brito (who looked the same as Ernesto at this time - both were white and had a beard),
Pedro Lugo Martínez “El Nené”,
José (del) Pilar Suárez,
and Alejandro Publes (who passed away in 1991)
It was this lineup that in November 1990 recorded “Cantaremos y Bailaremos” or “Songs & Dances” (Xenophile GLCD 4023). This was the first “new style rumba” record ever released, after the “guarapachangueo” revolution in the 1980’s, begun by “Los Chinitos” from San Miguel del Padrón.
[Los Chinitos are said to have invented the guarapachangueo style of drumming, based on only two drummers, and new-shaped cajones while playing for “Cajones al Muerto” (Spiritism) ceremonies.]
Well distributed, the “Songs & Dances” album has been world-famous since then. The Cuban producer of the record, Rodolfó Chacón Tartabull, later became administrative director of Rumberos de Cuba.
In 1992 Ernesto entered Tatá Güines’ group, and began world tours, playing in Mexico, Japan, Venezuela and Dominican Republic. Within Tatá’s group were Maximino Duquesne and Marcos Herminio Diaz Scull “Marquito”. Both will stay with Ernesto after the creation of Rumberos de Cuba, until Marquito’s death in 2005. Within Tatá’s group, they together recorded in 1995 “Aniversario” (Egrem 0156), featuring Pedro Lugo Martínez “El Nené”, Lázaro Rizo Cuevas (a singer who plays “palito” in the best 1990’s and 2000’s recordings), and Gregorio “El Goyo” Hernández, at his best. The producer of that record once again was Rodolfo Chacón.
In 1993 Ernesto sang on “Rapsodia Rumbera” (Egrem 0121), maybe the greatest Habanero rumba record ever. Marquito and Maximino play the tres-dos and the tumbadora, and the best quinteros in Havana play on top: Mario Jauregui “Aspirina” (4 tracks), Tatá Güines (3 tracks), Pancho Quinto (1 track), Amado Dedeu (1 track) and… Pedro Lugo “El Nené”! (1 track).
The vocal roster on Rapsodia Rumbera forms an “All-stars” in itself:
Miguel Ángel “Aspirina” Mesa Cruz (record holder of the longest columbia - 45 mns),
Pedro Lugo “El Nené”,
Juan de Dios Rámos “El Colo”,
Ricardo Gómez “Santa Cruz”,
Mario Dreke “Chavalonga”,
and Amado Dedeu, with Gregorio Hernández “El Goyo” as
director of coro arrangements.
(Ernesto only sings one song on this disc, "El Yerbero," with El Nené.)
With this group they toured in France, thanks to a project led by French musicians Olivier Congar and Karim Ammour.
In 1997, Ernesto became part of the “Afrekete - Iyabakuá” project (Pan Records CD2078) whose musical director was Javier Cámpos Martínez “Javierito”, together with Pancho Quinto, José Pilar, Maximino Duquesne, the young Eric Michael Herrera Duarte “Lucumí”, Lázaro Rizo and Marta Gallarraga (daughter of Lázaro Gallarraga).
In 1998 El Gato enters El Goyo’s group, “Obá Ilú”, to record the LP
“Santería: Songs for the Orishas” (Soul Jazz Records CD38), where again he was the only white-coloured musician, with “Pedrito” Martínez Cámpos, Marta Galarraga, Maximino Duquesne, Lázaro Rizo, Ricardo Gómez “Santa Cruz”, Mario “Aspirina” Jauregui, and one of Goyo’s sons Lázaro Hernández Junco. At this time Ernesto also entered the Conjunto Folkórico Nacional as a lead singer.
That same year he entered canadian saxophone and flute player Jane Bunnett’s project “Spirits of Havana”, recording with her three albums and the DVD. The first cd is “Chamalongo”, the second one is “Ritmo más Soul” (that I consider one of the best latin jazz records ever), and the third one is “Cuban Odyssey” (also released as a DVD) (2002). “Cuban Odyssey” was recorded all over Cuba, with many musicians of each town Jane Bunnett visited, such as Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, Grupo Vocal Desandann in Camagüey, Los Naranjos in Cienfuegos, etc…
The "Cuban Odyssey" DVD was partly filmed in Ernesto’s house in Santos Suárez, “frente al cine Mara." Every rumbero in Havana knows that this living-room has a tremendous sound - this is the place where Rumberos de Cuba have rehearsals.
Los Eguns Hablan
Ernesto recorded on an 8th album in 2002, with a project led by Orlando “Puntilla” Ríos - whom Ernesto considers his spiritual father - named “Cuando los Espíritus Bailan Mambo”. This is a double CD featuring four groups: “Los Eguns Hablan”, “Conjunto de Clave y Guaguancó”, “Grupo Yoruba Andabo” and a charanga playing violín a los Orichas, "Orquesta Estrellas Cubanas”.
Rumberos de Cuba
The group named “Los Eguns Hablan” represented the beginning of what will be afterwards named “Rumberos de Cuba.” In Puntilla’s record, the group, under Puntilla’s direction, was composed by: Ernesto Gatel, Lázaro Rizo, Guillermo Escolástico “El Negro” Triana, Santiago Garzón Rill “Chaguito”, Luis Chacón “Aspirina”, “Aidita” Salina Sánchez - a female dancer integrating the “coro”, “Lucumí”, Reynaldo Delgado Salerno “Flecha” (a famous akpwón and batalero who played the iyá drum on all Lázaro Ros’ “Oricha Ayé” CDs, and now lives in Geneva, Switzerland), and men who will become the percussion section of Rumberos de Cuba: Marquito Diaz (tumbador), Maximino Duquesne (tres-dos), Mario “Aspirina” Jauregui (quinto), and Yosvani Diaz (Marquito’s son), who can play either tumbador or tres-dos.
The admistrative director of Rumberos de Cuba is once again Rodolfo Chacón. The musical director is Ernesto Gatel. In the first version of the group, Marquito, Mario, Yosvani and Marquito played percussion. The singers were Luis Chacón, Miguel Ángel Mesa, Pedro Francisco Almeida Berriel “Tatá” (who had been in Clave y Guaguancó before that).
The dancers were Aidita and Dionisio Paul Palma. At this time they recorded their first album: “¿Dónde Andabas Tú, Acerekó?” (Egrem 0600) and a beautiful DVD, “Rumbón Tropical”, inviting among others Ricardo Gómez “Santa Cruz”.
Within this first version of the group they also recorded one three-tracks unreleased cd (“Yo Viné pa’ Ver”, “Dónde Andabas Anoche” and “Guantanamera”) with Tatá Güines and José Luis Quintana “Changuito”, with famous trumpet player Julio Padrón, the tremendous tresero “El Guajiro” and a bass player, too.
This group toured in France during summer and autumn 2002 (I was lucky to see them at “Toros y Salsa” Festival in Dax). The second version of the group added Santiago Garzón Rill “Chaguito” who also made a DVD named “Rumbambeo” with El Negro Triana and Juan de
After that Rumberos de Cuba worked on another project directed by Puntilla, as an “Homenaje a Gonzálo Asencio Tío Tom”. They recorded one still-unreleased CD with rumbas Tío Tom wrote, such as “La china linda,” “¿Dónde están los cubanos?,” and “Como tu sabes." Ernesto composed a beautiful columbia named “El Tío Tom”. The singers are Ernesto, Miguel Ángel Mesa and Puntilla, but some other famous singers were invited too: El Goyo, Lázaro Rizo, and (from Grupo Yoruba Andabó) Juan Cámpos Cárdenas “Chán”, Geovani del Pino Rodríguez and Miguel Chapottín Beltrán.
In the last months of year 2004 Marquito Diaz died tragically, after a heart attack and surgery in Havana. Since 1992 he had formed with Maximino Duquesne one of the best “rítmica”, recording many famous albums, among them Rapsodia Rumbera.
After that, Rumberos de Cuba had to change for a 4th version of the group, with the famous “Cusito” (Jesús Lorenzo Peñalver), one of the best young akpwones in Havana, and tremendous drummer. Cusito had been a member of Juan de Dios’ Raices Profundas and Chavalonga’s “Ven Tú,” (now called “Wemilere,” with a CD, "Santería" on Harmonia Mundi). The young Yosvani Diaz Herrera (Marquito’s son) is now more and more important in the group. I have see him playing better and better each year between 2001 and 2004. Their future and fourth CD project is called “Habana de mi Corazón."