"El Llanero," a beloved and revered figure in New York's Central Park rumba scene, passed away on Friday January 29th, around 10pm.
Funeral Services will be held Monday, February 1st from 3 to 10pm at Funeraria San Francisco, at 1st Ave & 115th Street in El Barrio.
Berta Jottar writes:
“El Llanero” was born in Havana, Cuba on January 1st 1930, and grew up in Cocosolo, Marianao.
He was raised in a traditional rumba family in Los Pocitos, Marianao; his sister had a virtuoso rumba voice, his cousin Patato Valdés was an internationally known rumbero already living in NYC since the 1940s; and his cousins Los Chinitos from the Korea neighborhood in San Miguel del Padrón remember him as the one who coined the name "guarapanchanguero" for the rumba style they invented which eventually became the distinctive sound of contemporary rumba in Havana.
El Llanero was a rumbero completo — the highest rank of rumbero, one who knows every facet of rumba singing, dance and percussion. He traveled to Matanzas to study rumba with the elders, and was particularly known for the cadence of his guaguancó, his privileged melodic voice, and his improvisational skills.
Upon his arrival to New York City with the 1980 Mariel Boatlift, a community of young, mostly Newyorican musicians quickly embraced him. Felix Sanabria, Abe Rodriguez, Eliot "Yeyito" Flores, and the Jewish-American folklorist Paula Ballan would collaborate with him for the rest of his life.
Later the same year after arriving in New York, El Llanero co-founded the rumba ensemble Chevere Makun Chevere with Juan "Bambu," and a pair of brothers with eminent rumbero pedigrees: recent marielito arrival Enrique “Kike” Dreke, and Juan "Curva" Dreke, who had been living in New York for some time already and had already worked on the legendary rumba LP "Patato y Totico" (1968). (Both were brothers of the famous rumbero Mario "Chavalonga" Dreke.)
(Left to right: Juan Vega "Bambu", Yeyito Flores, Felix D. Sanabria,
Manuel Martinez, Yah Yah Maldonado, Abraham Rodriguez)
Photo courtesy Felix Sanabria
El Llanero also performed several times as a guest artist with the prestigious folklore ensemble of Orlando "Puntilla" Rios y su Nueva Generación.
However, El Llanero was a major player in Los Afortunados, a folkloric group specializing in Afro-Cuban and Afro-Puertorican traditions founded in 1985 by his dear friend Paula Ballan, along with Felix Sanabria and Abraham Rodriguez.
Together they performed in the Natural History Museum, Philadelphia Folk Festival, at Nassau Community College with the sponsorship of the NEA, NYFA, the Arts Connection, Community Works, and the Brooklyn Arts Council.
Los Afortunados performed often at important grass roots cultural venues such as Galeria Blanco y Negro in the Bronx, founded by Renny Molenaar and famous for its effervescent Cuban cultural nights.
Los Afortunados at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, August 1986
(Manuel 5th from left)
Photo courtesy Felix Sanabria
Los Afortunados recorded two collectable cassettes, “Los Afortunados" (January 1985) and a second edition (September 1989). Manuel toured with them natioanlly until 1989, when his health worsened.
Although El Llanero was illiterate, he composed songs based on his everyday experiences. For Alfredo Díaz “Pescao,” he was a jilguero (songbird) who combined different phrases to compose a theme, and his voice had the classic tonality of Afrocuban folklore. El Llanero would ask Abe Rodriguez and Felix Sanabria—both of whom were his rumba disciples—to write down his songs.
Abe Rodriguez, (El Llanero’s singing partner par excellence) remembers in particular El Llanero’s gift of improvising a response to any given situation on the spot. For example, "caminando por la calle yo la vi" was a response to "Ay, nena."
Abe also admired El Llanero’s way of combining stories to create a song. “He would sing santo and would merge one canto to another, and it would be always in tune. El tenia íbiono mendo, (he had feeling).”
El Llanero would link each song; for instance, the beginning of one song with the end of the last song, and to do that, Abe asserts, one must have an innate sense of tonality and range. Abe’s ability to sing songs “back to back” is rooted in El Llanero’s practice.
Another secret that El Llanero passed along to Abe was that the singer must be able to sing with the guagua, because the clave is in the guagua. If you cannot do it that means that you don’t have clave. Abe said, “El Llanero was like Tío Tom (Gonzalo Ascencio), él cogia cosas y creaba, así, simple y en tiempo de rumba.” ("He was like Tío Tom, he took things and created, simple and with rumba feeling.")
Perhaps one of El Llanero’s biggest contributions to the New York City rumba community was his teaching to several generations of musicians who frequented the internationally acclaimed rumba scene of Central Park. Every summer since 1981, El Llanero would arrive and organize the rumba musically; indeed, he would lock the rumba circle.
As soon as he approached the rumba circle, people quickly congregated, knowing that ya la rumba se formó! —that now the rumba was really going to start!
The amplitude of his tranquil voice would extend to the upper side of the rumba area, allowing everybody to hear him. Since the late 1960s, Central Park has been a laboratory and workshop for rumba practitioners, and it was there where El Llanero, with the joy of his voice made our lives possible in this harsh city.
El Llanero, exhuberant in Central Park
Photo courtesy Berta Jottar
May Manuel Martínez Olivera, El Llanero, rest in peace. His voice and musical candor will always resonate in our hearts.
Manuel Martinez, el Llanero Solitatio (the Lone Ranger) died last night. He was 80 years old. He came to New York via an internment camp in Wisconsin, where he had had been sent after getting off the boat that brought him from Havana’s Mariel harbor.
He was, as his Lone Ranger title would suggest, one of a kind. He left home at age 9 to pursue the rumba and he traveled throughout Cuba surviving as a street musician by his talents, charm and guile.
He studied with elder musicians, both urban and rural; and became a master of the rumba and its traditions. He was not easily manageable in the scope and demands of Fidel’s Revolution. He could sign his name and read and write numbers, but was otherwise non-literate.
His life style and personality made him a nuisance to the new order. When the boat lift began, he, like many others, was rounded up and dropped off at the harbor. He was recognized by other musicians at the internment camp and received a sponsorship from some Cuban musicians who had already made their way to New York.
He joined them here, and became the King of the Central Park Rumba: an anarchistic gathering on warm, sunny Sundays at the southwest corner of the rowboat lake. Manuel’s voice did not need amplification. His songs and choruses transformed dozens of participants into a wall of syncopated, harmonized music.
His energy and charisma was astonishing and his songs were infectious, humorous, political, heartbreaking and unforgettable. For more than 20 years he brought joy and music to musicians hungry for the authenticity of the roots he so generously shared.
We were fortunate to have shared his music and unique personality and will sing his songs and tell stories of the times we shared. Many American folk musicians, in deference to Woody Guthrie’s influence, are referred to as Woody’s Children.
Those of us who learned the rumba from Manuel, gladly embrace the title el Llanero’s Children.