Angel 'Cachete' Maldonado
Photo from afroricanensemble.net
"Hijo del Tambo" (Son of the Drum)
by James Nadal
A proper measure of a devout musician might be his influence and contribution to the growth and development of his national culture and musical heritage. If the influence of this musician went far beyond his native shores and had an international effect, and his contributions spawned a renaissance which revitalized an entire movement, this is the substance of legend. Such is the case of Puerto Rican master percussionist Angel 'Cachete' Maldonado.
Barrio Obrero in Santurce, Puerto Rico is a working class neighborhood in the San Juan metro area, teeming with local pride and musical legacy. Ruben Angel Maldonado was born October 16, 1951, and was raised on a street named Calle Cortijo (so named after famous bandleader Rafael Cortijo) in this locale. His father also named Ruben, was a bass player in various bands around the city.
The young Maldonado started out with bass and piano lessons, but naturally gravitated to the percussion instruments. He started to take the native Puerto Rican rhythms seriously and sought out Julio Caesar 'Maco" Rivera, an advanced drummer who was well versed in the more serious drumming of the Afro-Cuban style. There were the traditional congas, bongos, timbales, and other hand drums, but he was also introduced to the batà drums and their Yoruban sacred ceremonial rituals of Orisha. At the time the batà drum was rarely played in Puerto Rico, this being a strong Cuban influence that would permeate later thanks to Maldonado's introduction of these drums to a greater audience.
Maldonado soon was good enough to join up with Johnny El Bravo, a dynamic personality who fronted one of the hottest dance bands on the island. By 1970, salsa was very popular, and good bands were in high demand. This proved to be a breakthrough experience, and introduced Cachete to other musicians as Julito Collazo, and Carlos "Patato" Valdes the Cuban drum masters who brought awareness of the batà drums to New York, where Maldonado relocated in the early '70's to join the salsa explosion there.
While in New York he quickly joined up as bongo/conga player for salsa band La Conspiracion, and then played with salsa pianist Larry Harlow, appearing on the record Hommy. He went on international tours with Harlow, and then by 1975 had played with other salsa bands Eddie Palmieri, Louie Ramirez, and Conjunto Libre. Cachete joined the hot salsa band Tipica 73, and was on their 1975 release "La Candela," which is considered to be their best effort. He went on to play in noted Latin Jazz bands like the Machito Orchestra and did some gigs with Dizzy Gillespie. It is around this time that he first traveled to Cuba with Tipica '73 as part of a cultural exchange program, and became more immersed as a dedicated student of Afro-Cuban drumming.
Maldonado was asked to join Gato Barbieri's band, playing with Gato for four years, and was the percussionist on the Caliente album in 1976. This opened many doors for him in the jazz community where he performed with a variety of jazz artists, but his heart was in the Afro-Latin rhythms of Cuba, and his native Puerto Rico.
From 1978 to 1980, while still in New York, Cachete was involved in the Jazz Mobile Project which presented small ensembles at jails, hospitals, and other inner city venues in an attempt to expose and present live music to disadvantaged people. He was also a member of the Conjunto Experimental Nuyorquino, a group of musicians who were attempting to take Latin jazz and Afro-Cuban rhythms in a new direction.
It was inevitable that Maldonado decided to put his own band together, and it was in 1980 that he connected with pianist Eric Figueroa, and bassist Eddie 'GuaGua' Rivera. The seeds of what would become Batacumbele were sown. Batacumbele, in the Yoruban language, means "to kneel before the drum." This would be the beginning of the Angel 'Cachete' Maldonado legend.
Through the following decades, Batacumbele would become a national sensation in Puerto Rico that would launch the career of not only Maldonado as a rumbero bandleader, but a young percussionist named Giovanni Hidalgo, who would go on to international recognition. Other noted members of the band aside from Maldonado, Figueroa, and Rivera, were Anthony Carrillo (percussion), Nestor Torres (flute), Jerry Medina (vocals), Ignacio Berroa (drums), Richie Flores ( percussion), Papo Vazquez (trombone), Juancito Torres (trumpet) and Endel Dueño (timbales). There would be other members as the band progressed through the decade of the '80's.
The band introduced the Cuban songo beat (popularized by Cuban group Los Van Van) and their own take on batàrumba. By fusing these with Puerto Rican bomba and plena, and with their unique sense of syncopation and blending of melody, vocals and percussion, they immediately struck a nerve with the audience. The timing was perfect.
Batacumbele released few records, but this only fueled their cult status at home and abroad. They came out in 1981 with the studio record Con Un Poco De Songo. Their 1987 release, Afro Caribbean Jazz, was recorded live, with four selections on the record, yet showing what they do best in a live setting. The following year they released yet another live album, Batacumbele Live at The University of Puerto Rico. They went back into the studio for their last effort En Aquellos Tiempos, in 1991. The band put a compilation disc out culled from their live sets in 1999 as "Hijos Del Tambó." But Maldonado was not through, not by a long shot.
From 1997 through 1999, Cachete took a dramatic change in his artistic endeavors when he donned cowboy hat and boots and became the percussionist for the Mexican rock group Los Jaguares. This band was very popular in Mexico at the time, and Cachete states that the experience was very unique and entertaining for him.
Cachete Maldonado in another role of cultural educator, was for over sixteen years, the director of Puerto Rico's "Taller Cultural Afro-Antillano," which were workshops geared for children between the ages of six and sixteen. The youngsters learned about Afro-Caribbean culture, and its influence on their lives.
After the furor over Batacumbele had died down and the musicians went on to either front their own bands or become sought-after session players, Maldonado was moving on to his next project "Cachete Maldonado y Los Majaderos." This would be an all-percussion ensemble along the lines of the Cuban groups Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, and Los Papines. Cachete had come full circle and finally boiled it all down to the essence of the music, the African-derived beats and rhythms, with the call and response vocalization which is the bedrock foundation of the Afro-Latin genre. He released the self-titled record in 2003 which was an instant hit, and has on its own merits become another cult classic.
Just when it was all coming around for Cachete and he was finally getting the recognition and respect he deserved, life dealt him a cruel blow with a paralyzing stroke. He had suffered a mild one in 2002, but was able to continue playing and performing. Unfortunately, the stroke in 2005 was much more serious. The outpouring of support from fans and former bandmates has been impressive. There were benefit gigs and concerts, Batacumbele got back together for an all-star reunion to assist their leader in these difficult times. The benefits continue today as Cachete travelled to Cuba for physical therapy this summer. When he returned, a friend of his commented that "the treatment for his condition was very positive and he shows notable improvement."
Los Majaderos carry on and have become a mainstay in the Puerto Rican community of Loizà, where they play in the drumming tradition started by Cachete, who sits in with his band on shekere and radiates inspiration.
Angel "Cachete' Maldonado has earned his place in the pantheon of percussion masters. He has transcended from a cult figure to a national hero for his contribution to Puerto Rican musical culture and heritage. He came along at a time when we needed musical heroes, and sparked a renaissance in Afro-Latin oriented ensembles that is still vibrant today. There is not a bongo, conga, batà, plena, bomba playing rumbero on the island that does not acknowledge him as a major motivator and innovator in this area. His bravery and disposition in the face of his debilitating condition has only solidified his celebrated status. Cachete is truly "Hijo Del Tambó."
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