Roll those bones

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - Michael Wade Simp­son For The New Mex­i­can

José Manuel Cobles, aka “Puerto Plata,” an oc­to­ge­nar­ian gui­tarist and singer from the Dominican Re­pub­lic, has only re­cently re­fo­cused on a mu­si­cal ca­reer — he spent much of his adult life work­ing in the U.S. as a car­pen­ter. “Mu­sic is my sport,” he said in a re­cent phone in­ter­view. Cobles may live with his daugh­ter’s fam­ily in En­gle­wood, Colorado, but he doesn’t seem to be par­tic­u­larly Amer­i­can­ized. He prefers to be in­ter­viewed in his na­tive lan­guage, and his Span­ish is soft and in­flected with Dominican slang, jokes, and dou­ble mean­ings. He per­forms with Edilio Pare­des and Frank Men­dez as Puerto Plata and the Bachata Roja Leg­ends at the Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter on Satur­day, April 24.

The African roots of his AfroCaribbean-Latin mu­sic are easy to pick out. There is a sim­plic­ity to it — the syn­co­pated rhythms of the gui­tars and the added per­cus­sion have the ring of mu­sic that pre­dates elec­tric­ity. In the Dominican Re­pub­lic, this was the mu­sic played and danced to be­fore the sax­o­phone, ac­cor­dion, marimba, and elec­tric gui­tar came along. Puerto Plata keeps things tra­di­tional, with just a cou­ple of acous­tic gui­tars and some per­cus­sion in­stru­ments such as the tamb­ora, bongo, and güira. The songs in his reper­toire are cat­e­go­rized by their rhythms, and each form has its own dance steps. There are the son, guaracha, bolero, merengue, salsa, and the man­golina. “There are also a lot of dif­fer­ent dances in Mex­ico,” he said, “but we didn’t learn those.”

Cobles be­gan play­ing as a young man, in the city of San­ti­ago, in the 1940s. It was also the time of Rafael Tru­jillo, the dic­ta­tor whose ruth­less grip on ev­ery as­pect of the coun­try ex­tended to its mu­sic. No one who played tra­di­tional mu­sic, like Cobles, was al­lowed to record it dur­ing the three decades of Tru­jillo’s rule. Un­like in Cuba, where there was a pro­lific mu­si­cal ex­port busi­ness, mu­sic went un­der­ground in the Dominican Re­pub­lic.

“We used to lis­ten to the mu­sic com­ing over from Cuba,” said Cobles. He be­came a son spe­cial­ist. “We were a trio.” The trio in­cluded lead gui­tar, rhythm gui­tar, and per­cus­sion. Cobles’ group, Trio Pri­mav­era, be­came well known in San­ti­ago, play­ing son and bolero for many years at El Ar­bolito, a cabaret next to a slaugh­ter­house, in a dicey part of town. But in this pe­riod, the era of big-band mu­sic in the U.S., dic­ta­tor Tru­jillo fa­vored the gru­pos and big-band-style orques­tas with marimba, sax, ac­cor­dion, a wind sec­tion and drum sets. “The trios were elim­i­nated.”

Be­cause of the dic­ta­tor’s pref­er­ence, the Dominican Re­pub­lic be­came known for a beefed-up, light­ning-fast ver­sion of merengue. An ex­ten­sion of that can be heard in to­day’s pelvis-grind­ing “Reg­gae­ton,” which is pop­u­lar on dance floors where Latin mu­sic is played all over the world. But Puerto Plata of­fers a to­tally dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence. To hear the soft, gen­tle songs and slow beats of Cobles’ mu­sic is to step back into a dif­fer­ent era. The old mu­sic has been re­dis­cov­ered, and thanks to Cobles and young in­stru­men­tal­ists such as Pare­des and Men­dez, it is draw­ing the at­ten­tion of “world mu­sic” lovers of all ages. Cobles’ de­but al­bum, Mu­jer de Cabaret, was fea­tured on Na­tional Pub­lic Ra­dio and re­viewed in The New York Times. His sec­ond record­ing, Ca­sita de Campo, re­leased in 2009, fea­tures love songs and dance pieces from the Tru­jillo years. He is work­ing on a third CD and will be joined in the record­ing stu­dio by some of the biggest names in Latin in­stru­men­tal mu­sic.

Asked when his 87th birth­day would ar­rive, Cobles said, “Au­gust.” His astrological sign is Leo, the lion. But, “ No soy león [I’m not a lion],” he said. “I’m not ag­gres­sive; I’m suave.”

A con­ver­sa­tion with Cobles is full of sto­ries. He tells of the time a fool got up to dance in the pres­ence of Tru­jillo at a night­club, drawn onto the floor by the great mu­sic com­ing from the band, not know­ing the dic­ta­tor was present. The cus­tom was that no one danced un­til Tru­jillo danced. Ev­ery­one in the night­club froze — ex­cept the dancer, still lost in his dance. When the mu­sic stopped, the dancer looked up and saw the dic­ta­tor star­ing at him. “You’re good,” Tru­jillo called out to the hor­ri­fied dancer. “Won’t any­body dance with this man?”

An­other time, a drunken group of Tru­jillo’s dreaded sol­diers picked up Cobles’ trio as they were walk­ing home late at night af­ter a gig. The sol­diers put them in a truck and headed off, with their guns and boozy eyes, into the coun­try­side. It was only the ser­e­nade the trio ner­vously sang, once the truck stopped in a dark, de­serted spot, that saved their lives.

In the Dominican Re­pub­lic, the mu­sic Puerto Plata plays is not con­sid­ered old-fash­ioned or re­dis­cov­ered. “Young and old, there is no age for mu­sic and danc­ing. Ev­ery­body does it,” he said. “You have to mover el es­queleto [move your skele­ton],” he said. “We have a say­ing: En­joy life and for­get death.”

José Manuel Cobles, aka “Puerto Plata”; top right, his band

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