Roll those bones
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