During one of my many conversations with Willie over the early history of rumba in the city, he mentioned a name that stuck out in my mind, “Babaila”. John Martinez “Babaila” is a rather important figure in the early rumba/afrocubano scene. He started to get into the scene around 61-62’. Babaila, (who is of Puerto Rican descent) mentions that he would hang out with guys like Totico, Patato, Juan Dreke, and others. John was given the name “Babaila” by Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez whom he also hung around with at the time. What a lot of people don’t realize that cats like Pete “El Conde”, Henry Fiol, and others were hanging out and rumbiando at the time. It just so happens that a guy like Pete “El Conde” goes on to become a legend in the world of “salsa” y la Fania. John mentions that it was El ñato (a professional boxer) who would take him and get him involved in the rumba scene at the time. According to John he started to learn and play at around 13-14 yrs of age. John told me about how he only live a block away from Arsenio Rodriguez. Arsenio’s brothers, Raul y Quique Rodriguez were probably some of the earliest cats out of Cuba really playing palo, rumba, santo, o lo que sea. That was the school that Babaila came from. Babaila mentioned that when a band like Arsenio’s would play a club date, after they would play the popular music of the day, they would then begin a rumba. There were numerous clubs in the Bronx where they would get together, “El Gallego” was running one on 163rd in the Banana Kelly area of the Bronx.
Babaila makes note of that fact that a lot of the Cubans coming into NY at the time were marineros, and a lot of them were abakua. As a result Babaila, and his contemporaries would play abakua, bembe, guiro, palo and the like. I think this is especially important to mention since that would mean that the guiro, palo, abakua and bembe scene is not a recent NY phenomenon. Bata may have come later, but groups were definitely playing guiros and palos before bata really took hold. When I told Babaila that Gene Golden had told me that Quique and Raul were known paleros, Babaila said, “but they played everything, rumba, palo, santo, etc…”, so this is just clarify that they played a little bit of everything and not just palo.
Babaila has the distinction of being one of the very, very few outsiders to gain access into the then New York Afro Cuban “click”, which really only mingled amongst themselves. Here is a great story that Willie told me about Babaila’s early history.
“Back in the day Patato used to give lessons to kids in the community on his rooftop. So at the beginning there would be like 30 people there waiting learn from the master. The only thing was that Patato was not only strict but brutal. If you didn’t get something right the first time he may ask you to do it again, but if you didn’t get it soon after… SMAAACK! He would pull out a stick and smack you right across the hands. So a class that started at maybe 30 or so people would dwindle down to just a few after a couple of days. Babaila was one of those people that stayed…” (Willie Everich, 07).
The important thing that I pulled out of my short but deep conversation with Babaila, was as to how important it is to speak to the pioneers that were involved as things were taking shape. See, to guys like Babaila, names, dates, and stats don’t really mean much in the big scheme of things, at least not as much as having been there, and playing because that is what one pursued and wanted to do. Rumba was and is a social setting in where guys would hang out, drink (or do whatever they did) start playing, dancing, “ya se formo la rumba”. Babaila to this day is still playing rumba, palo, and santo in and around the city, and he has probably played with pretty much everyone there is to play.
Babaila threw some names at me:
Quique y Raul
Among those that have played with Babaila (that I know of):
*Jonathan ? (used to work w/ Jay Bereck)
Willie “El Ruso” Everich
Osvaldo "Bembesito" Lora
Hector "El Flaco" Hernandez
(*main core group according to Willie)
Obviously, this is just a little glimpse of the life of John “Babaila” Martinez. I hope to interview him in the future and not only get more information, but also confirm some info I already have.
(Izzy Davila, Jose Rivera, Babaila, Pic courtesy of Willie Everich's collection)