Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Victor "Papo" Sterling

When I talked to Papo, I was really in the dark as to how much history the man had behind him. I knew of Papo through Felix. Of the several times I'd gone to his house for lessons, at least once Felix opened up a book of old photos and Papo happened to be in one (if not several) of those pics. Felix also mentioned Papo as being one of the best okonkoleros to play with Puntilla at the time.

Naturally after hearing his name among such heavies, I was inclined to contact the man himself. It just so happens that Papo has a band out called "Sabor a Timba". He has settled in the Hartford, CT area, and was even teaching at Smith College in their dance department for a number of years. Papo is bilingual, but I opted to interview him in Spanish as to not lose any sabor.

Papo was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico. He started out playing timbal and bongo. Papo holds the distinction of having Walfredo de Los Reyes as one of his early teachers. He mentions that his first real gig was playing with the Tito Puente Latin Jazz Ensemble, otherwise known at the LP Latin Jazz Ensemble. This was around the time that LP was producing tours to promote their drums. He played alongside percussionist Johnny "Dandy" Rodriguez, and Patato to name a few. Papo would also play with the likes of Jorge Dalto, Mario Rivera, Alfredo de la Fe, Bobby Rodriguez and Bernie Minoso. It was like a small version of an Afro Cuban review where the dancer was featured as a rumbera and Papo played quinto and bongo while she danced. (Papo mentions that while in NYC he later participated in an off-Broadway production, a similar group, this time with Puntilla, Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez, Jose "Pijuan" Seguinot, Ramon Veloz, Claudina Montenegro Aime Cabrera, and Merly Bordes, all under the musical direction of Meme Solis, which ran for a season)

(Papo en las tumbas, Photo Credit: saboratimba)

When he got off tour and back to PR, in around 1979 he started playing again with Onelio Scull y su fundamento, “Aña Ilu Ade”. This fundamento comes from the prestigious Angarica line of Havana tamboreros. He played with Onelio prior to this, but this would have been aberikula (Onelio didn’t get fundamento till around 78-79). The other drummers that were part of Onelio’s crew at the time were, Julito (not Collazo), Freddy Moreno, Tato, Victor, and Cachete Maldonado (at times).

According to tambolero de Brasil, Fernando Leobons, Onelio inherited the 2nd set of Fundamento outside of Cuba, Arturo “Pipo” Peña holds the distinction of inheriting the 1st. This information has become common knowledge among tamboleros and historians. According to Papo, no one really knows who was the first to have fundamento, it was either Pipo or Onelio, although Papo mentions Juan Candela as well.

Fernando mentions that Alfredo Coyude’s fundamento was born from Onelio’s and that this was the first set actually born inside the states. Papo would play Alfredo Coyude’s first tambor, “Anya Ire Owantolokum(?)”. The guys that played this particular tambor were Ricardo Isaac "Cando", Juan Fuentes “Tartabull” (who was in Chicago for a while before moving back to PR), Hector “El Flaco” Hernandez, and Papo of course. Lazaro Galarraga sang with the group as well. This was the first tambor de fundamento that was made in the states (Los Angeles) and this was in the early 80’s.

(Ramin Quintana, Alfredo Coyude, ?, Nengue, Mikel Sotolongo, Photo Credit: Flaco)

Alfredo, Ricardo, Tartabull and Papo then went to NY together with Alfredo’s tambor. When Papo first moved out to the NY area, he first lived in Union City, NJ, then in the LES on 1st Ave and 5th, then up to 183rd st in the Bronx, and then to Brooklyn before settling in Connecticut. When he first came to NY, they didn’t do the whole igbodu at the bembes. They didn’t do the 21 toques, just ñongo, and other toques, but when the fundamento came things changed. In the time Papo was in NY he played with the who’s who of the Afro Cuban music scene in NYC. He played with Julito Collazo, Gene Golden, Steve Berrios, Milton Cardona, Puntilla’s Nueva Generacion, Daniel Ponce, Manuel Martinez, Roberto Borrell’s groups - Kubata y Afroson, and other. During this time Papo would play guiro, rumba, palo, aberikula, fundamento, bongo y timbal.

Papo mentioned that when he first started playing with "los Cubanos", they would give him his props for playing well and with the proper cadence. Papo told me that when he was learning how to play the only way one would get a chance to learn was to ask to sit down at the drum and basically learn as you play. One would have to watch closely before they got up the nerve to ask to sit down, and if you messed up, then you would have to wait a long time to get back on the drum. Now things are different. According to Papo, “hay que saber tocar, no puedes empezar muy rapido o muy lento…”

I asked Papo, “What are you favorite drums to play?”, he replied, “I identify mostly with the bongo, other than that I would say itotele.” He mentioned that without a good segundo, it just doesn’t work.

*message from Papo:

I forgot to mention also that Julito Collazo asked me to assist him on his working studio shortly after moving from New Jersey, for the purpose of helping him on his Orula's assignments. I feel greatly honored "y profundo agradecimiento" that "El Barondo" and Steve Berrios took me as a truly respected brother.

Gracias Papo por la informacion...

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