In my never ending search to document as much information about NYC rumba as I can, I came across this old NY Times article. It mentions the late Morty Sanders (ibae), Iwao Sado (from Puntilla's crew), and of course Eddie Bobe. Here it is for your reading pleasure.
by Mirta Ojito
published: August 31, 1996
Directions to a Sunday party: enter Central Park near the Dakota on West 72d Street and walk through Strawberry Fields past the John Lennon memorial. Right about there, if the wind is blowing a certain way, you'll hear the insistent call of the drums. Tum-taca-taca-tum.
There, by the side of the Lake, you will find a piece of Cuba, or of its music, which for many of the drummers and listeners who gather here every Sunday is the same.
''This, and nothing but this, is the essence of being Cuban,'' said Arturo Cuenca, 40, a painter who left Cuba six years ago and now lives in Manhattan. ''I didn't know that in Cuba. I learned it from a distance. Here, with these drums.''
These drums have lured Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans -- and just about anybody who cares about rumba -- to Central Park for a long time. They offer free weekly entertainment for New Yorkers of a certain sensibility. And more importantly for some, they offer what many immigrants are perpetually searching for: a whiff of home, a space where people ask not what country you come from, but what town.
It is here, perhaps more than in any other place in New York, where many Cubans feel at home. This is the one corner of the city where they encounter old friends, enjoy homemade Cuban food, and effortlessly revert to rapid-fire Spanish.
''I have found people here that I hadn't seen for years,'' said Rosa Nieses-Torres two Sundays ago. ''I come here as much as I can. I was born and raised in the old part of Havana, where this sort of thing was an everyday event.
''Coming here is spiritual for me,'' said Ms. Nieses-Torres, a college literature professor who came to New York from Cuba in 1979. ''It's an act of remembrance; a ritual.''
It starts with the music.
The drummers begin arriving shortly after noon.
Eddie Bobe is one of them.
Mr. Bobe was born 36 years ago in Puerto Rico to a Cuban father and a Puerto Rican mother, and the beat of the drums ''is in his blood.''
''I'm following a tradition, that's all,'' he said, wiping the sweat from his brow with an open palm. ''For me, it's a cultural expression, a way of defining who I am, because rumba means people. The instruments alone can't do it. You need to have people to have rumba.''
Before long, a crowd has gathered.
Mothers with babies in strollers sit on the green benches. Young couples share an old blanket on the lawn. Old men respectfully stand by the drums, waiting for the first cue to join in the chorus. Food vendors peddle their dishes: pasteles and tamales from Puerto Rico; cod fritters and rice with chicken from Cuba. A man sells beer out of a brown plastic bag packed with ice.
The drums attract a mixed crowd: the die-hard rumba aficionados, the tourists who stop to take yet another picture of New York City life (some make awkward attempts to follow the rhythm with their hips) and the nostalgic types who come not just for the music but also for a slice of Caribbean warmth and camaraderie in the land of McDonald's and rock-and-roll.
And then there are the curious passers-by who stay for so long that eventually someone hands them an instrument. There seems to be a silent command behind the friendly gesture: here, you make music, too.
It happened to Iwao Sado, 48, a sushi chef who came to New York from California 11 years ago.
As Mr. Sado tells it, he was walking in the park one day when he heard the sound of drums. He followed it and came upon a group of people singing in Spanish, a language he is now trying to learn. He became fascinated by the music's rhythm and timing. An electric bass player in Japan, Mr. Sado had never been as deeply touched by any other music.
''Something happened inside of me,'' he said. ''It just totally transformed me.''
He started taking lessons from Mr. Bobe and others and soon got a chance to play for the Central Park crowd. The music led him to Santeria, an Afro-Cuban religion practiced on the island and increasingly abroad. Mr. Sado recently made a trip to Cuba, where he officially joined the religion.
Nowadays, ''El Chino'' -- a term that Cubans and Puerto Ricans use to describe anyone with Asian features -- plays the drums next to some of the most experienced musicians in the park.
Nobody here seems sure how these rumba Sundays started. Some say it started spontaneously 80 years ago with a group of friends who wanted to play drums outdoors. Others recall a day in May 14 years ago when a group of Latinos, looking for a place to continue to party after a big parade, settled on this specific spot in Central Park and started a tradition.
Morton Sanders has another version. His, he insists, is the true story.
Mr. Sanders, a retired architectural designer who is 75, said he became immersed in Cuban culture after a series of trips to the island in the 1940's and 50's. He had gone to Cuba for the first time on his honeymoon and was immediately smitten with the island's sensuality and contagious joie de vivre.
For $35, he bought a drum and hired a private instructor. He returned to his Manhattan apartment and practiced until his fingers were calloused and his palms no longer hurt.
Eventually, accompanied by two friends, Mr. Sanders took his drum to a fountain in Central Park where Latinos, mostly Puerto Ricans born in New York, used to gather. That was 30 years ago.
With his blond hair and blue eyes, Mr. Sanders wasn't immediately accepted, he said. Undaunted, he took his music someplace else. He found a bench he liked next to the boat lake under the shade of a big old tree. And there, with his drum and his friends, Mr. Sanders began to play for fun.
Intrigued by the music, the Latinos who had shunned him soon followed. Since then, Mr. Sanders said, musicians and fans have got together every Sunday, from spring to fall, in the same spot.
In 1980, the gatherings received an unexpected jolt when Cubans who had arrived in the Mariel-Key West boat lift began appearing.
The Cubans, most of them blacks from economically poor but culturally rich Havana neighborhoods, brought new energy and authenticity to the gatherings.
Rumba, which is not a rhythm, but rather a concept that means to party, was born in Cuba more than a century ago. It is regarded as the first musical expression of Cuba's nationhood, said Rene Lopez, a Puerto Rican record producer who lives in New York.
It began with the black Cubans who had moved to the cities from rural areas. Influenced by Spanish music, but emotionally tied to their traditional African rhythms, they took elements of both and created a new sound.
Although the sound is distinctly Cuban, it has traveled the world.
It was popularized in the 1940's in New York's biggest nightclubs by performers like Chano Pozo and Miguelito Valdes, who used trumpets and other musical instruments to make it more palatable to American dancers. Yet rumba can be played on just about any surface, from a wooden box to an upside-down dresser drawer. Most often, it is played with at least three drums, a set of claves (sticks), a lead singer and a chorus.
In the early 60's, Mr. Lopez said, Puerto Ricans played drums on the rooftops of El Barrio. Eventually, they took their music to local parks, but the police used to chase them away and confiscate the drums.
''They said it bothered the neighbors, but nobody believed them,'' Mr. Lopez said. ''They just weren't ready for us, didn't understand us.''
Today, Mr. Sanders said, the police do not bother the Central Park crowd, though it can get rowdy at times toward the end of the day. Sometimes, there are too many people, maybe even one or two who have had too much to drink. There have been fights, often over who gets to play the drums.
But most Sundays, by early evening, the party has become a huge family picnic. Budding friendships are cemented with a drunken hug and a promise to call. Old friends agree, once again, to keep in touch. A shirtless man gently touches a baby's forehead and asks the gods, his gods, to bless him.
The drummers, perspiring from hours of intense pounding, get up to leave, already making plans for the next weekend.
Mr. Sanders is one of the last to go. ''I have had such good times here,'' he said. ''I don't want to stay away. I have told my wife that when I die I want her to throw my ashes in this lake. That way, I'll always be close to the music.''