Sunday, November 4, 2012

Alive And Kicking

Born in 1941 in the Parada 26 section of Santurce, Puerto Rico, Ramón Luis Ramírez Toro, known as “Chamaco” (‘kid’) Ramírez (or “Chamo” for short), remains a somewhat obscure salsa singer (sonero) in the world of international Latin music. However, among world-wide fans of 1970s salsa dura and Puerto Rican aficionados of home-grown talent, he is well known for his signature composition “Trucutú” and his epic interpretation of Catalino “Tite” Curet Alonso’s anthem of survival, “Plante Bandera.” 

A youthful Chamaco Ramirez
If Ramírez had never done anything else, his recordings with Tommy Olivencia (May 15, 1938 - September 22, 2006) alone should have been enough to cause him to be held in the highest esteem. 

Chamaco Ramirez (right, front) with Tommy Olivencia's orchestra, La Primerisima, early 1960s
 They are some of the best salsa tunes ever put to wax. And yet he seems to languish in semi-obscurity. All the more strange since the Olivencia recordings were not his only output. Hopefully this reissue of his only solo album, Alive And Kicking from 1979, will help rectify this unfortunate situation and bring Chamaco’s artistry to a wider public. Though Ramírez was known well enough in the 1960s and 70s during his tenure with the Tommy Olivencia Orchestra where he sang from the late 60s to 1971 and from 1974 to 1976 (performing on eight albums), as well as a few important dates with Francisco “Kako” Bastar and the Alegre All-Stars, his occasional stints in jail, engaging in crime to support a drug habit, and momentary disappearances from the scene (ending in his untimely death at the age of 41 in 1983), have contributed to his remaining largely unrecognized in the pantheon of great salsa soneros. Some contend that record labels, journalists, radio DJs, salseros, and others in the industry have purposely ignored or downplayed his achievements because for them, his personal demons overshadow his artistry. This is a pity because Chamaco is an artist well worth giving credit where credit is due. Contrary to popular belief, in cases like this, one must not confuse the artist with his art, though the two are of course intertwined.

Chamaco, Tommy Olivencia, Paquito Guzmán
 Like Héctor Lavoe and Lalo Rodríguez, Chamaco Ramírez had that incredible high-pitched nasal voice that could send chills up your spine. Like Ismael “Maelo” Rivera, who was a mentor and friend, Chamaco had a way with improvising lyrics (“inspraciones”), word play, and rhythmic delivery. Like José “Cheo” Feliciano, Chamaco liked to paint portraits of the people in the barrio because he was “of the street” (de la calle) himself. And as with all of his more famous compatriot singers, Chamaco had trouble with drugs. In the end, that’s what did him in, as he tragically fell victim to gunshot wounds in an alley in the Bronx. According to one small mention in a New York newspaper, he had gunshot wounds to the head and cheek, and died while he was being taken to the hospital in an ambulance. 

One discernable difference between Lavoe and Ramírez was that while the former often preferred to be identified as a jíbaro (country boy) despite how Fania art director Izzy Sanabria depicted him as a gangster in his early days as a sidekick to Willie Colón, Chamaco Ramírez on the other hand seemed more comfortable with the “bravo de siempre” (tough guy) street thug identity projected by his use of slang, drug references, and the macho swagger of many of his songs. Apparently he tried to live up to that image by his actions off the music stage as well. All the pain and suffering in his life, as well as his playful and manly spirit, becomes manifest in his soaring, minor key, adenoidal vocal style, reminding one of the traditional West-African griots or bluesmen of the Mississippi Delta.

Olivencia's first album Tru-cu-tú, ("Trucutú" was the name of a popular caveman character), released on Tioly in 1962; it was re-released on Inca Records in 1965 as La Nueva Sensación Musical de Puerto Rico, with a slightly different tracklisting. Chamaco and Oliencia's orchestra also released several 45 RPM EP recordings on Henry Debs label Disques debs in Guadeloupe around the same time.
Jala-Jala y Guaguancó (1966)
Fire-Fire (Fuego, Fuego) 1967

Chamaco sings the classic Cuban comparsa "Los Dandies" on this 1962 album, Alegre All Stars, Vol. 2 - "El Manicero"
The reunion album, 1974
The classic "Planté Bandera" (1975)

For Alive And Kicking, designer and artist Ron Levine depicted a smiling Chamaco climbing out of a coffin in a crypt, illuminated by a ray of sunlight, which Levine says was simply inspired by the title that was given to him during production of the album. According to Levine, the illustration was his idea and was done in a lighthearted spirit of fun. He did not know of Ramírez’s personal issues, and indeed, no one knew how chillingly prophetic that depiction would be several years later. Levine goes on to relate that he never met Ramírez even once, unlike the other Fania stars he depicted who he met and saw perform on many occasions (Hector Levoe, Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, Johnny Pacheco and Larry Harlow). So in this case, Levine used head shots of his subject that were supplied by Masucci, working from a model and his own body for the rest of the figure. The addition of the ray of light - and how it falls on the coffin, illuminating it - was especially important to Levine, and he worked hard to make sure the whole thing looked natural and yet spooky at the same time.

Artist and designer Ron Levine

The painting by Ron Levine
For those who did know him well, it seemed the singer, who liked to tempt fate and seemingly defy mortality, was moving on a downward self-abusive trajectory that would probably end badly. His fluid vocal skills, brushes with the law, gangster activities, and violent death have been compared to certain rappers, and indeed, there is a parallel, as music producer Chris Soto has pointed out, between Biggie Smalls (Christopher Wallace) a.k.a. The Notorious B.I.G., and Ramírez. This is especially true as far as their final albums being an ironic commentary on their untimely demise (the latter’s posthumous opus was titled Life After Death). Seen in a more positive light, a performer never dies as long as the music lives on (hence the ray of light), and in this way, Levine’s portrait can be interpreted as an ironic tribute that brings this final musical chapter of a gifted singer’s troubled life to a close by elevating it to a higher level. Alive And Kicking is his last will and testament, a little sparkling diamond in the dirt for us to remember him by.

Chamaco, late 70s
The story of how the album got made is as interesting as that of the cover art. In a recent interview with this author, Cuban pianist, composer, and arranger Javier Vázquez related that he was in the middle of working on Ismael Rivera’s next album (released in 1980 as Maelo – El Sonero Mayor) in December of 1978 when sessions had to be halted due to Rivera’s difficulty singing because of painful polyps on his throat. In fact, continued Vázquez, Rivera was quite sick at the time and could hardly sing a note. Not long after, Fania label boss Jerry Masucci called Javier up with a solution for replacing Maelo, which was to bring in Chamaco Ramírez because of similarities between the two singers. It was hoped a session or two could fill in the gap in Fania’s catalog. Rather than sing over the already completed music tracks from the aborted Maelo date, a whole new project was launched, the result being that Vázquez ended up producing from start to finish, hand-picking a band, setting up the studio dates, and arranging Ramírez’ first—and last—solo album.

Portrait of Chamaco by Steve Quintana, III

Javier Vázquez seems almost as unsung a hero as Chamaco. For all his indisputable involvement with arranging, composing, and playing on hundreds of Seeco, Tico, Teca, Mericana, Salsoul, Vaya, Inca, and Fania recordings, he still remains somewhat behind the scenes in New York Latin music history, sadly falling under the radar of most casual salsa fans today. When Javier Vázquez arrived in New York in 1966, his reputation in Cuba with Los Jóvenes del Cayo and La Sonora Matancera proceeded him, and he soon found work with his friend the timbale player Rafael Cortijo when the former was signed to Ansonia Records in the wake of being freed from prison. Though Cortijo, Javier met Francisco “Kako” Bastar, another Puerto Rican percussionist who specialized in timbales. Not long after, Fania came knocking (“they were waiting for me” says Javier), and Larry Harlow, Ramón “Monguito El Único” Quian, Johnny Pacheco, Justo Betancourt, Pupi Lagaretta and others were early clients, benefiting from Javier’s prodigious arranging and composing skills. 

Javier at the piano

His professional association with Ismael Rivera dates from 1971, when Maelo sang with Kako’s orchestra on La Última En La Avenida for Tico Records. Arranging a few tunes for that record led to his being instated in 1972 as Rivera’s musical director and pianist for Los Cachimbos (The Pipes), Maelo’s talented backing band. From the start of the pianist’s career in New York until active production for Fania stopped in the 90s, Vázquez was most consistently employed, primarily in the studio, by Jerry Masucci and the label’s musical director, Johnny Pacheco. In addition to his duties as musical director for Los Cachimbos, Vázquez was very prolific in the 1970s, working for several different labels and turning out a spate of highly regarded solo albums, as well as performing and arranging on numerous recording sessions (many uncredited). From 1977, he was back with La Sonora Matancera, the venerable institution that his father, Pablo Vázquez, helped found in 1924. 

Javier in the studio

Don Javier describes himself as one of Fania’s “go to” guys (especially for arrangements) at that time, so when the sessions for Ismael Rivera came to a halt, it made perfect sense that Vázquez was tapped by Masucci to produce Alive And Kicking because his association with Rivera’s Cachimbos meant that Ramírez would be working with the musical director of his idol, Ismael Rivera. Plus, Fania would be able to put something out in the market comparable to an Ismael Rivera record. According to Chamaco’s sister, Rivera and Ramírez had become close in Puerto Rico’s notorious Oso Blanco prison, forming a vocal group together while behind bars. Chamaco’s last studio recording had been with bandleader Olivencia in the mid-70s.

Some time after, people in New York had lost track of him as he had slipped off to Chicago (so the rumors say), and apparently that is where Masucci tracked him down with his proposal. Though these stories cannot be verified, several sources seem to agree that this was the scenario. According to some sources, Masucci was thrilled to have found Ramírez and to have contracted him to record the album; hence the title Alive And Kicking. Soon after Masucci dug him up, Chamaco returned to New York, and over dinner at a favorite Latin musician’s hangout, the singer and the producer planned out the album, with Chamaco dictating what the song selection would be. A fascinating acapella cassette demo tape has surfaced recently that demonstrates how Chamaco already had the melodies, lyrics, and even arrangements worked out before the recording sessions (one can hear him wordlessly sing out various instrument parts in addition to the lyrics). All of the musicians and coro (chorus) vocalists on the sessions were either people Vázquez had worked with in the past or Chamaco knew from the scene. From the brass section of trumpeter Alfredo “Chocolate” Armenteros (who had played with La Sonora Matacera as well as Los Cachimbos), Manuel “Manolín” González on alto sax and Harry D’Aguiar on trombone (both from Los Cachimbos), to Elpidio Vázquez, Jr., Javier’s nephew (and grandson of Pablo) who played in La Sonora Matancera in the 70s, all were veterans. Adalberto Santiago and Tito Allen had sung coro for Los Cachimbos as well so it was kept “all in the family”, so to speak.

Javier the arranger/composer

However, just to keep it fresh, the sound of the band that Vázquez put together this time was somewhere between the smaller modified conjunto (group) configuration of Los Cachimbos and Olivencia’s larger mambo-style orchestra. Unlike the Cachimbos, there would be no tres guitar and the horns would be augmented by a second trumpet (the uncredited Dominican musician Ramón “Chiripa” Aracena, who played with Pacheco and La Sonora Matancera) and an additional reed, the tenor sax of the legendary Mario Rivera from Tito Puente’s orchestra. The rhythm section differed from that of Los Cachimbos as well, with Javier employing Alberto Valdez on conga, Edgar López on bongo, Mike Collazo on timbales, and Jorge Maldonado on guiro, maracas, and coro. Javier confirmed to this author that there was a conscious decision to diverge from the Cachimbos sound, and that this directive came as much from Masucci as it did from Chamaco and Javier.

Original reel to reel studio master tape from Alive & Kicking

The nine recordings that resulted from these sessions should be considered Chamaco Ramírez’s most consistent output because unlike Alive And Kicking, which was done in one concerted burst of energy, his previous recordings had been as a vocalist in someone else’s orchestra, sharing the stage with other vocalists like Paquito Guzman. Therefore, they were of necessity sporadic, disconnected, with personnel changes and differing sound over two decades. This album’s power and consistency is also due to Vázquez’s leadership over his hand-picked musicians who functioned as a cohesive unit. According to Vázquez, Chamaco was enthusiastic, easy to work with, being in excellent form, and came to the sessions completely “straight” (without being under the influence of drugs). Unfortunately, in the ensuing years after the album’s release, the two were never able to perform together live to support it, as Vázquez was often touring out of the country or otherwise engaged in multiple recording and arranging gigs. In addition, according to several sources, Chamaco was keeping a low profile and so did not have very many live engagements at the time. Sadly, the chemistry that had worked so well in the studio was not to be repeated on the stage. As Javier tells it, he never saw Chamaco again after the sessions were over and to his knowledge, Chamaco “nunca jugaba en bailes en este tiempo para promocionar el disco” (didn’t play dances at that time to promote the record, i.e. did not perform on the local “cuchifrito circuit” the way all the other Fania artists did). This lack of performing, touring, doing television and radio spots, etc., all the usual things an artist does to promote a new album, may go a long way to explaining why the record never really had a chance. With the musician missing or laying low, and unable or unwilling to travel, the label was not able to get 100% behind the recording either. Never the less, the record’s popularity grew steadily in the ensuing decades, at least among fans of Chamaco Ramírez who knew him from his years with Olivencia and collectors of obscure “lost” gems.

Original reel to reel mixdown tape for side A of Alive & Kicking
So what is the key to the special quality of this album? While on some level it’s the legend and tragic drama of the singer himself, but on another, it’s the sheer quality and breadth of the songs.

Alive And Kicking bursts out of the speakers from the start with “San Agustin,” an infectious estampa (vignette) in the son montuno rhythm that salutes the colorful people of the barrio (neighborhood) in the Puerta de Tierra section of San Juan, specifically the area around one of its main thoroughfares, Calle San Agustin. This largely black working-class neighborhood is well known for its boxers, tobacco merchants, dock workers (muelleros), as well as its tracts of public housing and the legendary labor strikes that occurred there in past eras. In composer Catalino “Tite” Curet Alonso’s lyrics, the street is described as a place to “vacilar” (shake), to dance and have a good time. Despite the infectious feel of the song, there is an undertone of loss and nostalgia in that Chamaco mentions the passing away of Chencha, proprietess of the bohemian “barrita” (little bar) where music people such as “Tite” Curet Alonso used to hang out and drink. Many musicians settled or came from the area, such as Noro and Esy Moralles, Raphy Leavett, Rafael Hernández, Pepito Maduro, and Rafael Cepeda. Chamaco mourns the loss of one of its elder statesmen, José Ramón “Papi” Fuentes, whose “bongo is no longer playing” (“tu bongó ya no está sonando”). Papi and Chamaco were bandmates in Tommy Olivencia’s orchestra for a decade. What’s so vital about using this track to kick off the album is that it serves to set the scene in the streets of the working class “pueblo latino”, in El Barrio, orienting the proceedings in the realm of the real.

Picking up the pace and taking the listener from the streets of San Juan to the clubs of La Gran Manzana, up next is an update of the classic “Rumba Moderna,” first made famous by Alberto Ruiz and his Conjunto Kubavana in 1948 and composed by prolific Cuban conguero Justi Barreto. Here Chamaco changes the lyrics a bit to state that the inspiration for his “salsa moderna” comes from New York, where there are so many composers and singers, and that he can’t enjoy himself without the sound of the drums. Note the importance of that statement: Mama Africa’s hand drum must be honored. It’s just as vital as the sense of place (our “barrio obrero”) and the colorful people that inhabit it. Vázquez and Ramírez keep the melody of the original tune, but change the arrangement to better fit the bigger brass configuration, inserting more dramatic stop-start breaks but without destroying the beauty and excitement of the original. Javier also throws in a very tasty piano montuno in the call-and-response mambo section after the break. The song closes with an inspired jazz solo from Mario Rivera.

Original reel to reel stereo master studio tape from Alive & Kicking

“Cuando Manda El Corazón” is a funky bolero/son montuno that urges one to follow the heart’s orders. What is most effective here is not so much the lyrics as it is the emotion with which Ramírez interprets the song. More amazing sax work from Mario Rivera and an interesting fast/slow tempo makes this a treat to listen to and a challenge to dance to.

“Adivínalo” is a somewhat controversial number penned by Chamaco himself, with party-oriented lyrics that have been described as being a playful riddle (in slang terminology) about heroin use at a house party where there are musicians playing, people dancing, basically turning a children’s song on its head. Be that as it may, it’s got an infectious swing and has been a favorite of fans for years. Interestingly enough there exists a robust a tradition of tropical riddle songs, interpreted by the likes of Graciela and Machito or Los Corraleros de Majagual. However, those do not bear any specific resemblance to Chamaco’s tune. On the other hand, Celia Cruz had done a version of the song quite similar to Chamaco’s, many years before with Tito Puente on her album Son Con Guaguancó, but the flavor was more coquettish sexual innuendo and had no drug subtext of course. Celia’s version is an up-tempo guaracha mambo titled “La Adivinanza” and has the same melody and chorus, but different verse lyrics, penned by Heny Alvarez of Hommy fame.

Side B opens with the most heavy-duty track on the record, “Asi Son Bongo” – a lament disguised in an uptempo guagancó dance format that contradicts the bluesy, hurtful lyrics. The song was composed years before by Joseíto Fernández of “Guajira Guantanamera” fame, but again, Chamaco makes it his own. The lyrics complain of a lover who has forgotten the protagonist once he is undeservedly thrown in jail, despite her promise to visit him on Sundays and to take him back when he gets out. Only his mother comes to visit him in that “damned prison” that is like a cemetery for him. Like many Latin lyrics of that era, it suffers from excess misogyny, calling women perverse and treasonous (the only woman being deserving of praise in the song is the mother!). The protagonist, beset by difficulties and tragedy that he sees as being not his fault, complains to his fellow friend (the term being “bongo” – a corruption of the Cuban slang word “bonco”), saying “That’s how they are, buddy” (“Así son, bongo”). Though these lyrics may be of autobiographical significance, that cannot be confirmed; what can’t be denied though is the feeling of abandonment and isolation that any prisoner must feel behind bars, no matter what the situation, and Chamaco probably felt that as he awaited his freedom, which shows in his agonized vocal performance. This quality of suffering he imparts, as well as the cut being an amazing dance floor pleaser, redeems its typical macho posturing. Like many African Diaspora tunes, the pain and suffering is wrapped up in a pleasingly uplifting sonic package.

Again in the macho realm of lyrics, “Kikiriki” uses the metaphor of cock-fighting, a patriarchal blood sport beloved in Latin countries, to comment on Chamaco’s own sense of manhood (“kikiriki” refers to the rooster’s crowing). Though there is a feeling of boastful strutting to some of the lyrics, as in “Don’t mess with me and I won’t mess with you,” there is also a certain playfulness to Chamaco’s rendering here, where he describes his own rooster as having a peg-leg (“pata de palo”), and also poking fun at Fania’s boss, saying “Jerry Masucci tambien tiene su gallo” (Masucci also has his rooster), as if to say we are all in this game together, let the best man win. The game play reference (in this case placing bets on the outcome of the rooster fight) is an echo of “Adivínalo”, but we’ve moved from a guessing game about altering your senses through drugs, to a contest of sublimated battle skills transferred to the realm of male birds. The arrangements are full bore big band joyous salsa, employing many exciting “moña” call-and-response counterpoints within the horns in the style of Cortijo’s Combo or a Tito Puente mambo, sure to keep the dancers happy. Take note especially of the trumpets, with a hot solo near the fade by Alfredo “Chocolate” Armenteros, a favorite of Javier Vázquez. Like several others on the album, this tune comes from an older era. It was composed by F. A. Saragoza.

Following the upbeat strains of the previous selection, Chamaco brings his soulful and suffering side sharply into focus with the torrid bolero “Respetala.” He implores his lover to scold him because he deserves it for being untrue to her, for being a Hell-raiser; he does not merit her forgiveness. As in the best tradition of over-wrought bolero lyrics, he begs her to beat him, even kill him, if she wants, but to never leave him without her love. He realizes he has offended her, made her suffer. These lyrics may well have resonated personally with Ramírez. Whatever the case, the simple, direct, heart-felt way he sings the song makes it believable. The flamenco melody and minor key reinforce the bluesy desperation of his delivery. Whether she is a traitor or a virtuous woman, the love interest these songs is the object of much strong emotion, and who better to sing it into life than Chamaco Ramírez.

Back to the upbeat salsa with another self-penned number that describes a humorous vignette of a drunken bus driver. Throughout the 6 minute dance floor marathon track “No Es Vacilón” (which loosely translates into English as “It’s Not a Joking Matter”), Chamaco’s playfully anecdotal rhyming and Vázquez’s happy piano conspire to keep things going in a party atmosphere (“un ambiente de fiesta”), as Chamaco puts it so well in the song. Here the sound is highly reminiscent of the work Javier Vázquez had been doing with Ismael Rivera y Sus Cachimbos at the time, with some of Chamaco’s rapid fire rhythmic vocals eerily echoing his friend and mentor Maelo’s patented delivery.

The album ends with a classic 1920s son montuno from Cuba, the Reinaldo Bolaños composition “Fanía Funché,” made famous by Conjunto Estrellas de Chocolate on their 1960 Puchito release Fiesta Cubana (retitled Guaguancó A Todos Los Barrios in the U.S.) and covered by Johnny Pacheco on his 1964 album Cañonazo, the debut release from the label named for the song. Here, under the title “Fania” (as it was called on the Chocolate album), Javier changes the original small group sound into an anthemic big band cha-cha-chá arrangement that brings all the slow and steady funky Afro-Cuban sabor of the original, but pumps it up and expands it a notch to sound like something from the New York Palladium era. Chamaco name-checks trumpeter “Chocolate” Armenteros (not to be confused with Félix “Chocolate” Alfonso, the leader of Estrellas de Chocolate), who blows a sabroso solo that is all too brief despite its mastery and swing. By this point, Chamaco had known Chocolate for almost two decades, as he first worked with him back in the early 60s in Al Santiago’s Alegre All-Stars, and like many in Latin music, revered the Afro-Cuban trumpet master. This is an example of what Chamaco was famous for, the ad-lib rhyming ‘inspriración’ (or ‘soneo’), which often manifests in the form of a praise song or tribute much like the African griot tradition.  Though the song’s lyrics contain many intriguing African words and so may elude a complete analysis, the basic gist seems to be an appeal to African deities for help in times of trouble. Pacheco contends that the title refers to a social club or mutual aid society of Afro-Cubans that for him signified “family” and that’s why he chose it as the name for the record company. For this session as on the others, Javier Vázquez employs the tried and true coro of Fania stalwarts Tito Allen and Adalberto Santiago (aided by Jorge Maldonado), which is especially tasty here. Looking at the master tapes, it appears that the song was added to the album after the others had been sequenced, perhaps as a final addition at the last minute. Whatever the case, it’s a fine end to a stellar record, an album that added Chamaco Ramírez to Fania’s family roster (albeit on the Inca imprint), if only for a brief moment.

Original reel to reel mixdown tape for side B of Alive & Kicking

And with that, Chamaco Ramírez’s crowning achievement Alive And Kicking concludes. An album of nine extremely sabroso numbers from a forgotten Puerto Rican hero of salsa whose career was tragically cut short, arranged and produced by the unsung man-behind-the-scenes at Fania who is finally getting some credit for helping bring this recording to fruition with sensitivity and taste. This recording now has thankfully been faithfully digitally remastered by Alex Abrash, an engineer of the first order who has restored it to pristine sound quality from the analog master tapes, not easy to do with reel to reels from the 1970s. Now that the CD is on the market, Alive And Kicking will hopefully be restored to prominence by today’s salsa lovers far and wide, who will recognize it for what it is: a masterful swan song that deserves a second chance.

Original reel to reel "master mixes" from Alive & Kicking

In recent months it has come to light that a group of intrepid film makers, led by Chicago-based Puerto Rican director Omar Torres-Kortright (and aided by Chamaco Ramírez’s son Chamaco Jr.), are in the midst of working on a documentary also named for this album. The film is an in depth investigation of the life and work of the doomed singer, an attempt to unearth new narratives and debunk some misconceptions. It is eagerly awaited by salsa fans and Latin music historians alike, but it should also appeal to anyone interested in this type of story. Finally, some more light will be shed on the man and mystery behind Alive And Kicking.

Omar Torres-Kortright

Chamaco Ramirez Jr. and Chris Soto

RIP Ramón Luis Ramírez Toro, (September 10, 1941 - March 27, 1983)

Thanks to Javier Vázquez, Chris Soto, Omar Torres, Ray Gayo, Ron Levine, Michael Rucker, Claudia Sanchez and Marlysse Simmons. Adapted from Alive And Kicking liner notes by Pablo E. Yglesias, 2011-2012. Original notes © 2011 Codigo Music.