Who is ”Manny”
Manuel ”Manny” Rivera is the musical director and timbalero of the Son Del Monte Orchestra. We had the great opportunity to have a friendly conversation with him to know in detail his beginnings, career, groups, role as musical director, among other things.
Time in the Yambú Orchestra
After apologizing for his deficits in the Spanish language, he continued by thanking us for the opportunity to tell his story and describe his time in the Yambú Orchestra, which was the first group in which he could start developing his talents in the 70’s. ”what we wanted to do at that time was make a mix between jazz with typical music because the pianist, who was of African descent, was who wrote the music with musical director and bassist Ramón Rodríguez”. It is presumed that the pianist focused a lot on these genres because of his roots, but his colleagues were fine with it.
Although he loved jazz, Manuel began to notice that it was not very danceable for the audience, which is what caused him to become interested in charanga, a genre that was already very famous in New York City in those years. That’s how he decided to immerse himself in this set of rhythms because he liked to see people go to the dance floor and enjoy themselves.
He also liked Yambú’s style a lot, but felt he had to take a more accurate path for what he was feeling at the time.
Similarities of Son Del Monte with other jazz big bands and members
I was a bongo player, but I started playing timbales because they are widely used in charanga. What I was looking for was to do a similar thing to what Eddie Palmieri did with La Perfecta, who used trombones and a flute mixed with timbales to achieve a charanga sound” said Rivera on this subject. He also added that ”I also wanted to avoid monotony of charanga so I also started using trombones, violin and a flute. This is what I have baptized as chajunto, a mixture of charanga with the characteristics of an ensemble (conjunto in Spanish) ”.
He also pointed out that New York does not have an orchestra like his because he did not want to do the same thing that all groups of this kind do, but something different and novel. ”Son Del Monte is charanga with something more for the people, not only violin and flutes,” said the artist. ”I have three singers with three different styles and they are Puerto Rican Luis Ayala, Colombian Armando Son Giménez and Puerto Rican-Dominican Luisito Soto Junior,” he added.
The Son Del Monte Orchestra also features from the talent of flutist Mauricio Smith Junior, violinist Erick Salazar, trombonist Juanga Lakunza, trombonist Charlie García, bassist Bert Castro, conguero Joe González, pianist Andy Colón, among others. This is the group that has stuck by his side for more than six years in spite of the storms and they always perform together.
Opinion on the academic training of musicians
Rivera was one of the best students at Harbor’s Conservatory of Music in Manhattan, New York and he thinks that institution had done so mucho good for folk music because of all the talent that graduated there. After studying there, he began to read percussion music and learned to play batá, tumbadora, Colombian rumba, guaguancó, yambú, and so on.
The musician stresses the importance of studying, as this knowledge helps to understand the clave, the moment to start playing an instrument, the chime, the reading of music, discipline and many more. Before this, Manuel played led by the spirit and sensations, but his teachers at the conservatory taught him to have the technical tools necessary for being even more professional.
What is more important, experience or studies?
”Definitely experience. I have seen many great artists learn to read music without going to a conservatory and a great example of that is Roberto Roena, who did not need that learning to be who he was. However, that is something that not everyone can do” said Manuel. I can also mention the case of Tito Rodriguez who was not a musician guided by the lyrics, but he knew very well what he wanted. These are some of the many examples of privileged artists who only needed accumulated experience to achieve wonders with their work”.
However, this does not mean studies are not important, as they can teach things that can be useful later on and under some circumstances.
”The pandemic did not let us do anything on stage. The guys went to the studio from time to time or we met virtually, as we do now. It was so sad because there are many venues that have failed to open their doors again. Since the pandemic started, we have not seen as much activity in New York as it used to be before” expressed the artist sadly.
Also of concern to the musical director of the Son Del Monte Orchestra is that this situation has put many musicians out of work, at least in the industry. Active musical groups have very few members in the vast majority of the cases, contrary to his and the orchestra he conducts. He hopes that it will improve with time.