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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Zon del Barrio Members:

The following are the core Band Members who are: Zon Del Barrio.

Aurora Flores
Bandleader, composer, Lead and Coro Vocals.

Considered a 21st century Renaissance woman, Aurora Flores is a musician, writer, producer and activist. Raised in a musical family where her grandfather played plena and aguilnaldos on the accordion, her father wrote songs, her mother sang while her brother plays percussion she started as a classical musician playing violin, guitar and bass while singing in the school and church chorus before recording her first album at 15 with the Manhattan Borough Wide Orchestra as head of the bass section while studying bass privately with Frederic Zimmerman.

She went on to become the first Latina editor of Latin New York Magazine in 1974 later becoming the first female music correspondent for Billboard Magazine from 1976 to 1978. During this time she sang in the bands of Cortijo & Maelo y sus Cachimbos as well as a few local groups.

She attended the Columbia School of Journalism before breaking into mainstream journalism writing and reporting news for television, radio and print before starting a family and her own public relations agency, Aurora Communications, Inc in 1987.

With thousands of articles to her name, Aurora Flores organized her own septet in tribute to the music of Rafael Cortijo and Ismael Rivera called Zon del Barrio featuring some of her own original compositions.

Flores continues to write for various mainstream newspapers and magazines while teaching a Latin music history course and lecturing on the roots of the music.

A cultural consultant, she has written bilingual tunes for the hit children's show, Dora, the Explorer and conducts tours of East Harlem in a cultural, political and socio/economic content. She can be seen singing alongside Tito Puente in the Edward James Olmos Docudrama, Americanos, Latino Life in the U.S.; lecturing in the Bravo documentary, Palladium: When Mambo Was King and in the Smithsonian film accompanying the traveling exhibit: Latin-jazz, La Combinación Perfecta. Flores is currently working on a book based on her experiences in the Latino New York world.

David N. Fernandéz
Musical Director, Arranger, Keyboards, Latin percussion, Coro

Multi-instrumentalist, bandleader, musical director and arranger, David Fernandéz relies on his almost encyclopedic knowledge of the classics for his creative arrangements. He has performed with Marc Anthony, the Joe Cuba Sextet as well as Pedro Guzman, Angel "Cuco" Peña, Andy Montañez, El Topo, Ismael Miranda and Ismael Rivera, Jr. to name a few. His arrangements can be heard over the hit children's show, Dora The Explorer, as well as on Chembo Corniel's Latin jazz recording, "Portrait in Rhythms."

Born into a musical family in Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn New York, David was a child prodigy who began playing bongos professionally at the age of nine. His father was a guitarist and singer with his own trio group, Los Bohemios while his older brother played trombone with various salsa bands of the 60s and 70s. David played bongos and timbales before studying piano and jazz arranging at 15. He performed with the Youngstown State University Jazz Ensemble under the direction of the late Anthony Leonardi. At the Youngstown State University of Ohio he studied jazz arranging with Sam D'Angelo. He returned to New York to study jazz piano with the late Jaki Byard later learning salsa piano and music production with Ricky Gonzalez.

Fernandéz redefined the "jibaro" bongo style of playing during his time with Pedro Guzman's Jibaro Jazz while defining the salsa style of percussion on congas and timbales.

After leading a 10-piece orchestra playing Latin music throughout Youngstown, Ohio and Pittsburgh, PA. while also playing with various other jazz artists including Bob Mintzer, John Faddis, and the late Nick Brignola, David Fernandez worked in Puerto Rico for six years before touring St. Croix as pianist with the r&b band "Tough Enough." Fernandéz returns to his native New York hometown where he is the musical director for Zon del Barrio and Brenda K. Starr.

Maureen Choi, violinist

Maureen Choi, violinist from Ann Arbor, MI is recognized for her virtuosic abilities across many genres. She has won many competitions in the U.S and in S.Korea for both piano and violin. Ms.Choi has soloed with orchestras in Australia, Europe and the United States. A graduate of Michigan State University and the Berklee College of Music, Ms. Choi performs classical, jazz and Latin music. Her self-titled jazz album, "Maureen Choi Quartet" was just recently published and reviewed in "Jazziz" magazine, "Jazzcorner" and other publications across the United States. She now resides in NYC and is scheduled to release her Latin Jazz album later this year. She is the newest member of Zon del Barrio.


Born into a musical family where both parents performed, MaryAnn Santiago-Murillo began her career in music at an early age in Youngstown, Ohio. Born to Puerto Rican parents, MaryAnn grew up in a bilingual Spanish home and began singing and playing the guitar at age ten. By the age of 12, she was performing at various fairs, church events and television shows with her younger sister Zenaida.

Taking part in concert events and talent competitions where she frequently won top prize, MaryAnn continued to hone her talent for music throughout high school. She took part in performing at the Youngstown Playhouse where she performed in various musicals such as Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. After graduating high school, MaryAnn studied classical voice and opera at Youngstown State University. Throughout her college career, she continued to cultivate her craft by learning to sing in several languages including French, Italian and German.

To this date, MaryAnn has sung in seven different languages ranging from salsa to opera music and everything in between. A firm believer that music is universal, MaryAnn later became the lead singer and bass player for a local group in Youngstown, Ohio where she performed for many years. Her son Alonso later became part of the group playing congas. During this time, she met and became close friends with David Fernandez (musical director of Zon del Barrio).

Maryann also performed in a 12 piece salsa band called Sabor Latino (also in Ohio) performing at many high-profile events. With this band, they opened for El Gran Combo and Sonora Ponceña to name a few.

“I will never forget the gift of music that was given to me by my father and mother,” confirms the young vocalist. In the early years, Puerto Rican Christmas caroling was a special event for Maryann. Her father played the cuatro while Maryann accompanied him on the guitar as her mother sang or “improvised”. In Youngstown, Ohio, everyone came to her house during the holidays because they were the nucleus of the party! Deeply moved by the passing of her parents, Maryann continues their cultural legacy through the parrandas and always staying true to her Puerto Rican roots. MaryAnn is currently singing for the hottest salsa & plena band of New York: "Aurora y el Zon del Barrio!”

Ruben Lopez

A powerhouse player, Ruben Lopez has performed for the cream of the crop of musicians both in Puerto Rico and in Nueva York. The first call bassist while on the island, Lopez performed for Cortijo y su Bonche as well as the legendary Tommy Olivencia orchestra.

Ruben got his inspiration from his mother who liked to sing and had perfect pitch. She taught him the songs of her parents and he points to her as muse and mentor for his primary musical training.
His father had a store where all the musicians of the town would come to hang out attracting major celebrities such as Perez Prado.
Ruben Lopez started playing guitar on his own. He received an electric guitar as a gift from his father, teaching himself and learning from friends. He played rock music in several of the bands he first started with before he began playing bass. Ruben Lopez began formal study of the bass as a young man at Conservatory of Music in Puerto Rico founded by Pablo Casals. He studied with bassist, Don Manuel Berdeguer. He remained at the Conservatory for four years under the bassist’ tutelege. He studied harmony with Amaury Veray and solfegio with Nelly Justicia.
One of the first professional groups he played with was headed by the bongo player formerly with
Cortijo y su Combo by the last name of Chacon. Luis “Perico” Ortiz, Reynaldo Jorge and Wilfredo de la Torre all made up part of this initial ensemble.

He began playing the Hotel and Tourist circuit in P.R. When he saw the orchestra of Tommy Olivencia play in the hotels, he was inspired. Olivencia had hits all over the radio and Ruben yearned to play with him when a mutual friend introduced him to Olivencia. Ruben Lopez played with Olivencia for five straight years recording the orginal version of Chamaco Ramirez’ “TrucuTru” on Juntos de Nuevo. Lopez returned back to the hotel scene. He performed on the Chuchu Avellanet show and met Mandi Vizoso playing in his big band and accompanying Latin artists that came to Puerto Rico such as Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez,Vitin Aviles, Roberto Ledesma and many more. Ruben Lopez spent 20 years on P.R.television and with the Vizoso band accompanying Ednita Nazario, Nydia
Caro, Charytin Goyco, Iris Chacon, Danny Rivera, Lucecita Benitez, Nelson Ned, Lolita Flores, Sofie, “El Puma” and many more. He was on dozens of recordings for jingles and commercials. He also performed with Cab Calloway in St.Thomas and for Rita Moreno in Puerto Rico. He also performed and toured with Rafael Cortijo y su Bonche.

He has played with Marco Antonio Muñiz, with trios, big bands and symphonies. He also recorded two salsa themes with guitarist José Feliciano. Today, Ruben Lopez resides in New York with his two sons who play brass instruments. He is a dynamic addition to Zon del Barrio.

Eduardo “Tito” Gonzalez

Eduardo “Tito” Gonzalez was born in P.R. in Toa Baja. His brother played timbales and bongo and that got young Tito interested in the music. Growing up on the Island, he heard the “salsa dura” of Willie Rosario, El Gran Combo,Tommy Olivencia, Larry Harlow, and many others. He picked up his brother’s bongos when he was only eight years old. His brother, also self-taught, schooled him on the basics the recordings taught him technique and style. Roberto Roena, Papi Fuentes, Endel Dueño, Monolito Gonzalez and others were the first bongo players he emulated and admired. He started playing professionally at ten, with the bandleader asking his mother’s permission for the young musician to go out and play with the band. As a very young man, he began playing with Osvaldo Valentin, Bobby’s brother, recording for Borinquen Records before Tito came to New York to make his permanent home. It was in New York that he began to play with all the bands coming from Puerto Rico, i.e. Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz, Ismael Miranda, Cano Estremera, Hector Tricoche,
Nino Segarra, Paquito Guzman,and all of the singers with Roberto Roena and his Apollo Sound.Tito even played in the early days with
Victor Manuel when he was first recording. The list of bands and musicians he’s played with is a who’s who in salsa music.

Tito plays congas and timbales, but the bongos is his instrumet of choice. He recalls one memorable
evening in Carnegie Hall where he was playing w/ Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz alternating with La Sonora Ponceña. They began to play “La Zafra” and everyone in the percussion section took a solo. Harry Adorno was on timbales and Papo Pepin in the conga chair. During the moña (brass counterpoint during the improvisational mambo section) as it came close to his solo, Bobby Cruz turned to him and told him to get up from the chair and stand in front of the orchestra. A spotlight appeared on him and he played that bell with the stick so intensely that he got a standing ovation. After their performance, the trumpet player, Piro Rodriguez told Tito,“Now that was an incredible solo. I blow my brains out and you, with a bell and a stick, get a standing ovation.” Today, Tito still gets standing ovations with his performances with Zon del Barrio.

Nelson Mathew Gonzalez

Nelson Mathew Gonzalez isa professional musician and dancer & a part of our "Los Monstritos" (little monsters) of rhythm project. Raised in a musical family where his grandfather, Benny Ayala is a seasoned plenero, composer, folklorist and maskmaker, little Mathew was weaned on the Afro-Caribbean beats of Boricua roots music.

He is a member of Danza Fiesta, a theatrical dance troupe led by Gilda Rivera Pantojas and also performs with Los Pleneros de la 21. When he is not in school, he can be seen playing timbales (he subs for Juan Gerena) with Zon del Barrio as dancer and percussionist.

Oreste Abrantes


The "Monstrito" percussionist first started showing signs of his rhythmic virtuosity when he was still a baby boy. His mother recalls how he would beat rhythms and patterns on anything his little hands would touch. She started buying him toy drums, however, he rejected the toys and cried for real drums until she had to buy real percussion instruments for him to play on.

Oreste went on to devour every salsa music recording he got his hands on. By the time he was 5 years old, his mother entered him in a competition sponsored by Univision where he came in 2nd place, between two adults, playing congas. He takes his music seriously and has been studying percussion and music theory at the age of seven at the Harbor Conservatory for the Performing Arts in Spanish Harlem. He was part of a percussion trio of children who opened for Salsa singing giant, Gilberto Santa Rosa at Carnegie Hall when he was merely 9 years old. He appears on television playing alongside Tito Puente when he was eleven on an episode of Nickelodeon's Gula Gula Island. He is a part of Boys & Girls Harbor Youth Ensemble and appears in the PBS documentary "Mi Mambo". Today, Oreste proudly sits in the conga chair of Zon del Barrio. YEAH KIDD!

A Special tribute to our Guest Artist YOMO TORO who performed with Zon del Barrio from our very beginning in 2003.

Yomo Toro
King of the Cuatro

Yomo Toro R.I.P.

Birth Name: Víctor Guillermo Toro Vega Ramos Rodríguez Acosta

July 26, 1933 – June 30, 2012

New York, NY – June 30, 2012 – After more than sixty years bringing the national instrument of Puerto Rico into prominence around the world, the internationally renown guitarist often referred to as the King of the Cuatro, Yomo Toro passed away peacefully on Saturday, June 30, 2012 at 11:40 pm after more than a month in a New York hospital due to kidney failure.

Surrounded in a spiritual embrace of love and music from his many family and friends who kept round the clock vigil over the fragile 78 year old musician, Yomo spent his final days in good cheer as if bidding farewell to the many family and friends who daily made music his medicine. Yomo Toro leaves behind his wife Minerva of 31 years of marriage, his first born daughter Denise Toro, sisters Lydia, Iris, Mirza, and Milagros Toro joined by five grand children: Miriam Olivera, Martin Olivera, Denise Pinedo, Tiffany Pinedo & Denise Patricia Velez and three great grandchildren: Shaun Donate, Cloe Rodriguez and Martin Olivera. His brothers Juan, Angel, and Arcangel Toro were also by his side.

>From the first twangs of his small ten stringed “cuatro” guitar hair raising moments ran through arms, backs and necks as the diminutive Yomo Toro vamped, arpegioed and soared through musical genres from his native Puerto Rican plenas, seis and bombas to salsa, jazz, and rock rounded by classical guitar and Flamenco music. The virtuoso interpreted eclectic styles through cherubic fingers that flew through frets before languishing on lengthy solos weaved on Spanish songs.

Born in Guánica, in the town of Ensenada, Puerto Rico he was surprised by his father Alberto, when the five year old used a box as a booster to get to the guitar hung on the wall. Instead of getting angry, his father asked the boy he nicknamed “Yermo” (pronounced yuer-mo) to get back on the box and keep playing. He did. When he looked up his father was weeping.

He moved audiences ever since. An ambassador of Puerto Rican culture Yomo Toro grew to have a six-decade career as one of the world’s most respected Latin music players.

A noted guitarist, Toro's instrument of choice was the cuatro, a Puerto Rican 10-stringed instrument descended from the lute and later adapted double strings similar to the Spanish Valhala.

After first landing in New York in 1953 with his band, Los Cuatro Aces, Yomo embarked on a series of tours of the Caribbean while recording classic albums with cuatro masters Masso Rivera and Nieves Quintero aptly titled, “Los Tres Cuatros.”

Yomo’s dream of playing with the legendary Trio Los Panchos was realized here in the Big Apple in the early '60s. He recorded four albums with Los Panchos, including one featuring Eydie Gormé.

The “Yomo Toro Variety Show” over New York's Channel 41 had a decade long television run during the late '60s into the '70s that brought him to the attention of Jerry Masucci and Johnny Pacheco co-owners of the legendary Fania label where he eventually joined their world-famous showcase band, the Fania All-Stars. Especially noteworthy was the year 1969 when Yomo recorded the critically acclaimed salsa album “Tribute to Arsenio” with the Larry Harlow Orchestra.

When guitarist Roberto Garcia wanted Yomo to sub for him on a Christmas album Pacheco was recording with a new group, he asked Yomo to bring the popular electric guitar of the times, but, as Yomo tells the story, when he heard “Christmas” he grabbed his cuatro instead. When Hector LaVoe saw the instrument he immediately thought of his mentor and Yomo’s friend the great folkloric singer Chuito de Bayamon before the pair compared popular songs of the season. Through Hector’s musical expertise and Yomo’s virtuosity the 1972 release of the classic Asalto Navideño with Willie Colon became a best-selling Fania classic.

In the '70s, '80s and '90s Toro's career careened like a freight train. He appeared on over 150 albums, recording more than 20 solo albums for Fania, Island, Rounder and Green Linnet Records. He returned to television and film, playing in commercials for several major international companies, over television shows the likes of “Sesame Street” and “The Ghost of Father Fohner” while working on the soundtracks for several films, including “Crossover Dreams” with Ruben Blades and Woody Allen's “Bananas.”

Called “the Jimmy Hendrix of the cuatro,” by the N.Y. Times, Yomo’s rapid-fire riffs spanned many musical miles recording with Harry Belafonte, Paul Simon, Linda Rondstadt, Gloria Estefan and David Byrne. His image is captured in statutes erected in his honor in Japan and in his hometown of Guanica.

Through it all Yomo maintained a simple, almost Zen like existence living humbly among the people of the Bronx community he returned to after his globetrotting. Settling into the Tremont section of the Bronx in 1973 after a stint in Brooklyn Yomo performed at the White House with the same pride, vigor and enthusiasm he shared with his musical brothers during his yearly neighborhood get togethers at the Bronx Lebanon Hospital Center performing his last gig there in October of 2010. Among his peers Yomo was considered the humblest and happiest of artists personifying that exceptional “salt of the earth quality” a rarity in this urban society.

In 1994 Yomo began touring and recording with Larry Harlow’s Latin Legends. Two years later he released the well-received “Celebremos Navidad” over Aché Records before hitting the road again in 1998 this time as part of David Gonzalez’ off Broadway musical “Sofrito.” Yomo’s music is also heard over the hit children’s television show “Dora the Explorer.”

Jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd fell in love with Yomo’s sound recording “El Espiritu Jibaro” with the funky jibaro in 2007 while Yomo’s super sonic salsa and Boricua roots licks are heard over Aurora & Zon del Barrio’s “Cortijo’s Tribe” CD along with the single “Homenaje al Sonero Mayor” released in July of 2010 where Yomo soars on solos that let him stretch and expand his virtuosity on strings.

Yomo Toro R.I.P.

Victor Gillermo Toro Vega Ramos Rodriguez Acosta

26 de Julio del 1933 – 30 de Junio del 2012

New York, NY – June 30, 2012 –Por mas de sesenta años presento con prominencia el instrumento nacional de Puerto Rico, "el cuatro" al mundo entero. El guitarrista de renombre internacional reconocido como “El Rey del Cuatro” Yomo Toro paso de este mundo el 30 de junio del 2012 a las 11:40 pm después de estar internado en un hospital de Nueva York por mas de un mes por insuficiencia renal.

Rodeado en un abrazo espiritual de amor y música que sus familiares y amigos le mantuvieron a su entorno en vigilia las 24 horas, el músico de 78 años de edad, Yomo Toro es sobrevivido por su esposa Minerva casados por mas de 31 años , su primera hija Denise Toro, sus hermanas Irma, Iris, Mirza y Milagros Toro, juntos a sus cinco nietos: Miriam Olivera, Martin Olivera, Denise Pinedo, Tiffany Pinedo & Denise Patricia Vélez y los tres tataranietos: Shaun Donate, Cloe Rodriguez and Martin Olivera. Sus hermanos Juan, Angel y Arcangel Toro quienes también estaban a su lado.

Desde los primeros sonidos vibrantes de su pequeña guitarra de diez cuerdas, momentos que paran los pelos corrieron através de los brazos, espalda y cuello del publico cuando el diminutivo seductor musical Yomo Toro montuniaba y con sus solos rascaba los cielos con arpegios celestiales, sus deditos gorditos volando por géneros musicales como las plenas, seis, y bombas de su país natal Puerto Rico hasta la salsa, jazz, rock, guitarra clásica y flamenco. El virtuoso interpreto estilos eclécticos entre esas manos angelicales que através de largos solos recogía su trayectoria musical.

Nacido en el barrio Ensenada de Guanica, Puerto Rico a los cinco años Yomo utilizo una caja como un refuerzo para poder treparse para tocar la guitarra de su papa que colgaba en la pared. Fue sorprendido por su padre Alberto que, en lugar de enojarse, le pidió al niño apodado “Yermo” que volviera a la caja y siguiera tocando la guitarra. Lo hizo. Cuando levanto la vista su padre estaba llorando.

Desde ese entonces, Yomo ha emocionado a muchos al son de su guitarra prefreída “el cuatro”, instrumento puertorriqueño de diez cuerdas descendiente del laúd y luego adaptadas a cuerdas dobles similar a la Valhala española. Como embajador de la cultura puertorriqueña Yomo Toro creció ha tener una carera de seis décadas conocido como uno de los músicos latinos mas respetado del mundo.

Después de aterrizar por primera vez a Nueva York en el 1953 con su banda “Los Cuatro Aces”
Yomo se embarco en una series de giras por el Caribe. Durante este tiempo fue que grabo el disco clásico con los maestros del cuatro Maso Rivera y Nieves Quintero apropiadamente titulado “Los Tres Cuatros”

Su sueño de tocar con el legendario Trío Los Panchos se realizo al principio de los años sesenta, donde Yomo grabo cuatro albunes con ellos y uno adonde canta Eyde Gorme.

El show de variedades de Yomo Toro por el canal 41 en Nueva York destaco muchos artistas y hizo un nombre para el joven cuatrista durante los años ‘60 al ‘70. Llamo la atención de Jerry Masucci y Johnny Pacheco co-propietarios del sello Fania y con el tiempo se unió como un importante parte de la Fania All Stars. El año 1969 fue especialmente notable cuando grabo su primer álbum de salsa “Tributo a Arsenio” con la Orquesta de Larry Harlow.

Fue llamado de nuevo por el guitarrista y compositor Roberto García para grabar un álbum de Navidad que Pacheco estaba grabando con un nuevo grupo. Roberto le pidió a Yomo que trajera su guitarra eléctrica, popular en esos tiempos, para sustituir por el. Pero, como Yomo cuenta la historia, cuando escucho la palabra “navidad”, agarro su cuatro en su lugar. Cuando Hector Lavoe vio el instrumento inmediatamente pensó en su mentor y amigo de Yomo el gran cantante folclórico Chuito el de Bayamon y los dos empezaron a comparar los aguinaldos que ambos conocían. A través de este encuentro musical con Hector LaVoe y Yomo en el 1972 salio a luz el clásico “Asalto Navideño” con Willie Colon y Hector Lavoe el cual se convirtió en uno de los mas vendidos clásicos de la Fania.

En los años de los ‘70, ‘80 y ‘90 su carrera salio como un tren de carga. Yomo participo en mas de 150 albunes grabando 20 discos como solista para los sellos Fania, Isla, Rounder Records y Green Linnet. Volvió a la televisión y al cine para tocar en anuncios publicitarios para varias empresas internacionales, como por ejemplos para los programas de televisión tan conocimos como "Sesame Street" y "El Fantasma de Padre Fohner " mientras su música sonaba de varias películas incluyendo "Crossover Dreams" con Ruben Blades y “Bananas” de Woody Allen.

Llamado "El Jimmy Hendrix del Cuatro" por el New York Times, Yomo Toro se extendió a muchos ambientes de grabación musical con grandes como Harry Belafonte, Paul Simon, Linda Ronstadt, Gloria Estafan y David Byrne. Su imagen se captura en estatuas elegidas en su honor tanto en Japón como en su ciudad natal de Guanica.

A pesar de haber viajado el mundo entero, ser miembro de las “estrellas de Fania,” y hacer películas, Yomo mantuvo una simple vida humildemente viviendo entre la gente de su barrio del Bronx adonde se instalo en la sección de Tremont desde el 1973, después de una temporada de haber residido en Brooklyn y en el Barrio. Yomo se presento en la Casa Blanca con el mismo orgullo, vigor y entusiasmo que compartía con sus hermanos musicales durante los bailes anuales en su barrio del Bronx en el Bronx Lebanon Hospital Center donde realizo su ultimo concierto en Octubre del 2010. Entre sus compañeros Yomo fue considerado el mas humilde entre los artistas que personificaba esa calidad extraordinaria de "alma de Dios", una rareza en esta sociedad urbana.

En el 1994 Yomo comenzó a viajar de nuevo y a grabar con las Leyendas Latinas de Larry Harlow. Dos años mas tarde lanzo uno de sus discos favoritos "Celebremos Navidad". Regresa en el 1998 esta vez como parte del musical de Off- Broadway de David González "Sofrito". La música de Yomo también se escucha en el programa popular de niños "Dora La Exploradora".

El trombonista de Jazz Roswell Rudd se enamoro de las cuerdas de Yomo y grabaron "El Espíritu Jibaro" en el 2007, mientras que el súper sonido de Yomo en la salsa tanto como su estilo único en la música jíbara de Puerto Rico se une en el críticamente aclamado disco debut de Zon del Barrio “La Tribu de Cortijo” seguido en el 2010 por el sencillo "Homenaje al Sonero Mayor" donde Yomo se escucha volando, innovando y estrechando su virtuosismo en la cuerdas de su querido cuatro.


Sammy Ayala
Original member of Cortijo y Su Combo

The most consistent figure on Puerto Rico’s musical journey from folk to popular, Sammy Ayala, born Carlos Samuel Ayala Román February 17, 1933 in Santurce, has been an integral presence from Rafael Cortijo’s Combo to Jesus Cepeda’s Grupo ABC.

Currently in New York after a 30 year absence, Sammy Ayala is a member of New York’s Zon del Barrio performing and recording three tunes on our debut cd: Cortijo’s Tribe / La Tribu de Cortijo. Septegenarian Sammy Ayala interprets the music from Puerto Rico’s golden age between the 50s and 60s when the percussion master, Rafael Cortijo blazed new musical as well as racial and economic trails appearing with his all black orchestra on Puerto Rican television, radio and film during 1954 until 1962.

In 1953, Cortijo's Combo was the first all-Black band to have band members book rooms at five-star tourist hotels. Featured as the house band for the Island's daily television variety show, Coritjo y Su Combo was the first all-black orchestra on television in the Americas 10 years before the Civil Rights Act was even signed into Congress in the U.S. Cortijo’s innovations transformed the folkloric bomba, forming and becoming part of what has come to be known as salsa. Cortijo also raised the pay scale for percussionists, being the first to pay them at the same level as other musicians. He also freed musicians from the music stands displaying a dancing brass along with the vocal front line. Cortijo y su Combo defined a nation through music.

Ayala recalls those heddy days of 1954 when Cortijo’s brother Gilberto, Sammy’s compadre, recommended the young soldier, shipped home from Korea, to sing with the band that would change the sound of Latin music. Sammy was a baladeer having studied vocals and piano at “La Escuela Libre” in Santurce. Influenced by the music of Los Panchos and Bobby Capó. However, with Cortijo y su Combo, Sammy played güiro (scratching gourd), coro and established a signature falsetto “ah, ah, ah” prevalent throughout Cortijo recordings.

He traveled with Cortijo y su Combo throughout Aruba and Curazao alternating with calypso bands at Caribbean festivals where Sammy’s “compradre,” Ismael Rivera, would ocassionally sing in English. They went on to perform in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, California, Connecticut, Panama, Dominican Republic, Venezuela and many more until 1962 when the group disbanded.

Cortijo’s popularity came from his mixture of the Cuban dance montunos with the native Puertorican rhythms of plena and bomba. That mixed with the varied rhythms of guarachas, mozambique, samba, merengue, and boogalu, made Cortijo’s sound an explosive, exhilarating experience that truly embraced the poetic concept of Puerto Rico and Cuba as two wings of one bird.

“I was at the band meeting in 1962 when it was decided to form another ‘combo’ away from Cortijo and I was the first one to abandon that idea.”
Sammy confesses. “It was not the time to do this when Cortijo had shared so much with us and created the platform for our success. I could not pay him back this way by turning my back on him when he needed us most.”

Throughout Cortijo’s manifestations, Ayala remained loyal to the percussive genius embracing Roberto Roena in 1959 when he replaced Roy Rosario. Sammy remained with Cortijo during the recording of “Los Internacionales” in 1962 when Rafa’s Combo sported a new musical team, and Sammy joined Ismael Rivera and his Cachimbos in the mid 60s before returning to Rafael Cortijo y su Bonche during the ‘70s. Sammy Ayala stood firm alongside Cortijo until the Maestro’s last recording, El Sueño del Maestro where Sammy records “second voice” on a bolero on the 1980 recording.

Meanwhile, Ayala has composed several hits such as “Lo Deje Llorando” interpreted by both Ismael Rivera and Hector LaVoe; “Dios Los Cría y Ellos Se Junta;” “Como Son Las Cosas” (bomba) and “Para Mi Gente” (plena) on the reunion record Juntos Otra Vez over the Coco label.

During Cortijo’s turbulent times in 1962, Sammy returned to school studying accounting and receiving a vocational certificate before enlisting in the Merchant Marines. He formed his own quintet recording the hit tune “La Picua” before it was popularized by Marvin Santiago. Ayala then went on to sing with Pepito Anengue, Liselia Sanjurjo and Nacho Sanabria. By 1965, Ayala returned to Cortijo when the bandleader, with the help of Tito Puente, put together an orchestra and a recording, “Bienvenidos,” to welcome Ismael Rivera who had just spent more than four years in a federal penetentiary in Lexington Kentucky.

Sammy Ayala left the music scene the following year in 1966 for the Merchant Marines travelling for two years before returning to Puerto Rico only to leave for New York and the music scene there. He joined the Gilberto Cruz Sextet where he is first recorded as a soloist on the Lp, “Yes I Will” in 1969 also featuring one of Ayala’s bombas, “Trata de Querer,” over Tico.

He joins the Joe Acosta Orchestra before getting the call from his compadre, Ismael Rivera to join his band, Los Cachimbos recording another one of his compositions: “Parece Que le Gusta” over Vaya Records. But Cortijo called him back to the Island where, by 1978, Ayala joins the maestro’s “Bonche.”

After a stint as a public servant for the Puerto Rico Lottery, Ayala forms Grupo Musical Bombazo 80 where his recording is filled with his own compositions featuring “Que He De Hacer,” “Seguiré Mi Camino,” “Cuide A La Comay” (bomba), “Señor Alcalde” (bomba), “Todo Cambio,” “No Te Confundas,” “Me Voy Queriéndote,” among others.

By 1985, Sammy Ayala becomes a part of Jesus Cepeda’s grupo ABC, (Arte Boricua Cultural) where he records “La Historia Se Repite,” and “Amor de Mascarada” featuring two of Sammy’s compositions “Que Lastima” and “Que He de Hacer.”

On October 6, 1996, the 23rd Festival of Bomba & Plena is dedicated to the soft spoken singer. Ayala records two Cds the following year with Plenarium over Tropix Music Records where his catchy “Levántate Juana,” is featured over the recording titled: Agúzate y Gózatelo: Navidad con Plenarium.

By 1998 “Los Hijos de los Celebres” is formed featuring the sons of Ismael Rivera, Andy Montañez, and Pellin Rodríguez singing one of Sammy’s tunes: El Que lo Hereda No Lo Hurta.”

Sammy Ayala has fathered four children: Carlos Samuel, Lourdes Caridad, Nayda Esther & Carlos Luís, and is immensely proud of his 13 grandchildren. Enjoying his golden years, Sammy Ayala is savoring the fruits of his numerous labors while drinking the milk of his music on the stage of life.


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