Tito Matos, Puerto Rican sound virtuoso, dies at 53

Tito Matos, a master percussionist, revered educator and lifelong champion of the Puerto Rican style of music known as plena, died Jan. 18 in San Juan, PR. He was 53.

His wife, Mariana Reyes Angleró, said the cause was a heart attack.

Mr. Matos was a virtuoso of the requinto, the smallest and highest pitched hand drum, or pandereta, used in the plena. Rooted in African song traditions, the plena emerged in the early 20th century on the south coast of Puerto Rico and became known as “el periódico cantado”, or “the sung diary”. In street corner style, it told stories, some gossip, about the love and concerns of working class and everyday black Puerto Ricans. In its early years, wealthy elites decried the genre.

Mr. Matos was a member of several plena groups but first gained wide recognition with the group Viento de Agua, founded in New York in 1996. He reinvented plena and bomba, another style of Afro-Puerto Rican music and dance , infusing them with jazz textures, exuberant horn sections and Cuban batá rhythms.

For Mr. Matos, the group’s debut album, “De Puerto Rico al Mundo” (1998), opened the door to a dynamic career that transformed him into one of the greatest plena practitioners of his generation.

Héctor René Matos Otero was born on June 15, 1968 in the Río Piedras neighborhood of San Juan, one of the three children of Héctor Matos Gámbaro and Hilda I. Otero Maldonado. His father was an accountant and a salsa enthusiast; his mother is a housewife.

Raised in Villa Palmeras, a neighborhood in the section of Santurce that is considered a link between bomba and plena, Héctor embraced plena at the age of 8 when his grandfather gave him his first pandereta, for the holidays of the feast of the Three Kings. Héctor had no formal musical training and could not read sheet music, but his love for the plena was planted.

He moved to New York in 1994 and eventually graduated with a degree in landscape architecture from City College. He entered a new diasporic community of musicians, joining Los Pleneros de la 21, an intergenerational ensemble from East Harlem, and learning from plena masters who had emigrated to New York in the 1940s and 1950s.

In New York, he meets Ricardo Pons and Alberto Toro, two saxophonists-arrangers. “Tito was addicted to plena,” Mr. Pons said in a phone interview. “A fiebrú,” he added, laughing, “as if he had a fever.”

Historically, only certain families were custodians of the plena, responsible for keeping its traditions and rhythms alive. “It was a problem, because they were very restrictive,” Mr. Matos said in a 2010 interview.

Instead, Viento de Agua sought innovation. “It was not about keeping plena or bomba,” Mr. Pons said; “it was about doing what we wanted with it.”

The band’s album “De Puerto Rico al Mundo” was imbued with an irreverent and imaginative spirit. Writing in The New York Times, Peter Watrous called it “exuberant and boisterous”.

The band has performed in Mexico, Cuba, and across the United States, sometimes accompanied by a full jazz band.

“Tito was super, super gregarious and charismatic,” Ed Morales, a journalist, author and friend of Mr. Matos, said in a telephone interview. Mr. Matos, he added, had a special ability to reach Puerto Ricans both on the island and in the diaspora and instill a sense of communion in them – especially when he performed at a biennial concert at Hostos Community College in the Bronx.

“You must really feel the connection between the people of Puerto Rico and the people of New York more than almost anywhere else,” Mr. Morales said.

In the early 2000s, Mr. Matos returned to Puerto Rico, where he became an educator and cultural advocate. He co-founded Plenazos Callejeros, a monthly initiative that brought together musicians across Puerto Rico for spontaneous plena performances on street corners.

“He got a lot of young people picking up a pandereta,” Mr Morales said – “people who weren’t necessarily interested in the plena, because maybe they thought it sounded cheesy or something. , or that it wasn’t like salsa or hip-hop or reggaeton.

Today, plena is experiencing a cultural renaissance; in recent years, he has played a central role in progressive political rallies and protests in Puerto Rico, including those in the summer of 2019 that led to the resignation of Governor Ricardo Rosselló.

Later projects saw Mr. Matos collaborating with stars like Eddie Palmieri, Ricky Martin and jazz saxophonist and composer Miguel Zenón. Mr. Matos went on to found the band La Máquina Insular, which focused on bringing plena back to its roots.

In 2015, he and his wife founded La Junta, a bar and performance space in Santurce, where they led live music and plena workshops. Hurricane Maria destroyed the space in 2017, but its spirit was rekindled in “La Casa de la Plena”, a historic exhibition, curated by the couple, which opened in May 2021 at Taller Comunidad La Goyco, a community center they established in an abandoned school building in Santurce that they had renovated.

Besides his mother and wife, whom he married in 2013, Mr. Matos is survived by their son, Marcelo; two children from previous marriages that ended in divorce, Celiana and Héctor; one brother, Yan Matos Otero; and a sister, Glennis Matos Otero.

On January 21, Mr. Matos was honored with a huge procession in Santurce. Friends, family members and dozens of fans marched through the streets, drumming on panderetas and singing words of gratitude. “Muchas gracias, te amamos,” they chanted – “Thank you very much. We love you.”

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