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Héctor "Tito" Matos, a master and custodian of Puerto Rican plena, has died at 53

Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián. Presentación de Los Pleneros de la 23 Abajo, en la Plaza Colón/19 de enero 2014
Ricardo Alcaraz Díaz
Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián. Presentación de Los Pleneros de la 23 Abajo, en la Plaza Colón/19 de enero 2014

Listen to the Latin Jazz Cruise this Friday from 9-11 p.m. ET, for a tribute to Tito.

Héctor “Tito” Matos, a master of Puerto Rico’s indigenous music forms, bomba and plena, died on Jan. 18, at his home in the city of Santurce, Puerto Rico. He was 53.

His family confirmed his death to El Nuevo Dia, without providing a cause.

As cofounder of the band Viento De Agua, Matos helped modernize the bomba and plena traditions with the addition of trap drums and keyboards; elements of funk, rock and jazz harmony; and arranging techniques that have influenced every subsequent group in the styles today.

A virtuoso percussionist, vocalist, composer, and bandleader, Matos was also a committed educator who was passionate in his preservation and propagation of the island’s African-rooted music forms, especially plena. Whereas bomba is rooted in Bantú Congolese rhythms played on barrel drums covered with goat skin, accompanied by a large maraca and two sticks known as the cuá striking any wood surface, the plena is a separate art form with its own history and rhythmic language.

Born in the cities of Guayama and Ponce in the late 19th century, its acknowledged creator was a Black ox plow driver, Joselino “Bum Bum” Oppenheimer. The genre’s first acknowledged composer, he taught his new creations in tertulias (gatherings) held in bars. At its heart is its propulsive rhythm and a vocal tradition of commenting on the day’s events, society, local gossip, politics, love of country, news, or any other topic of importance. Thus it became known as the island’s musical newspaper.

Hector "Tito" Matos (left), leads a celebratory plena musical bar hopping jam session along the trendy Calle Loiza neighborhood in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Angel Valentin
Hector "Tito" Matos (left), leads a celebratory plena musical bar hopping jam session along the trendy Calle Loiza neighborhood in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Central to its performance are the jingle-less frame drums known as panderetas or panderos. Played in a set of three drums of various sizes — requinto (small), punto de clave or punteador (middle), and seguidor or fundador (largest) — held rhythmically together by the scraped gourd known as the guicharo. Since the rhythms can be performed while marching, the plena is of great importance during carnaval, holiday celebrations.

Matos was acknowledged as the premier requinto player (the pandereta that improvises) of his day, both on the island and in the diaspora community of New York City, while also simultaneously being able to sing the lead voice. He first came to prominence in 1997 with Viento de Agua (Wind of Water), the group he formed with saxophonist-arrangers Ricardo Pons and Alberto Toro.

“I had met Tito in Old San Juan and then reconnected with him in New York City through Juan Gutterrez of the Pleneros de La 21 around 1994-5,” recalls Toro. “Tito was studying civil engineering at NYU and then at City College. He, Ricardo, and I had a lot of conversations about how he thought most people looked at bomba and plena as just museum pieces and he wanted to change that. He wanted to update the music beyond what Rafael Cortijo had originally done in the 1950s and then later into the 70s. The idea was to do for bomba and plena what groups like Irakere and Los Van Van had done for Cuban dance music — making it super hip, but still danceable. As you know, this music had always been insular because of the families that preserved it on the island but in many ways have kept it to themselves. Tito wanted to expand its audience and make it grow. Hence the title of the first album which means, ‘From Puerto Rico to The World.’”

Matos himself addressed the situation in a 2010 interview with Sylvia Pfeiffenberger, for Indy Week. “For the first time in my generation, we decided that we were not going to continue the tradition of keeping the rhythms and the stories and the tradition only in the major bomba and plena families,” he said. “They kept the tradition alive for plenty of years and they were great custodians of it, but it was a problem because they were very restrictive. Some of the old masters were dying, and they were taking the information and the music and the lyrics with them. There was some stuff that was lost. We didn't want that to continue.”

The group’s debut release, De Puerto Rico al Mundo, showcased the forward-thinking approach of its co-leaders, with Matos at its heart and soul as chief vocalist and requinto player. The New York Times listed it as one of the Top 10 CDs in World Music for 1998. The formation of the group itself wasn’t born in a vacuum. Said Matos: “We drew a lot of inspiration from two albums that Rafael Cortijo recorded, El Sueño Del Maestro and Cortijo’s Machina Del Tiempo.” Both works pointed to a 21st vision of what bomba and plena could become.

La Plena - Tito Matos

Hector René Matos Otero was born on June 15, 1968 in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, but raised in the barrio of Villa Palmeras in San Mateo de Cangrejos, which today is known as the city of Santurce. His father, Hector Gambaros Matos, was an accountant and amateur Nuyorican musician who Matos described as a salsa fanatic. But it was at age eight that his maternal grandfather, Felipe Otero Torres, changed his life, presenting him with his first pandereta as a Three Kings Day gift.

“That really transformed me because I grew up in Villa Palmera, which is very well known as one of the hot spots of bomba and plena in Puerto Rico,” Matos said. “I went to grammar school with the sons and daughters of the patriarch of bomba and plena, Don Rafael Cepeda. He and the whole Cepeda family once came to our school (San Vincente) and played for us!”

Matos soon became known for his virtuosity on the requinto, the smallest and highest pitched of the drum choir in plena, which solos. “I actually started on the requinto. In the beginning I taught myself by just watching. But later on, Felix Diaz, Luis Daniel “Chichito” Cepeda, Juan Guttierez, Luis Lagarto Figueroa, and Juan ‘Jonsy’ Martinez became my models. The definition of the requintero to me is the guy who plays the perfect hit at the perfect time. I started as a righty. But I play requinto better as a lefty… so I’m a righty with issues.”

By 16, Matos had begun also singing while being able to simultaneously play the requinto. He began playing professionally with five groups — Los Pleneros Del Almendro, Pleneros Del Pueblo, Sapos Del Caño, Pleneros Del Coqui, and Pleneros De La 23 Abajo. But he crossed a Rubicon with his move to New York City in 1993, to study engineering at New York University, and later at City College.

“When I came to New York I was going crazy because I wasn’t playing with anyone,” Matos recalled. “I had been leaving messages for Juan Guttierez who I had met in Puerto Rico and lived in the city. But he wasn’t returning my phone calls. Trombonist William Cepeda had invited me to a gig he had with his group Afro-Rican Jazz at SOBs, and asked me to sit in. Juan was in the audience and saw me and he said to me, ‘Hey you’re that lefty guy I met in Puerto Rico.’ I told him, ‘Yeah, mother flower, I’ve been calling you and you don’t return my calls!’ By the next week I was a member of his group Los Pleneros De La 21.”

Subsequent work and recordings with his other groups, La Machina Insular and Viento De Aqua Unplugged, as well as luminaries like Eddie Palmieri, Ricky Martin, David Sánchez and others, cemented his reputation. But his work with Puerto Rican saxophonist Miguel Zenón on the critically acclaimed 2009 album Esta Plena displayed his virtuosity in full force as both a percussionist and vocalist. So much so that current students of the genre have begun transcribing his solos.

Esta Plena

“I was hanging out in Puerto Rico over the holidays, and I started hanging with a lot of pleneros, like Tito, and the people that played with him,” Zenón told Pfeiffenberger. “I started to put a lot of thought into what plena was, and what it actually meant to Puerto Rican culture. A lot of the music that I ended up writing, especially the lyrics, was specifically with Tito in mind. In a way, it's almost like it's his project.”

Matos is survived by his mother, Hilda Otero; his wife, noted journalist Mariana Reyes Angleró; their son, Marcelo; and two children from a previous marriage, Celiana and Hector.

His most lasting musical contribution began in 2003 with a series of Plenas Callejeras (Street Plenas) to preserve and propagate plena throughout the island. It has led to a cultural renaissance that spread to the entire diaspora community worldwide.

In 2015 Matos created in a storefront location, La Junta (The Board), a cultural center where he taught plena to the community. Destroyed in 2017 by Hurricane Maria, it was reborn in May of 2021 when he curated La Casa De la Plena (The House of Plena), a historical exhibition at the Taller Comunidad La Goyco, in the Calle Loíza of his hometown of Santurce.

Here the exhibition houses the personal collection of videos, records, photos, tapes, writings, and ephemera on plena of the noted historian and cultural anthropologist Dr. Ramón Lopez. It is completely open to the public, for students and scholars of Tito’s beloved plena. “I grew up playing bomba and know it well. But to me my first love is, and will always be, the plena.”

Bobby Sanabria is an eight time Grammy-nominee as a leader, drummer, percussionist, composer, arranger, conductor, documentary film producer, educator, activist, and bandleader. A native son of the South Bronx born to Puerto Rican parents, he has performed and recorded with such legends as Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaría, Dizzy Gillespie, Chico O’Farrill, Ray Barretto, Cándido, Henry Threadgill, Larry Harlow, and the Godfather of Afro-Cuban jazz, Mario Bauzá.