NYT Obituary: Yomo Toro, Virtuoso of Latin Music, Dies at 78

Yomo Toro, a force in New York’s Latin music scene since the 1950s and a virtuosic left-handed player of the cuatro, a mandolinlike Puerto Rican instrument, died in the Bronx on Saturday. He was 78, Ben Ratliff writes in this obituary for The New York Times.

The cause was kidney failure, said his friend Aurora Flores, a writer, publicist and musician.

Salsa, a dance-band music that had room for singer-songwriter ambitions, jazz harmony and Cuban roots, moved its best instrumental soloists to the foreground in the ’60s and ’70s. On records with Willie Colón, Hector Lavoe, Larry Harlow and the supergroup known as the Fania All-Stars, Mr. Toro’s sound became instantly recognizable.

He played the standard guitar and the smaller requinto guitar, but he was best known as a cuatrista. Associated with Puerto Rican folk culture and the music of the jíbaro, or inland mountain dweller, the cuatro has 10 strings in five groupings of two, either octaves or unisons. Mr. Toro could cut through an orchestra with it, especially once he started adding an electric pickup and plugged it into an amplifier.

On records like Mr. Colón’s “Doña Toña” and “La Murga” and the Fania All-Stars’ “Quitate Tu” — taken from a 1971 performance at the Cheetah Club in New York that was filmed for the documentary “Our Latin Thing” — he soloed with great drive and swing. Influenced by the Cuban musician Arsenio Rodríguez, who played the tres (the Cuban analogue to the cuatro), he locked into rhythm-section vamps, erupted in bright, frenetic strums or improvised melodically, landing his notes between the beats.

Mr. Toro was born Victor Guillermo Toro Vega Ramos Rodríguez Acosta on July 26, 1933, in Ensenada, within the municipality of Guánica, near the southwestern corner of Puerto Rico. His father, Alberto, drove a truck for the cane mills of the South Porto Rican Sugar Company and played cuatro in a band along with Mr. Toro’s uncles.

Mr. Toro followed his father to house parties and started learning to play the requinto and the cuatro at an early age. As a teenager he moved to San Juan to work with the band Los Quatro Ases (the Four Aces), led by the singer Bury Cabán. The group’s work took him to New York for the first time in 1953, and he had settled there permanently by 1957.

Mr. Toro played traditional Puerto Rican and Mexican music on guitar and cuatro in New York through the 1950s and ’60s — with the singers Odilio González and Victor Rolón Santiago and with Los Panchos, the internationally famous Mexican bolero trio, among others. By the late ’60s he was hosting his own television on New York’s Channel 41, “El Show de Yomo Toro,” and had fully caught up with salsa, which was becoming both a popular musical movement and a progressive one.

He was hired to play on a Christmas-themed salsa record by Mr. Colón, “Asalto Navideño,” which included songs from the Puerto Rican parranda, or caroling, tradition. It became one of the most successful releases for Fania, salsa’s greatest label, and its fame solidified the cuatro’s role in salsa.

That album’s success led to a sequel in 1973, as well as a third holiday record in 1979 with Mr. Lavoe and the singer Daniel Santos. (On the covers of those two albums Mr. Toro is pictured dressed as Santa Claus. Short, round, joyous and rarely seen without a hat after the 1970s, he was well suited to that role and went on to reprise it in many holiday concerts.)

Mr. Toro toured the world with the Fania All-Stars in the 1970s and recorded two solo albums for Fania, “Romantico” and “Musico Para El Mundo Entero.” During the height of the salsa era he also played on more albums by Mr. Colón, as well as by Ismael Rivera, Larry Harlow, Cheo Feliciano, Tipica 73 and others.

In 1987, working with the producer Verna Gillis, he recorded “Funky Jibaro,” with a kind of updated Puerto Rican roots sound, for the Antilles label, and played on the singer and percussionist Daniel Ponce’s “Arawe” for the same label. His other credits include soundtrack music for Woody Allen’s “Bananas” and the children’s television show “Dora the Explorer,” and albums including David Byrne’s “Rei Momo” (1989) and Linda Ronstadt’s “Frenesi” (1992), as well as a collaboration in 2007 with the jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd, “El Espiritu Jíbaro.” He also performed frequently with Ms. Flores’s band, Zon del Barrio.

A longtime resident of the Bronx, Mr. Toro is survived by his wife of 31 years, Minerva; his daughter, Denise Toro; his sisters, Lydia, Iris, Mirza and Milagros Toro; his brothers, Juan, Angel and Arcangel Toro; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Mr. Toro remained a modest personality by comparison with some of the other superstars of salsa. “He’d sit in your living room and play like he was playing at Madison Square Garden,” Ms. Flores said. “He brought that salt-of-the-earth jíbaro mind-set to the music. In that way he taught us the culture, to be proud of the culture.”

For the original report go to http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/03/arts/music/yomo-toro-latin-music-virtuoso-dies-at-78.html

2 thoughts on “NYT Obituary: Yomo Toro, Virtuoso of Latin Music, Dies at 78

  1. Ben Ratiff this is a great, conscious and sincere obituary and segue for a great cultural Puerto Rican artists. We could input here that traditional Puerto Rican phrase “Que Descanse en Paz! o Descansa en Paz, Yomo Toro!”, but Don Yomo Toro’s legacy will live and remain with us forever. As long as the electronic rendition of his high quality sound tracks keep being reproduce. It is interesting that, although there is sadness in our hearts for his physical absence, his super enthusiastic spirit keeps being sitting in our porches and friendly gathering places in our hearts forever. Thank-you Ben Ratiff for this contribution and sincere “panegirico” of our DON YOMO TORO!

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