In this article, Errol L. Montes Pizarro (for CENTRO Voices) writes about musician Leopoldo F. Fleming, who—born in Puerto Rico—was raised in Puerto Rico, St. Thomas (U.S. Virgin Islands), and Spanish Harlem, before becoming a leading percussionist, playing for Miriam Makeba and Nina Simone, among others. Fleming’s fascinating trajectory is available here. See excerpts below:
[. . .] For a little more than thirty years, I have been collecting records and studying the history of African popular music, and the African musicians that have carved out professional careers for themselves around the world. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until two years ago, while I was watching the documentary “Mamá África”, that I found out that Leopoldo F. Fleming, a Puerto Rican musician, was a starring member of the three-piece band that backed up Miriam Makeba during the 1960s (the other two members of the trio that accompanied Miriam Makeba were the Brazilian accordionist, guitarist, and composer Severino Dias de Oliveira, alias Sivuca, and the African-American bassist William Salter). Leopoldo worked with Makeba from 1965 until she established herself in Conakry, Guinea near the start of the 1970s. Afterward, he continued working with her intermittently and backed her up when she was able to return to South Africa again after the liberation of Nelson Mandela and the collapse of Apartheid.
When I found out that Leopoldo F. Fleming had a starring role in the work of Miriam Makeba, I gave myself the task of getting to know his story. Searching for information on his career, I learned that in addition to working with the South African diva, since 1971, Fleming had been a member of the band that accompanied Nina Simone, to which he also made important contributions. Finding out via the internet these aspects of Leopoldo’s professional life made me feel like a kid with a new toy.
I did a search and was able to contact Leopoldo F. Fleming via Facebook, and on June 14th, 2015, the anthropologist Isar P. Godreau and I went to visit him in his current residence in Paterson, New Jersey. We found ourselves with a very friendly, talkative man, full of anecdotes and proud to be Boricua. [. . .]
The life of Leopoldo F. Fleming is in many respects paradigmatic to the life of all Caribbean people for whom migration has been a defining act. He was born on September 16th, 1939 in the public housing complex known as the Falansterio, which was inaugurated in 1937 in Puerta de Tierra. His mother was Asunción Burguillo Díaz, who was born in that same neighborhood in 1918 or 1919.
His father, Leopoldo Leander Fleming (Leo) —from whom Leopoldo inherited his name and talent for music—arrived with his mother in San Juan as a child, from the neighboring island of Saint Thomas. [. . .] In 1947, when Leopoldo was eight years old, his parents separated and his father, Leo, took him and his younger brother Johnny to Saint Thomas. They stayed there for four years until his father finally brought them with him to New York, moving to 117th in Spanish Harlem.
Leopoldo showed signs of musical talent from an early age. According to what he told us, his paternal aunt with whom he lived in Saint Thomas for four years before coming to New York complained that “this child is going to be a percussionist because he’s always banging on the tables and chairs”. Even at 77 years of age, Leopoldo still bangs on the table, which he does intermittently while we are interviewing him. That aunt definitely had a good ear to take notice of her nephew’s musical talent because Leopoldo’s paternal side of the family had been musicians for generations. His grandfather, William ‘Willie’ Fleming played mandolin and trombone. Also, three of his paternal uncles —Bill, Herbie, and Jimmy— were noted singers and instrumentalists; one of them, Bill Fleming, played trumpet and harmonica in a jazz orchestra in Saint Thomas. [. . .]
Leopoldo F. Fleming learned to play congas and other percussion instruments from a young age. He began with Cuban rumba, and later he learned Puerto Rican bomba with his dad. In addition, he played clarinet with the school band. When he was around fifteen years old, he was already playing percussion at a dance school in the Katherine Dunham system. [. . .]