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Yomo Toro

...this giant raised the Puerto Rican cuatro onto the world stage!
                                                                                          Yomo Toro (1933-2012)


Image courtesy Ansonia Records

EXTRA: LISTEN TO YOMO TEACHING US A LESSON ON THE SEIS
EXTRA: Friends and admirers REMEMBERING YOMO

Yomo in his requinto days, backing the troubador Victor Rolón Santiago, burning up his little requinto guitar in Por ser loco y no pensar [That's what you get for being crazy and thoughtless] (courtesy Antonio & David Morales collection)

Yomo back the great troubador/crooner Odilio González along with Maneco on guitar and Papi Andino on bongo in a scandalous Seis chorreao titled Fiesta en Villa Prades [Party in Villa Prades] (courtesy Antonio & David Morales collection)

Two titans together: Yomo Toro and Tuto Feliciano together back the the troubador/crooner Jose Miguel Class in a recording dated 1963, a bolero titled Ninguna como tú  [None like you] (courtesy Antonio & David Morales collection)

A fragment displaying Yomo's subtle inventiveness within the smash hit piece Murga de Panamá with the Fania All-Stars

Again the two titans Yomo Toro and Tuto Feliciano backing Jose Miguel Class in the same 1963 recording, a romantic vals titled Niégalo [Deny it] (courtesy Antonio & David Morales collection)

 

 

El gran Yomo Toro
Yomo Toro in a Bronx recording studio in 1994  Photo by Juan Sotomayor

"My name is Yomo Toro".

In 1996, Yomo gave us a short autobiography summarizing his long life with the cuatro

"My name is Yomo Toro. I was born in the southwestern part of Puerto Rico, in a village called Guánica, in a neighborhood called Ensenada where there was a sugar cane processing factory--one of the largest in the Antilles--actually, I think it was the second biggest (the biggest was in Cuba), the second largest in the Antilles. It was in Guánica. It was called the South Porto [sic] Rican Sugar Company. The neighborhood folks made their living there, they worked at the processing factory. Some did one thing, others did something else. My father was a "technician," in other words, he drove. He was a driver, he drove the machines that loaded the cane that arrived for the mill. There were four sugar mills.

Yomo Jóven con requinto     And there's where I came from. My whole name is: Víctor Guillermo Toro Vega Ramos Rodríguez Acosta. There: my whole family. Well then, I began when I was six years old. It all began with the fact that my uncles all worked at the sugar mill. And then on weekends they'd get together. They were called The Roosters, and they weren't professional but they played a little music. I had an uncle who played cuatro, another played the guitar, another the flute, another clarinet, each one in his own manner. And among them, the cuatrista was my father. And at six, when I was six years old, my musical restlessness began, and that was in Ensenada, Puerto Rico.
      When they went to play on weekends, little dances in homes here and there, well, I always went along. I remember that my father hung his cuatro from the wall. And I remember that I used to handle the cuatro--or better said, fondle the cuatro--and from that came my desire to learn how to play music, to do something musical with my life. And that's how I started, and when I was fifteen more or less, I played in school.
       And that's how I began--when I was fifteen years old more or less, I played for the school. And we were three kids who were students in the school and we were called "the school band."
      And in that way I played during all the school programs, and I became polished bit by bit until one day a señor from San Juan showed up who was looking for a lead guitar to put together a trio called Los Cuatro Ases de Puerto Rico [The Four Aces of Puerto Rico], which included the [famed singer and composer] Tito Lara. They had spoken to him about a kid in Ensenada which played requinto [a small lead guitar] and cuatro. So he went there and they came looking for me and I played the cuatro and the guitar for him, and he told me to sign a contract and he signed me onto a contract binding me for something like ten years.

 

 

 
Yomo with his requinto requinto guitar, along with his Grupo Los Príncipes.

So that was the first time I went to San Juan, Puerto Rico, to play and I remember I began to record with Bury Cabán and the Four Aces, and then [the famed singer] José Antonio Salamán. I also began to play with the Universitarios, El Trío Universitario [the University Trio] of San Juan. I played with the [famed trio] Los Antares, with Felipe Rodríguez, I played with Raimundo, and with everybody over there.
    
And the first time I came to New York City was in 1953, with the Cuatro Ases, to play in the Teatro Boricua [Boricua Theatre] which was at 108 Lexington Avenue. That's the first time I came to play in New York City. From there I returned to Puerto Rico again, and then I returned with José Antonio Salamán and with my compadre Polo Ocasio, a tremendous guitarist from Puerto Rico, among the very best-and we played in the Teatro Puerto Rico, and then I went to Puerto Rico in '56. I came to New York again to play and I remained there living every day till now..


Yomo backing the legendary crooner Daniel Santos in New York in 1960

I became part of the many little New York trios that played around New York City, playing with whatever little group asked me to. I began to make a living from the music. So I have always made a living from music. I don't live for anything else. If you asked me to do something else, I'd crash and burn, you know. But I've always lived off my music, and I have always done the same thing.
     And then around 1970, in the seventies I began to record Salsa music. That was around the time when Willie Colón was hanging around with Héctor Lavoe and the Fania All Stars. He decided to do a Christmas LP, but they wanted to use an electric guitar--since Willie Colón wasn't so into the cuatro at the time, to Puerto Rico traditional music, for the simple reason that he was into Salsa, which was Salsa dance music played with an orchestra. But when  they called me they said to show up with an electric guitar to record with Willie Colón and instead of an electric guitar, I brought a cuatro: I hung it over my back and went to the studio.. [ed. Willie Colón has a different take on that history: he insists that he hired Yomo to play the cuatro for that album--that he was indeed very much into traditional music since he was a kid, and that so it was Willie and Hector's idea to bring a cuatro into the band, not Yomo's] Willie Colon's peronal response is included at the end of this piece].


Yomo acompañando a Ruben Blades con una Gibson Les Paul, en un espectáculo de la Fania All-Stars

I remember when I entered the studio, Pacheco was directing the recording and when he saw me with the cuatro he said, "Ha! Who are you coming to record with, Ramito?" and I told him, "no, no, with Willie Colón, I'm doing the Christmas album." And they all kept quiet and didn't say anything. But when I started recording with them, recording the tracks, and we came to the end of the session, Willie Colón told me, "Never in my life have I had such a happy time as this. I think this will be a big hit." And sure enough it became one of Fania's greatest hits, so up to this day the recording Asalto Navideño, that I made with Willie Colón and Hector Lavoe, became and will always be a standard forever, because when people drop and break the record, they buy another one to replace it.
     From then on I passed on to become one of the stars of Fania, and up to this very day I am still a Fania star. So I remained there living in New York City up to now, and I spend my time traveling around the world and thanks to God, music has been very good to me, and I've remained always in the musical struggle--as we like to say: in the musical battle. Thanks to God, I have no vices, I don't drink, I don't smoke any sort of cigarettes. Well, though, true, I've gotten fat, but it's no big deal, you can get over it, but if one drinks and smokes too much you can get heart disease, and get stuff that isn't very good for your musical career. But thanks to God, up to now I'm 64 years old, I'm no kid. And up to now I've been hanging out with a lot of cuatristas and those kids that have become virtuosos, the cuatro virtuosos like Edwin Colón Zayas, Pedrito Guzmán, Prodigio Claudio. I've had the opportunity to play next to them and spent so good times with them. If I happen to die right now, I'll be dying laughing, like this: [he flashes a wide toothy grin to the camera]

 

Yomo Toro and his old friend, the legendary Diómedes "Yomi" Matos rehearsing before a 1998 presentation at  the Carmichael Hall of the  Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, an event that the Cuatro Project helped put together. Photo by John Sotomayor.


Willie Colón responded to the Cuatro Project in 2013 after reading this:

"In this biography Yomo is re-writing history. To say I didn't know what a cuatro was (ed.: he said, "so since Willie Colón wasn't so into the cuatro at that time, into Puerto Rican traditional music...) is unjust and belittles my contribution. That recording [Asalto Navideño] was already arranged and rehearsed when Yomo was invited. Evidence of the untruth can be found where he remembers that Pacheco said something or other. Before this recording the salseros laughed at the cuatro and jíbaro music. I was the one who raised the funding for this project. I was the one who got Yomo into Fania All Stars. When I "discovered" Yomo he was playing in go-go bars. I made it possible for him to achieve a better standard of life."