Following the trail of Jesús Ríos Robles,
Chuíto el de Cayey
By David Morales, Cuatro Project researcher
Written with the collaboration of Myriam Fuentes. Originally, a speech before the Puerto Rican Popular Music Association, May, 2005
The numbers in the text refer to footnote at the end.
Chuíto with a cane-cutter's straw hat and guitar in a studio photo taken in 1949. Photograph from the collection of Noemi Rosas Robles
The search for detailed information about the history of traditional Puerto Rican music is one that seems to get more and more difficult as years go by. Several prominent sources come to the fore, but all too frequently they offer error or insufficient detail. This state of affairs gives rise to fictional accounts lacking any foundation within a real historic trajectory. If to this picture we add the fact that many artists of yesteryear are no longer among us, we can understand how any kind of rigorous compilation of the facts surrounding our traditional music has become such an increasingly difficult undertaking.
As a result, we have little choice but to keep rummaging through the few remaining historical scraps about our traditional music, hoping to stumble upon details that were hitherto lost or overlooked. Only after repeatedly scrutinizing the historic data dispersed within interviews, 78 rpm recordings, magazines and other sources, can we hope to discover any new speck of information that might transform our perception or perspective of the unfolding story of our native music.
Our mission is not only to reveal this new information but to also to revise the existing historiography, clarifing it to enrich the narrative already created from established information sources and from the testimony of the personalities that animate the history of our jibaro music. With this mission in mind, we offer the fruits of our biographic pursuit of Jesús Ríos Robles, known as "Chuíto el de Cayey," one of the major foundations of our traditional Puerto Rican music (1). In the following essay, we offer our readers the trajectory of the life of the illustrious Puerto Rican décima composer, singer and improvisor Chuíto el de Cayey's life. As far as we know, this is the first effort to thoroughly examine the artistic career of this illustrious troubadour.
Chuíto [a popular Puerto Rican nickname for boys named Jesús] was born Jesús Ríos Robles in March of 1910 (2). His parents were José Robles Torres and María Ríos Maldonado. His father was a coffee plantation laborer and his mother was a homemaker. Chuíto had four siblings: Carmela, José, María A., and María. Among them, Chuíto was the youngest.
We have no information about his early days in Jayuya. We don't know how he learned to improvise or compose the décima. We also don't know how he learned or developed his style as a singer, nor how he came to learn to play the guitar. What we do know is that Chuíto blessed us with a score of his own compositions, written in a unique style which exercised great influence upon the many jíbaro troubadours that followed.
Chuito in New York City circa 1949. Photo courtesy Lucy Berros Rios y Vicente Rios
His Musical Background...
By 1914-1915 the anthropologist J. Alden Mason visited Puerto Rico and produced more than 100 historically valuable field recordings. These recordings included aguinaldos, décimas, seises, bombas and other Puerto Rican genres. Between 1916 and 1921 we find even more companies recording or searching for recording talent in Puerto Rico. In 1916, the Victor company recorded more than 20 pieces by the Quinteto Borinquen, among which only several numbers with a traditional flavor were included.
Much of the recording activity took place in San Juan, but on the Island's southern coast, Ponce was also a vital center of commerce, tradition and musical activity. It was the birthplace of the world renown tenor Antonio Paoli and during the first decades of the 20th century it was still a city of great artistic and cultural activity. This was evidenced by the gathering of important authors and performers that lived in the city, such as Julio Alvarado, the Ponce Fireman's Band, the Tizol family, Ángel Pacheco Alvarado (the singer known as Jíbaro de Peñuelas) and others. Also, Ponce saw the development of a new sound called plena that could be heard in the Joya del Castillo and San Antón (3) neighborhoods. As far as we know no plena recordings of that time exist.
His First Steps To Fame...
Precisely at the beginnings of 1930 we find Chuíto in Ponce, when he was around twenty years old. The young artist lived in the San Tomás hills of the Tumba La Vieja neighborhood, from which he moved to Calle del Agua street in Ponce (4). It may have been here where Chuíto acquired his musical ear and a large part of his décima material. We need to remember that in Ponce there also lived two great maestros of the art of rhyming décimas: Don Ángel Pacheco Alvarado (5) from Peñuelas and Don Arturo Silvagnoli.
It was in this environment that Chuíto was initiated into the art of singing décimas and popular music, along with the blind "Ciego Luna"- Gabriel Luna of Ponce (6). According to our sources, Gabriel Luna played lead guitar while Chuíto sang. It is possible that Gabriel Luna was the one who taught Chuíto to play the guitar.
We know that since the 19th century, troubadour contests were held in Ponce. We also know that by 1932, Chuíto had stood out in one of those contests. According to information furnished by Ramito during and interview, "around 1932…a troubadour contest was held in Caguas. That was after I was signed by Don Juan Brugal and Don Pepe Belardo, who were the owners of Brugal, Caballito y Trafic rums. Chuíto el de Cayey also began at that time."(7)
During 1932, Chuíto traveled to Cayey, thanks to several musicians of that mountainous town: Valentín Medina and Vicente Ortega "Bejuco" formed up a dúo en Cayey which traveled around the island seeking their fame and fortune. Valentín Medina was from Ponce, a cigar-maker by profession and he played the guitar. The members of the duo met Chuíto during one of their trips to Ponce. Since they didn't include traditional music in their repertory, they decided to invite Chuíto to sing with they in en Cayey.
In Cayey, Chuíto attained local fame due to his ability to improvise décimas, his comedic talents and his ability to perform the role of master of ceremonies. In Cayey, Chuíto took up with Herminia Hernández - Doña Millín, with which he lived for a short period on Eugenio Sánchez street, in the Pueblo Nuevo district. According to Rafael "Rafita" Torres, Chuíto was about 24 or 25 years old at the time. Torres was but a child of 14 at the time, who enlivened the same coffee houses that Chuíto entertained in, such as the "Los Turpiales" coffee house. (8)
Rafita remembers that Chuíto introduced a lot of innovative styles to Cayey. Along with the Medina and Ortega duo, Chuíto formed a musical group named Conjunto Rosas del Plata (9). The conjunto was made up Chuíto el de Cayey (voice), Valentín Medina (guitar), Vicente Ortega (voice), Pellín Aponte, Domingo Sánchez (cuatro) and Luis González (marímbola). Rafael Torres joined them later.
Rafael Torres remembers that it was with this group that Chuíto debuted in 1933 in the Angélica Theatre of Cayey, where they premiered the conjunto's theme A Cayey Me Voy [To Cayey I Go] written by Chuíto:
A las orillas del Plata
At the edge of the Plata river
Me voy alegre contento
I go happy, contented
Just like other Puerto Rican towns that depended on a single crop (crops such as coffee, tobacco or sugar cane), Cayey suffered a tragic economic situation after the 1929 New York market crash and the onslaught of hurricane San Ciprián in 1932. During this time, the Puerto Rican government established work camps in Cayey as part of its economic redevelopment programs as part of President Roosevelt's New Deal policies. The purpose of these camps was to revitalize local economies, providing work and nourishment to local workers. Chuíto was hired at $21.00 a month to entertain the workers of Camp Mariano Abril (11), which housed around 100 men that sleeped in cots lined up in rows. The workers woke at daybreak to begin a long day in the fields. Chuíto sung the wake-up call, called dianas, at 5:00 in the morning and entertained the workers with danzas and boleros during breakfast. At 11:00 a.m. he sang during lunch and at 6:00 p.m. he closed the day with happy music.
It was around this time that Chuíto met and took up with Julia León de Cayey, with whom he adopted a stepdaughter, Elsie Sonia León. Pepito, Doña Julia's brother, was around 15 years old and Chuíto was around 24. The following photograph is one of Chuíto during this time..
This photo was taken at the home of Jesús Collazo in the Polvorín neighborhood of Cayey. In the background you can see the towers of Cayey. In the photograph we can identify, from left to right: Chuíto, Rafael Torres "Rafita" (voice), Vicente Ortega (voice and maracas), Domingo Sánchez (cuatro), Gaspar León (guitar and voice), and kneeling, Lucas Vázquez (guitar) and two unidentified women. Photo from the Rafael Torres collection..
Chuíto appeared on this station once in a while as a singer. It is said that Chuíto was introduced to the members of Maestro Ladí's group by the great musician Claudio Ferrer. We have not been able to confirm how he was first linked to this group, but we do know that Chuíto returned to Cayey with new songs and lyrics composed by the group's guitarist/composer Don Felo. Chuíto relied on his friends in Cayey that were well connected with the San Juan musicians with whom he shared songs. Rafael Torres remembers that Chuíto sang songs by Don Felo, by the Trío Matamoros, by Rafael Hernández, by Pedro Flores and by the Cuarteto Machín, songs which were very much in vogue with the public at that time.
In search for better opportunities, Chuíto moved to Ponce in 1936. According to Arturo Silvagnoli, Chuíto created the genre seis con décimas there (13) by combining the rhythm of two tangos: La Cama Vacía and Tango Errante, both written by Gregorio Ayala (14). Gregorio Ayala conducted a radio program at the Ponce radio station WPRP called Variedades Musicales [Musical Varieties] sponsored by the Oscar-Gómez-Plata lozenge company. Chuíto was associated with WPRP since he performed at its inauguration in 1936. Chuíto and Gregorio Ayala spent many hours at the station as announcers for various programs.
In spite of the widespread acceptance of traditional music, what really dominated the musical environment in Puerto Rico were several new popular genres. Musical groups and orchestras such as the Cuarteto Victoria, the Grupo Marcano, Johnny Rodríguez and his Conjunto and the Trío Matamoros lorded over the radio waves. In step with this reality, Chuíto did not limit his repertory to traditional music, but included guarachas and rumbas that were so appetizing to the popular tastes of the times.
In Ponce, Chuíto also worked promoting Ron Kofresí [Kofresí rum] along with a certain Jiménez Aguayo. Later he became the official spokesman for the rum brand. Under the auspices of Ron Kofresí, Chuíto formed the Trío Kofresí, which was made up of Chiquitín García, who resided in the Machuelito neighborhood of Ponce, (voice and maracas), Juanchín Santana (lead guitar) and Chuíto (voice and rythym guitar). The trío played all across the Island promoting Ron Kofresí and singing popular music of good quality. The trio dissolved upon Chuíto's move to New York City. Then Chiquitín García, who never got to record with the trio, joined the Cuarteto Mayarí which had been formed in 1938." (15)
Although we haven't been able to find any evidence ascertaining that Chuíto was in New York City in 1938, we do know that he performed with the Conjunto Típico Ladí. Chuíto recorded at least two songs (Cerca de Cayey and Mi Mulata) with them, however. In these recordings Chuíto sounds like a young man, singing in a high register--a voice very much different from his later 1947-48 recordings. But evidence that suggests the possibliity that these early recordings may have been made prior to 1937 may be the fact that the song, Cerca de Cayey, includes Claudio Ferrer, whom had left for New York by 1935-36.
PBy this time Chuíto was already known with the title of "el de Cayey" [the one from Cayey], as he was known on WINL radio programs. It is said that the famous WKAQ radio announcer Antonio Alfonso was the one who had coined this nickname for him (16). Many of the people we interviewed remember that Chuíto became known popularly by the way he introduced himself on radio with the phrase "con tanto gusto" [it's my pleasure], a phrase that stuck with the public.
The puzzle of whether Chuíto was in New York at that time still remains. In 1939 the Grupo Marcano recorded two of his songs in Nueva York: Sigan los tiempos cambiando, Part 1 & 2, on the Decca label #21052. The songs were recorded on September 14, 1939 (17). Also in New York, on November 7, 1940 Pedro Marcano and his group recorded another of Jesús Ríos Robles' songs (18). Chuíto may have traveled to New York, or he may have just sold the songs to Pedro Marcano or to Claudio Ferrer.
Como Criamos, a funny décima written by Chuíto and sung by Claudio Ferrer and Lalo "el Cura" for Columbia, #6061
The 1940-47 period represents a confusing time, insofar as compiling Chuíto's biography is concerned. Even though traditional music was not often recorded during that time, it was often heard on the radio. In Puerto Rico, programs such as La Hora del Volante [the steering-wheel hour] and Rey del Batey [king of the backyard], among others programs sponsored by a number of beer labels and other products, served as a catapult to our singing jíbaros. In the Forties, radio programming became the favorite venue for traditional troubadours such as Germán Rosario, Priscila Flores, La Calandria, and others. Chuíto was by then a veteran of the radio scene and was considered by then one of the best singers of traditional music as well as the best improvisor of décimas.
The forties was initiated by the Second World War and the arrival of many Puerto Rican immigrants to the shores of New York City. Puerto Rican jíbaros kept their country´s musical culture alive in New York. Among the valiant defenders of traditional music that recorded in New York during that time we find Claudio Ferrer, who wasn't an improvisor but who interpreted many jíbaro themes and even took part in jíbaro groups at Christmas time.
It isn't until 1947 when we catch up to Chuíto in Santurce. According to Noemí Rosas Robles, his niece, the following photograph was taken in Santurce. Here we see the troubadour nicknamed Juaniquillo (Juan Inés Aponte) next to Chuíto. The photo was taken in El Fanguito, where Chuíto lived with wife, near [trolley] Stop 24.
By 1948, the industry of jíbaro music recordings in Nueva York grew significantly. The City of Skyscrapers was filled with recordings of jíbaros like Chuíto el de Bayamón, Ernestina Reyes (La Calandria), and Ramito (Flor Morales Ramos). Ramito said during an interview that it was thanks to Chuíto el de Cayey that he was able to get to New York to record on the Ansonia label.
Listen to an extremely rare recording of Festival en Puerto Rico, on the Rival label, sung by Chuíto el de Cayey in 1948.
For Chuíto el de Cayey, as it was with other jíbaro artists in search for a paycheck, trips to New York had become routine. The oportunities to record in Puerto Rico were few, while in New York, recording companies that promoted Puerto Rican music were numerous: Verne, SMC Pro-Arte, Coda, RCA Victor, Seeco, Columbia, and others. It was, precisely the Verne label that recorded Chuíto singing four songs with the famed cuatrista Sarrail Archilla in October 1948. These songs eventually became the foundational décimas for all the jíbaro artists to follow::
1. Amor de madre [seis] - Verne 0397, Side A
A fragment of the lyrics of the aguinaldo, Mil Felicidades:
Llegaron los días
The days of Christmas
Around this time, Chuíto also recorded a décima-controversia [Súplica postrera] along with Natalia (Anatalia Rivera) where he let his last wishes known: at the end of the song, Chuíto tells Natalia, "Bury me in Jayuya.""
Chuíto's recording of Súplica Postrera with Natalia (Anatalia Rivera) on the Lina label in 1946
A fragment of the lyrics of the décima, Súplica Postrera follows:
Cuando alguno a tu ventana
When someone approaches
By the end of the forties Ramito was initiating his brilliant career while his teacher, Chuíto el de Cayey, scrounged for money wherever he could: he sold décimas, he sold rum and he appeared on radio programs. By that time, Chuíto lived in New York with his companion, "Doña Susie." Sadly, we have not been able to find copies of the décimas that Chuíto wrote and sold. During those times, many interpreters of jíbaro songs customarily purchased poetic décima lyrics from décima composers and then recorded them under their own name.
These photos were taken at the end of 1949 when Chuíto visited Puerto Rico for the wedding of his niece Noemí Rosas Robles, who lived in housing development Caserío Las Casas in San Juan. The photos show Chuíto next to his nephew René. Photos courtesy of Noemí Rosas Robles
The final stages of his life...
New York also produced a great crop of outstanding jíbaros sobresalientes such as Baltazar Carrero (El Jíbaro de Rincón), Confesor Troche (El Jíbaro de Guayanilla), Germán Rosario (El Jíbaro del Yumac), José Ángel Ortiz (El Jíbaro de Yauco), Priscilla Flores (La Alondra de San Lorenzo), Moralito (Juan Morales Ramos), Luisito (Luis Morales Ramos) and many more.
In this environment, Chuíto appeared on the radio with the Maestro Ladí, Sarrail Archilla, Toñito Ferrer and José "Mengol" Díaz, on the La Voz Hispana program on the New York station WWRL - 1660 a.m. In spite of his exceptional improvisation ability, Chuíto recorded very little. It was said that he drank a lot and so many musicians found him hard to work with.
The following years closed the final stage of the life of our illustrious jíbaro singer. Chuíto completed his final recordings with the Rival label belonging to Bartolo Álvarez. The recordings were made in 1951, in the Nola Studios of Nueva York located on 54th street and Broadway. Bartolo Álvarez says that Chuíto recorded along with Sarrail Archilla and remembers that Chuíto attempted to record four numbers, but his voice was hoarse. He then asked Bartolo for a flask of vodka and lemon. After a few shots his voice improved and he was able to complete the recordings. Bartolo remembers he paid $35 to the musicians and $100 to Chuíto for the four numbers, that is $25 each side::
1. No Puedo con ella [seis con décimas] Rival 726, Side A
His niece informed us that Chuíto suffered from stomach problems, frequently coughing and spitting up blood. After the aforementioned recordings for the Rival label and with his liver already damaged by liquor, Chuíto died in New York in the Autumn of 1952. He was 42 years old when he passed away. Contrary to his earlier wish, his remains stayed in New York for over ten years until 1965, when Ramito took them to Chuíto's native soil of Jayuya. There Chuíto was buried along with his guitar.
Chuíto was a Jayuyano
Discography of recordings of songs written by or about Chuíto el de Cayey, interpreted by other artists:
Sources and Credits:
1 It's interesting to note that Chuíto identified himself as Jesús RIOS Robles, even though formally his name should have been ROBLES Ríos. As to this, we could suspect that his father was not present of was not a positive influence during his childhood, so that Chuíto wished to honor his mother, placing her last name first. But it also could have been an artistic decision, given that "Ríos Robles" may have sounded more rhythmic than "Robles Ríos" a factor that must have come to the attention of such an expert rhymer as Chuíto.
6 Gabriel Luna later became part of the group Hermanos Luna, who's members were blind.