There are men who make thunder with their hands. With a fully open palm, they firmly lash pieces of wood and leather to create a powerful, rhythmic storm. Each blow carries an ancestral rage that escapes from their bodies in the form of sounds that refuse to be contained in staves or scores. They are sounds of pain, bitterness and misery. But they are also sounds of struggle, of beauty and resistance. They call that clamorous palm and leather hurricane plena.
It is Friday, October 15, 2021. Hundreds of people gather in a popular place in Río Piedras after a march against the LUMA Energy consortium that took over the Las Américas Express. There, between conversations and beers, a clandestine group of musicians sits on a small wooden platform. Among them, the man whose name became synonymous with fullness and resistance. His dark complexion glows in the hot stage light, making momentary sparkles in the beads of sweat that trickle down his forehead.
His voice, loud and clear as a storm wind, issues instructions to the other musicians as they connect cables and sound equipment. The clamor of tambourines, requintos and drums echoes in dissonant measures as they prepare for today’s impromptu session. When the preparations are finished, the man addresses the public.
“Since we are on a march day, I am going to start with a plena that talks about protest and old things, when the workers unions began in Puerta de Tierra. This song appears in the documentary “La plena es canto y trabajo” by Don Pedro Ángel Rivera, sung by Don Rafael Cepeda Atiles, on the street where he lived in his last years, and also died”, he explains, like a teacher to his class.
He pauses briefly, then sings the opening verses of tonight, cutting through the cold air with the warm metal of his voice.
There is a strike at Puerta de Tierra
There is a strike at Puerta de Tierra
The workers, they all go in protest
The workers, they all go in protest
Then, the melodious roar of tambourines and drums joins their music, while the other pleneros repeat their chorus in unison.
He was a man, but he could well be the full person. He was named Hector Rene Matos Otero. The streets and the people baptized him as “Titus”.
“Many here at La Goyco and in the community are still seeing how we deal with this. Many beautiful things have emerged since his death. Works of art of all kinds, musical compositions, concerts, books. Within the horror, there is a beauty.
It’s a hot Thursday in the House of the Plena Tito Matos and a woman talks about the life of the man to whose memory she dedicates hers. She is sitting with her back to an installation of hanging tambourines, dozens of requintos, followers and tumbadores, tied with ropes before a floating black wall.
“There is a video that I found the other day of Tito with a papier-mâché mask that was from ‘Y no había luz’, and we have it at home because we bought it at some point, and he walked all over Loíza with the mask piranha paper mache, barking for some reason, scaring people and whatnot. These are things that Tito did, this for him was a normal day. So it’s something we also want to celebrate, because we still haven’t been able to overcome that loss,” he explains. Mariana Reyesdirector of the La Goyco Community Workshop in Santurce.
Mariana is a tall, slim woman with shoulder-length curly hair and a stern look. Talking about her is slow, correct and without hesitation. The sudden death of her husband that morning in January 2022 was as if a thousand buckets of cold water had been poured over her head. Since then, she has been in charge of giving continuity to the projects that began together and celebrating the life of one of the bastions of the Puerto Rican plena.
Tito Matos was not just a musician, he was one of the most active cultural and community managers in Puerto Rico. He divided his time between musical performances, cultural events, initiatives for the community and his family. According to Mariana, in the organization that he directs they had to create a committee of about 20 people to be able to take care of all the things that Tito did alone. That energy, that hunger to do things, that restlessness —the productive hyperactivity that guided his life— is still present at La Goyco.
“Really mourning, I had never faced that process, my parents are alive, I have not had a person very close to die, and this is the person closest to me in the world. We had been there for 23 years… I had no idea… —her voice breaks briefly as she explains— There is a very big difference in our state of mind from those first months until now, abysmal ”.
And how would you describe that process?
“Everyone tells you when they’ve been through this: ‘it never ends.’ And I said ‘how is it going to be?’ I already understand it. It’s not that it never ends, it’s that you are another person. You change, your way of seeing the world, your way of conceiving everything changes, is transformed..
Mariana Reyes and Tito Matos met during a winter in New York City in the late 1990s. At the time, neither had any idea that their paths would intersect, that they would form a life together. Mariana says that her love story is a “normal” one. They had their fights and arguments, their differences and disagreements. She also says that their love was intense.
“We were a machine. Like a machine to create things. And I tell you to create things, from a party in the house, with all the powers, with lighting, with chairs, with drinks, with everything, even large-scale projects like this one at La Goyco, of which we were a founding part together with our neighbors”. .
No money, no resources, no time, working full time.
Standing next to Mariana, the tiny figure of a boy with disheveled curly hair pays attention to his mother’s words. If Tito and Mariana were a machine for creating things, Marcelo Matos Reyes It is, without a doubt, the most important of his creations. Marcelo is a gentle and somewhat talkative child. He has the mischievous, deep gaze of his father, and the eloquence of his mother. Standing next to him, he sometimes seems a bit shy, but when he talks, Marcelo seems to have lived hundreds of lives.
Marcelo, what was your favorite thing about your dad?
“The energy that I always had. She had a different way of seeing everything. I saw an overflowing energy that I could not understand. And the truth is, it was incredible to be able to learn so much from someone with so much experience, with so many ideas, with so many different ways of seeing everything. And the truth is that I really liked how he understood everything and how he showed everything he felt, ”replies the 9-year-old boy.
And how would you like people to remember him?
“I see many things that remind me of him in every corner. He left so much for the world that it is difficult to find something that does not remind you of him. We are recovering his legacy with the Tito Matos Fest, with the plena. As long as plena continues to be played, I think that this essence will always be there. The culture, the importance of respecting, caring for the country. As long as everyone still has a bit of hope, something that pushes us to keep moving forward, I think he’s still there.. The truth is that I was very lucky that he was my dad because I was able to learn much more from him than from other people. And the truth is, I’m glad to be able to be so close to him, that we had many things in common, that we could learn from each other”.
When Marcelo finishes speaking, drops begin to escape from his mother’s pale eyes and glow briefly under the light in the house.
“Our relationship was super beautiful and super intense, and we weren’t afraid of that at all. We weren’t afraid of practically anything, and that changes everything because one punishes oneself and sometimes it doesn’t work out, but that’s how it works in everything and mainly in love. Love is a risk, it is a surrender to possible suffering, be it a separation or, in this case, death. That absolute and resounding pain is a giant void of love that is there. So I try to see him like that, as Marcelo says, that he feels grateful ”… —his words get stuck in his throat.
The pleneros in Río Piedras pause after a furious first set. Candela is breathed in the air. The marchers discuss the exploits of the day with beers, shots and cigarettes at hand. Meanwhile, a rookie journalist approaches Tito Matos to ask him some questions. The man, drenched in sweat, greets him warmly and gives him the impromptu interview.
How did this group start?
“It’s not a group, it’s a meeting, because that’s how it originally came about. It started in 2009 with a league of malango pleneros and musicians, who don’t know how to play basketball, but who had the privilege of having a court that they gave us. And after we played there was a small bar like this, small-town, very close that opened its space for us. And one day we took out the tambourines and it started like that for us, very organic and it became something like today, that now people come to see that plenero degenerate that we do”, replies the man with a slightly hoarse voice.
What is the process of creating the lyrics for your plenas like? On a day like today, after this march, they will probably talk about LUMA…
“Thank you for the question, because that is very organic and therefore it is very simple. Not all of us who practice the plena are Tite Cure Alonso, but we can rhyme, we can compose our plenas and everyone is very creative. So for sure today, possibly when we start right now there will be three or four plenas that rhyme with LUMA. That is part of the plenary, that is intrinsic. I at least have one, how was he saying? ‘We are going to knock down LUMA as we knock down Rossellito, that the looting of the people of Puerto Rico will end.’ Something like that. It is that response of the people to the anguish, to the abuse, which has always been part of the plenary session, which has been the spearhead in all the worker demonstrations. Nobody here imagines a march, a protest without a full one. So in that sense, we are being a vehicle, part of the process.”
Is there anything in particular that…?
A person shouts Tito’s name, they are waiting for him on the stage.
“At 8:30, 8:30! They’re screwing up my interview!” Tito replies jokingly.
Is there anything in particular that you would like people to understand about the plena?
“That it is in two bars, that it is simple, but it is powerful —he says, and begins to hum— Rucu tucu tucu catá cutucá, umpa unquincúmpa… Here they are simple rhythms whose strength lies in that march, in that wave that comes over you, who gets into your feet and covers you. And that’s where we are.”
With that, Tito says goodbye and returns to the stage. Maybe he’s still there. Because there, between the clamor of tambourines and the rumble of drums, in community, the essence of that imperfect man who ran with a fish head scaring his friends, of that intense husband and energetic father, of that man who did thunder with hands That hurricane of passion and music they called Tito Matos.
The second edition of Tito Matos Festival will take place between June 8 and 11 at the La Goyco Community Workshop where several musical presentations will take place, plenary workshops for children, an exhibition in honor of the most intimate part of Matos, the presentation of a book of children’s plenary sessions authored by him, among other events.