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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Tito Matos, virtuoso of a Puerto Rican sound, dies at 53

Tito Matos, left, during a performance at Hostos Community College in the Bronx on Oct. 11, 2014. Matos, a master percussionist, revered educator and lifelong champion of the Puerto Rican style of music known as plena, died on Jan. 18, 2022 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He was 53.

By Isabelia Herrera

Tito Matos, a master percussionist, revered educator and lifelong champion of the Puerto Rican style of music known as plena, died Jan. 18 in San Juan. He was 53.

His wife, Mariana Reyes Angleró, said the cause was a heart attack.

Matos was a virtuoso of the requinto, the smallest and highest-pitched hand-held drum, or pandereta, used in plena. Rooted in African song traditions, plena emerged in the early 20th century on the southern coast of Puerto Rico and came to be known as “el periódico cantado,” or “the sung newspaper.” In street-corner style, it narrated stories, some gossipy, about love and the concerns of everyday working-class and Black Puerto Ricans. In its early years, wealthy elites maligned the genre.

Matos was a member of multiple plena groups but first gained wide recognition with the band Viento de Agua, founded in New York in 1996. It re-imagined plena and bomba, another Afro-Puerto Rican style of music and dance, by infusing them with jazz textures, exuberant horn sections and Cuban batá rhythms.

For Matos, the band’s first album, “De Puerto Rico al Mundo” (1998), opened the door to a dynamic career that transformed him into one of the foremost plena practitioners of his generation.

Héctor René Matos Otero was born June 15, 1968, in the Río Piedras district of San Juan, one of three children of Héctor Matos Gámbaro and Hilda I. Otero Maldonado. His father was an accountant and a salsa enthusiast; his mother is a homemaker.

Raised in Villa Palmeras, a barrio of the Santurce section that is considered a nexus of bomba and plena, Matos embraced plena as an 8-year-old when his grandfather gave him his first pandereta, for the Three Kings Day holiday. Matos had no formal musical training and could not read sheet music, but his love for plena was planted.

He moved to New York in 1994 and eventually completed a degree in landscape architecture at City College. He entered a new diasporic community of musicians, joining Los Pleneros de la 21, an intergenerational East Harlem ensemble, and learning from plena masters who had migrated to New York in the 1940s and ’50s.

In New York, he met Ricardo Pons and Alberto Toro, two saxophonist-arrangers. “Tito was addicted to plena,” Pons said. “Un fiebrú,” he added, laughing, “like he had a fever.”

Historically, only certain families were custodians of plena, charged with keeping its traditions and rhythms alive. “It was a problem, because they were very restrictive,” Matos said in 2010.

Instead, Viento de Agua sought innovation. “It was not about conserving plena or bomba,” Pons said; “it was about doing whatever we wanted with it.”

The group’s album “De Puerto Rico al Mundo” was infused with an irreverent, imaginative spirit. Writing in The New York Times, Peter Watrous praised it as “exuberant and raucous.”

The group performed in Mexico, Cuba and across the United States, sometimes accompanied by a full jazz band.

“Tito was super, super gregarious and charismatic,” said Ed Morales, a journalist, author and friend of Matos. Matos, he added, had a special ability to reach Puerto Ricans on the island and in the diaspora, and instill in them a sense of communion — particularly when he performed at a biennial concert at Hostos Community College in the Bronx.

“You really got to feel the connection between people in Puerto Rico and people in New York more than almost any other place,” Morales said.

In the early 2000s, Matos returned to Puerto Rico, where he became an educator and cultural advocate. He co-founded Plenazos Callejeros, a monthly initiative that gathered musicians across Puerto Rico for spontaneous plena performances on street corners.

“He got a lot of young people to just pick up a pandereta — people who were not necessarily interested in plena, because maybe they thought it sounded corny or something, or it wasn’t like salsa or hip-hop or reggaeton,” Morales said.

Today, plena is undergoing a cultural renaissance; in recent years it has played a central role in progressive political gatherings and protests in Puerto Rico, including those in the summer of 2019 that led to the resignation of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló.

Subsequent projects led Matos to collaborate with stars like Eddie Palmieri, Ricky Martin and jazz saxophonist and composer Miguel Zenón. Matos later founded the band La Máquina Insular, which focused on returning plena to its roots.

In 2015, he and his wife founded La Junta, a bar and performance space in Santurce, where they hosted live music and plena workshops. Hurricane Maria destroyed the space in 2017, but its spirit was revived in “La Casa de la Plena,” a historical exhibition curated by the couple that opened in May 2021 at the Taller Comunidad La Goyco, a community center they established in an abandoned Santurce school building they had renovated.

In addition to his mother and his wife, whom he married in 2013, Matos is survived by their son, Marcelo; two children from previous marriages that ended in divorce, Celiana and Héctor; a brother, Yan Matos Otero; and a sister, Glennis Matos Otero.

On Jan. 21, Matos was honored with an immense procession in Santurce. Friends, family members and dozens of fans walked the streets, drumming on panderetas and singing words of gratitude. “Muchas gracias, te amamos,” they chanted — “Thank you very much. We love you.”

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