Home PR Project HENRY COLE’S “EL DIABLO”

HENRY COLE’S “EL DIABLO”

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That diabolical cackle.

You might know it from Tito Allen’s 1973 interpretation of Rafael Hernández’s “El Diablo,” on Ray Barretto’s landmark Fania album Indestructible. That was during the boom of what was then being pitched by Fania as salsa, a simple, easy-to-promote word that erased multiple histories.

Now Tito Allen’s back, and there’s that laugh again. This time, he’s reprising the song with drummer/bandleader Henry Cole (two syllables: Co-le) and Villa Locura featuring Tito Allen, on SIMPLE, Cole’s second album as a leader.

Cole’s recording of “El Diablo” doesn’t otherwise sound like Barretto’s. With drumset, barriles, and electric guitars, uptempo from Barretto’s slow-grind guajira, it amounts to a live-band bomba remix of Allen’s iconic interpretation.

There’s a making-of video in which you can see the players crammed together in Electric Lady Studio. Listen to Cole’s count off: the time is organic, not mechanical, and they’re playing together, with some overdubs of course, including Allen’s lead and a funky synth solo by Luis Perdomo, the brilliant Venezuelan-born jazz pianist.

After thirteen years traveling the world together in Miguel Zenón’s quartet, it’s no wonder Cole and Perdomo communicate well. That’s one of the musical spaces Henry Cole inhabits. As I write these words, he’s about to go out on tour with flamenco-jazz pianist Chano Domínguez. I’ve run into him in Luanda, Angola; in Xalapa, Mexico; in New York, where he lives; and I almost coincided with him a few months ago in Cuba, where he has relatives. But he’s from Mayagüez, on the west coast of Puerto Rico. If he were to go back for a visit, he’d fly into Aguadilla’s airport, eighteen miles north, which is named for Rafael Hernández.

Barretto’s version of “El Diablo” wrenched Hernández’s 1939 song into the 1970s so persuasively that almost everyone who knows the song now, knows it from that version. That’s how Cole learned it. But, as Fania sometimes did, they left Hernández’s name off the label credits, listing it merely as public domain. When Cole realized that the song was from the (enormous) repertoire of Rafael Hernández, he made a more personal connection with it.

* * *

Born in Aguadilla, Rafael Hernández Marín (1892-1965), was arguably the greatest Puerto Rican composer of the 20th century. A cosmopolitan who knew his way around San Juan, New York, Paris, Mexico City, and Havana, he composed in a Cuban style; Cuban audiences assumed he was Cuban. About his August 29, 1939, Havana recording of “Diablo” (without the definite article) along with 33 other songs, Cristóbal Díaz Ayala writes:

Victor was so happy with the success of “Cachita” and other numbers by Rafael, that they invited him to go [from Mexico] to Havana, offering him to choose the singer to use, and also the baton of the Julio Brito orchestra . . . for guarachas and sones, he chose Miguelito García . . . They recorded from August 2 to September 9.

The influence of Miguelito Valdés’s then-fresh hit “Babalú” is obvious. Valdés had scored a career-defining success with Margarita Lecuona’s composition, which he recorded in Havana with Orq. Casino de la Playa on February 27, 1939. “Babalú” was the biggest of a wave of songs evoking Afro-Cuban religion and culture that more often than not crossed the line into minstrelsy but could also be subversive of the racial order – depending, of course, on the spin it was given by the interpreter and on who was listening. The song’s generic classification, as listed beneath the title on the disc label, was canto negroide.

The lyric of “Diablo” casts off a “mocking spirit” that’s trying to kill the singer:

Espíritu burlón, tú no puedes conmigo
Mocking spirit, not with me you can’t

That phrase, espíritu burlón, goes back to the superstitious world of medieval Catholicism (not just Spanish Catholicism, there’s also l’esprit moqueur), referring to an evil spirit whose possession could be kept away by the intercession of saints. But as Catholicism traveled to Africa and the Americas, its symbols and images appeared in all kinds of syncretized ways.

Bobby Capó, who subsequently wrote some of the best-known songs in the Puerto Rican repertoire, recorded “El Diablo” (with the definite article) in New York with Cuarteto Caney on January 21, 1941. This version trafficked in low comedy, beginning with the “got to catch the vill-ain” instrumental tag at the beginning. Skin color was a recurring theme in Capó’s later compositions (“Piel Canela,” “El Negro Bembón”) and as later interpreters of “El Diablo” would do, Capó sang it in faux bozal (African-born) dialect à la Miguelito Valdés: matá instead of matar.

Some subsequent recordings of “El Diablo” verge on séance comedy, with hokum routines in between the lyrics. But in every version, somewhere in the song, there’s that laugh, camouflaging with a comic-horror touch the repudiation of harmful spirits that is at the song’s core.

Some versions have been released under the title “Espíritu Burlón,” and to complicate things, there’s also a Cuban song with that title, copyrighted by composer Miguel Jorrín, posterior to Hernández’s composition. It’s a different song with the same general starting point — “Espíritu burlón / aléjate de mi – and the same comic framing of something deadly serious. It too was popular, recorded by Orquesta Aragón in 1957 Havana and, in full pachanga mode, by Johnny Pacheco in 1961 New York. But Jorrín’s take on “Espíritu Burlón” lacks the chorus that sells Hernández’s song – what Anglo-American songwriters call “the hook.” At that crucial pivot when the son meets the montuno, there’s the insistent repetition, for two beats out of every two bars, of a single, powerful word that means many things: Diablo!

In Barretto’s version, however, the coro (with demon-plagued Héctor Lavoe) assumes its memorable clave-length form: ¡Diablo! que tú no puedes conmigo . . .

The universal sentiment of that get-thee-behind-me-Satan cry resonated far and wide, in 1941 as in 1973 as now. Barretto’s version retained the laugh, but he stripped away the comedy and the minstrelsy, giving the song its own limpieza (purification). Barretto was fighting for his career at the time: after his band members had decamped to form Típica ’73, titling the album Indestructible was a message to the world. Hernández’s song of spiritual battle was perfect for Barretto’s frame of mind.

Ray Barretto left us in 2006, but someone’s still got to sing that song. Because there’s sure enough an espíritu burlón on the loose, mockingly pitching out rolls of paper towels in a depraved parody of the old noblesse oblige tradition of tossing out coins to the rabble.

¡Diablo! que tú no puedes conmigo . . .

There are many ways to understand music, of course, so you don’t have to associate Henry Cole’s “El Diablo” with Puerto Rico’s colonial status if you don’t want to. Nor am I suggesting that he was thinking of the song explicitly as an anti-genocidal cry when he recorded it, because musician logic rarely works like that. He was thinking of how to make music, and the song stands or falls on how you like the sound.

But, as even the most cursory visit to a flag-waving Puerto Rican concert in New York will make clear, music has a long association with Puerto Rican national sentiment. More simply put, Puerto Rican music insists on the existence of Puerto Rico.

¡Diablo! que tú no puedes conmigo . . .

Everyone needs to shout at their devils. In the days before the Haitian Revolution, the future uprisers sang what in Kikongo was called a mambo – or what became known in Puerto Rico as aa bomba— that said, canga ndoki la – “tie up the evil spirit,” is one reading of it. Throw off this malevolent force, or, more or less: ¡Diablo! que tú no puedes conmigo . . .

It was a classy move on Cole’s part to call in Tito Allen to do the vocal, complete with the ominous laugh.

¡Diablo!
It’s so Puerto Rican, the way Allen phrases.
¡Diablo!
He’s from Santurce, that hotbed of singers and style.
¡Diablo!
He’s in magnificent voice.
¡Diablo!
His timbre conveys the sense of spiritual combat the lyrics describe.
¡Diablo!
His soulful performance conjures . . .
¡Diablo! . . . Hernández, Capó, Barretto, Cole, Puerto Rico entero.
¡Diablo!
Not with me you can’t, espíritu burlón.
¡Diablo!
Sometimes when things get bad, music gets good.
¡Diablo! que tú no puedes conmigo . . .

ARTIST WEBSITE: http://henrycolemusic.com

Critically acclaimed writer, historian, musician and photographer. Born in Lubbock, Texas, raised in Louisiana, Texas and New Mexico, he lives in New York City with his wife, writer Constance Ash. He was a John Simon Guggenheim Fellow in 2005, 2006, and was previously a fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. In 2004, 2005 he was a Tulane Rockefeller Humanities Fellow in New Orleans.

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