When the Puerto Rican trombonist EDWIN “ZAPEROKO” FELICIANO traveled to Cuba in the early 80s, he was captivated by a new rhythm that was all the rage called “Songo.” Created by Juan Formell and Los Van and master percussionist Jose Luis Quintana “Changuito,” it fused elements of folkloric rumba with dance music and became a phenomenon.
When Feliciano returned to Puerto Rico, he and the singer and percussionist FRANKIE RODRIGUEZ, a veteran of some of the best salsa bands in the 70s, including Ismael Rivera, Larry Harlow, and Grupo Folklórico y Experimental Nuevayorquino, experimented with elements of Puerto Rican bomba and plena, funk, salsa, Cuban music, rumba, modern jazz, and Cuban songo. The tasty potion manifested in two classic genre-bending albums: Cosas de Locos (Montuno, 1982) and Still Crazy (Montuno, 1983).
In a 1987 article in the New York Times titled “Puerto Rican Bands Dominate Salsa,” Larry Birnbaum describes Zaperoko’s unique sound. “Zaperoko juxtaposes various Latin American rhythms, from Brazilian samba to Cuban Songo, breaking new ground while affirming tradition. “Lo Dudo,” which appears on ‘Still Crazy,’ adapts a ballad by the Mexican pop singer Jose Jose to a Songo beat, dissolves into a jazzy solo by the Colombian pianist Edy Martinez and culminates in a mambo-like coda.”
Unfortunately, the ensemble’s progressive approach did not translate to the dance floor. According to lead percussionist Juan (“Long John”) Oliva, “The audience did not understand the ensemble’s music was suitable for dancing. For this reason, the band members argued. Some argued for a progressive, multi-faceted approach. Others thought the group should cater to the dancers.”
To complicate matters, Frankie Rodriguez died shortly before Still Crazy was released. Rodriguez’s contributions were fundamental to Zaperoko’s 33-year history and success. When Feliciano met Frankie Rodríguez, he realized Frankie was very knowledgeable about what we know today as World Music. “Frankie introduced me to music from Brazil, Africa, Argentina, South America, and Cuban music that was hard to find in Puerto Rico. Also to Rafael Cortijo, Canario, and other legendary interpreters of Puerto Rican music,” says Feliciano. Another significant influence was the tres player Nelson González (pictured above).
In 1989, Edwin Feliciano Y Su Conjunto Zaperoko released Tarde en la noche (1989, Zap Records), followed by 30th Aniversario (Zap Records, 2015), which includes the original composition, Mucho Mas Loco and a contemporary interpretation of Candita, a composition that originally appeared on Still Crazy.
Over the years, many musicians have passed through Zaperoko, including Giovanni Hidalgo, Long John “Penalty,” Nelson Gonzalez, William Cepeda, Oscar Hernandez, Edy Martinez, Angel “Cuquito” Palacios, Ismael Miranda, Charlie Santiago, Jesus Jimenez, Angel “Cuquito” Palacios, Carlos J. Soto, Giovanni Lugo, Candido Travieso, and Antonio “Tonito” Vazquez, among others.
In the late 90s, Zaperoko and the Bomba and Plena ensemble, Truco, formed Truco y Zaperoko. Outwardly, the groups appear to have little in common, but when Feliciano sat in with Truco, he liked what he heard. Directed by Héctor Valentín and Mickey Maysonet, Truco has always been open to experimenting without compromising its folkloric sound. “We have been around for nineteen years. During that time, we have gone through several transitions where we included trumpets and trombones in the group,” explained Maysonet. To date, Truco and Zaperoko released three acclaimed recordings, including Fusión Caribeña (Rico Latino, 1999), the Grammy-nominated Musica Universal (Libertad, 2003), and En Plena Rumba (Lujuria Music, 2008).
As Puerto Rican music goes, Zaperoko’s progressive sound was unique and ahead of its time. To hear the ensemble at its rawest and most inventive, I highly recommend Still Crazy and Cosas de Locos.
Birnbaum, Larry – Puerto Rican Bands Dominate Salsa (NY Times, 1987)