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To​ñ​í​n Romero

by Toñín Romero

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Felices Dias 03:05


Juan Antonio Romero Muñiz, a.k.a Toñín Romero, was born in Barrio Collores in the town of Jayuya, Puerto Rico on December 28, 1918 (some documents also list January 28, 1918 or December 13, 1918 as his birth date). The eldest of eight children of Juan Bautista Romero Vélez (~1852-1932) and Antonia Muñiz Navarro (1895-1978), he grew up around musicians, singers, improvisers and developed great love for Puerto Rican “jíbaro” (rural folk) music. However, after the island was devastated by hurricane San Felipe in September of 1928 he left school and, at ten years of age, moved to Ponce, Puerto Rico with his aunt María. In Ponce he held many jobs, including working in a sugar plantation, selling newspapers in the streets, shoe shining, running errands and many others. While in Ponce he stayed connected through the radio to the folk music he loved, but was also exposed to other types of music, more related to the coastal, sugar cane growing areas, like plena and bomba. At fourteen years of age, he started singing with a plena group led by Narciso Muriel, also known as “Siso Cabeza”, and at age eighteen, in 1937, he began singing on radio programs.

In the late 1940s, and with the help of another established troubadour and group leader, Arturo Silvagnoli, he formed a musical group that was known as Toñín Romero y su Conjunto. Initial members of the Conjunto included Bautista Ramos as singer and guiro player, Pío Vélez as second guitar, Vicente Velázquez playing the diatonic accordion, Gregorio (Goyo) Salas Velázquez playing the cuatro/tres guitar, guitar virtuoso Gabriel Luna (who was blind and also a member of the Hermanos Luna Quartet with his siblings Lorenzo and Neri, both also blind, and Sarito) as first guitar, percussionists Zacarías Velázquez and Ismael (Jalisco) Medina. Two of his brothers, Esteban (Tebito) and Moisés were also part of the Conjunto as singers. Throughout the years many other musicians and singers were part of the Conjunto such as Hermógenes Reyes (guitar), Erasmo (Mito) García (guitar/singer), Cruz Torres (cuatro/guitar), Daniel Pumarejo (cuatro), Angel (Gelo) Febles (diatonic accordion), Humberto Torres (guiro/singer), Sergio Febles (bass) and singers Ildefonso Cotto, Pablo (Pablito) Troche, Cruz (Luguito) Lugo, Antonio (Toño Gole) Rodríguez and Toñín’s son Luis Antonio Romero among many others.

With his Conjunto, Toñín hosted several musical radio programs, from the late 1940s until 1978, such as the daily “La Hora Campesina” (“The Peasant Hour”), from four to five in the afternoon at WPAB station, first in the Sol Street (Ponce) studios and then in the Villa Street studios. The latter studio included an open air set where Toñín, Tebito and the Conjunto, in addition to playing their music, had a section called “El Suceso del Día” (“The Event of the Day”) where they would sing improvised verses about the most important news of the day. (Note: This “Suceso del Día” section was originated by Arturo Silvagnoli in his radio program years before and was carried over by Toñín). Subsequently, he moved his program to other radio stations such as WISO and WPRP, as a weekly program, under the name of “Fiesta en el Batey” (“Backyard Party”) on Sundays from noon until three in the afternoon. In his programs he performed live with his Conjunto as well as showcasing other local groups and singers, but also had as guest performers many famous national figures like Baltazar Carrero and Germán Rosario, among others.

Toñín had a prolific recording career both with his Conjunto and by himself with other musical groups. His recordings started in the late 1940s to early 1950s with New York-based label Riney, owned by Dominican singer and entrepreneur Ney Rivera. He recorded approximately ten songs under the Riney label. Many of these early recordings were made at the WPAB radio station facilities. These recordings were made with his Conjunto and included, among others, the plenas “Que bueno baila Julieta” composed by Toñín and Bautista Ramos, “Rosa Julia”, “La Tasación Científica”, the seis chorreao “Apetitos de mi novia”, the merengue “Los Heroes Boricuas”, the aguinaldos “Días Navideños” and “Cantando en Navidad”, the tamborera “Borinquen” all composed by Toñín, “Herido por tu amor” a pasillo by Esteban (Tebito) Romero and an instrumental mazurka, “Abuelita”, composed and played by his accordionist Vicente Velázquez.

Around 1952, he recorded twelve songs with the Colonial label, including plenas like “Maria Elena” and “Tu Cintura con la mía”, the classic parranda “De Lejanas Tierras”, a merengue “Josefina,” the aguinaldo “Gloria en las Alturas” as well as guarachas, aguinaldos, seises and other genres. Upon Colonial changing its name back to Marvela in 1953 (Marvela was the original name of the Colonial label, established originally before WWII, from 1938 to about 1941), Toñín and his Conjunto continued recording with Marvela until 1956 and then again in the early 1960s, producing over 40 songs. These included “La Bruja” in 1954, later recorded by Toñín as “El Casco del Juey” and “Ven Dale Ahora” composed by Toñín and recorded that same year as the hit “El Charlatán” by Orquesta Panamericana with Ismael Rivera. Around 1964, Marvela released MVLP-115 named “Cantando en el Bohío con Toñín Romero y sus Muchachos” which included twelve songs ranging from aguinaldos and plenas to guarachas and a vals. These songs had previously been released as singles and included the very popular aguinaldo “San Martin de Porres” composed and sung by Ildefonso Cotto. Two of Toñín’s Colonial label plenas, “Maria Elena,” and “Tu cintura con la mía”, were included in Marvela’s classic LP (MVLP-50) “Plenas de Puerto Rico” (Puerto Rican Plenas).

In December of 1956, Toñín recorded sixteen singles in three sessions with Ansonia Records. These singles were recorded with Claudio Ferrer, most of them featuring Nieves Quintero playing the “cuatro,” and interestingly were released under different group names, roughly based on the songs’ genres: “Claudio Ferrer y su Conjunto”, “Claudio Ferrer y sus Jíbaros” or “Claudio Ferrer y sus Pleneros”. One of these singles was “La Mujer de Palo” (also known as “Ni de madera son buenas,” later recorded by Odilio González, on Ansonia ALP-1297, by the Billo’s Caraca’s Boys and by Marco Antonio Muñiz) and “Lo Tuyo está Asegurado” (also known as “El Cofresito” or “Cuídame lo mío” that was also recorded by Ruth Fernández with Orquesta Panamericana (RUMBA LPR-55572, Note: This LP included two additional plenas by Toñín, “Que Gustito dá” and “Bembeteando”). Other singles from those 1956 sessions include “Mi Bohío de matojos,” “Titina la lavandera,” “Felices Días,” “El Jíbaro de malas” and others. It was during this period when he recorded with Claudio Ferrer for Ansonia that Toñín had live performances in cities with a large Puerto Rican presence like New York, including several performances at Teatro Puerto Rico and a performance at Carnegie Hall, and Chicago. In 1957, Toñín recorded eight additional singles for Ansonia, this time in Puerto Rico, with his Conjunto. These recordings featured Agustín (Tuto) Feliciano playing the cuatro, with Conjunto’s member Vicente Velázquez also standing out playing the diatonic accordion. These recordings included the guaracha-plenas “La Cebollita” and “El Pelú,” the guarachas navídeñas “Compay y Comay” and “Navidad Boricua,” the truya “Truya Mayaguezana,” the llanera “Rincon Solitario,” and two singles featuring female troubadour Priscilla Flores, the controversia “La guagua y el carro” and the aguinaldo mayaguezano “Tocando y cantando.” In September 1958 Toñín also recorded eight plena and bomba singles with “Kito Vélez y su Combo,” among them the plena “El cabro Pepe,” the bomba “Los Paleros” and others. In late 1966, Ansonia released “Toñín Romero” (ALP-1413) including seven singles from the 1956 recordings with Claudio Ferrer and five singles from the 1957 recordings with his Conjunto. The LP makes no reference to Claudio Ferrer in its track credits.

In the early 1960s, Toñín recorded the LP “Toñín Romero y sus Jíbaros” under the Comandante label (CLP 1014) that included ten songs, among them plenas and aguinaldos. Also, in 1973, the “Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña” (Puerto Rican Culture Institute) issued a compilation LP (ICP-F/3, most likely recorded in the 1960’s), “Plenas 2,” featuring four iconic plena groups, namely the Conjuntos of Toñín Romero, Gumersindo Mangual, Paquito López Cruz and Zoilo Vaddy. Toñín’s participation included the plenas “Tintorera del mar”, “María Elena”, “El Brujo bembeteador” and “La máquina.”

Around 1964-65, he founded his own recording label in Ponce, Puerto Rico, called JARM (the initials from his full name, Juan Antonio Romero Muñiz). His first single under the label, 45rpm disc JARM-01A “Cheguí Campeón Mundial”, was a plena dedicated to boxer José “Cheguí” Torres (1936-2009 from Ponce, Puerto Rico) after winning the Light Heavyweight title from Willie Pastrano on March 30, 1965. Another early single, JARM-02A “Abajo el racismo” (“Down with racism”), criticized racism in the United States and mentioned Dr. Martin Luther King. From the mid 60s until the early 70s his label released close to eighty singles (about forty 45rpm discs) mostly featuring his Conjunto with Toñín and other singers like Ildefonso Cotto, Erasmo (Mito) García, Pablo (Pablito) Troche, Cruz (Luguito) Lugo, Antonio (Toño Gole) Rodríguez and Toñín’s son Luis Antonio Romero among others, and several instrumental numbers by accordionist Vicente Velázquez. Christmas-themed JARM LP-01 “Venimos de Ponce'' was released around 1965 and included aguinaldos, plenas, guarachas as well as an instrumental pasodoble and a paseíto boricua. His second LP under the JARM label, LP-03, also with a Christmas theme, was titled “Cantando en la Navidad y todo el año!” (“Singing in Christmas and the whole year!”). In the 1960s and 1970s, besides with his JARM label, he also recorded singles with local, independent labels such as Ernie and Loma.

As can be seen by the large number of recordings sung by different members of the Conjunto it is evident that Toñín was a generous, non-self-centered group leader that recognized that it was not only about presenting and promoting himself but really about showcasing the talents of the Conjunto as a whole. This showcase was not only about the singers but also about the musicians as noted by several instrumental numbers recorded as well as solos within most of the sung numbers. He contributed in launching, maintaining and promoting the careers of many singers and musicians. He also strove to maintain the musical traditions of his people, such as the peasant/rural music, the plena, bomba and Christmas time “parrandas.” He was called “El Jíbaro del Campo y del Pueblo” (“The peasant from the countryside and the urban town”), both for his Jayuya roots, in the mountain countryside, and growing up and developing in the coastal city of Ponce but also for being a champion of the peasant/rural music (aguinaldos, seises, etc.), the coastal music like plena and bomba and popular music like guarachas.

Toñín died of a heart attack on June 5, 1978 at 59 years of age. Since 1979, a music festival has been held in his honor each December: the “Fiesta Nacional Toñín Romero” (Toñín Romero National Festival) organized by the Club Recreativo Cultural Valle Alto, a local civic group in Ponce. To this date, it has taken place for 43 uninterrupted years.

-Ramón Cintrón Velázquez

1) Ateneísta - Boletín Oficial del Ateneo de Jayuya, Inc (Official Bulletin from the Ateneo of Jayuya, Inc.), Number 6, 1988. Club Recreativo Cultural Valle Alto.
2) “Toñín Romero: El Jíbaro del Campo y del Pueblo” by Jorge Luis Ruiz Rosaly; “La Canción Popular” magazine, year #7, Num. 7, 1992, p43-45
Fundación Nacional para la Cultura Popular (prop.org), biographical notes by Miguel Lopez Ortíz
3) Ansonia Records ledgers for Toñín Romero’s recordings
4) Riney Records, Colonial Records, Marvela Records and JARM Records Discographies


released September 21, 1966


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