One of the reasons I hadn’t yet posted an early Puerto Rican track is, first, that it’s quite difficult to find pre-1935 78s from Puerto Rico in playable condition. Many are exceptionally rare. And second, there have been some top shelf reissue collections already produced – namely the Los Jardineros compilation on Yazoo, and Lamento Borincano on Arhoolie – it’s hard to augment what’s already outstanding. However, when I heard this 1932 recording by one of the great groups of the day, which had not been reissued, I thought it might be a nice addition to the fold.
Manuel Jiménez was born in 1895 in central Puerto Rico, in the town of Orocovis. By the age of 10, he was already working in a sugar mill. According to several biographies, he stowed away on a ship as a teenager and effectively became a merchant seaman, bringing him first to Barcelona and then eventually to New York City in the late 19-teens. At some point during his early years, he was given the nickname that would stick with him for his life: El Canario (“Canary”).
Confirming Canario’s early activities in New York will run you into contradictions. According to several sources, Canario first recorded for Pathé as early as 1914, and for Odeon in 1915 or 1916. However, these were apparently Mexican corridos. I could find no confirmation or identification as to what these recordings were. Also, additional sources state that Canario was part of Rafael Hernández’s famed Trío Borinquen in 1926 during their first session, although discographers do not include his name as a member of the band. What can be confirmed is that, according to interviews with Canario, those early years were pretty destitute for new Puerto Rican arrivals. Ewin Martínez Torre wrote that Rafael Hernández was known to busk around Brooklyn in the 1920s, possibly for mere food. Apparently things changed in the late 1920s, when larger audiences and venues became available to New York’s Puerto Rican musicians. Canario launched his lengthy and successful tenure with the Victor company in April of 1929, where he would solidify his reputation as one of the great Puerto Rican bandleaders. He branched out and began playing for other labels in 1932, first briefly for Brunswick, and then for Columbia through the late 1930s, continuing his success.
Canario is known today for introducing the plena to New York’s Puerto Rican record-buying public, and his reputation still rests on that. The plena is a musical style with African influences linked to the coastal, southern regions of Puerto Rico, and which developed in the sugar plantations. Canario’s first recorded tunes were plenas, but scholar Ruth Glasser documents that this may have been more of a canny marketing move for Canario, as he may not have been particularly familiar with the genre long prior to that time, but recognized its commercial potential. Canario was a vocalist but not technically a musician, either. He was known as being a generous group leader, with his group touring regularly, rotating top musicians in and out of its various iterations. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that Canario, throughout his 80+ sides for Victor, also recorded plenty of boleros, guarachas, “seis corridos,” Christmastime aguinaldos, and even a few rumbas, like this one, recorded April 13, 1932, accompanied by two guitars, trumpet, percussion, and vocalist Fausto Delgado. The songwriter, Pastor Villa, played with Canario as well as the Trío Boricua, Grupo Antillano for Brunswick, the Grupo San Juan, and the Grupo Victoria. He is remembered as a colorful personality who was later involved in the numbers racket, according to his relatives. Canario died in 1975, and Villa in 1959 or 1960.
Image courtesy of the Center of Puerto Rican Studies, Hunter College, New York. Canario is in the rear, center.
Issue Number: 30718
Matrix Number: BRC-72282