Timbalero Against All Odds: José Papo de Leon

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I’ve written about pianists who transcended physical disabilities and you can read about here. I want to add to this with a musician who plays the timbales: José Papo de Leon. His nickname is “El Tuco” which translates to “the maimed one”. I saw him play timbales with the great New York charanga outfit Tipica Novel at the Museum of Latin American Art this Summer and he was amazing! Charanga is a classic form of Cuban flute and violin music, usually comprising one flute, two violins, piano, bass, congas and timbales. The band José was playing with, Tipica Novel, is now celebrating being around for 50 years.

Why is José Papo de Leon called “the maimed one”? It’s because at age 10 he lost half a left arm and 3 fingers on his right hand in a subway accident. He wanted to be a timbalero, as timbales players are known as, and figured out a way to hold the sticks with the help of an ace bandage and some clever thinking.

Never mind the disability, José would be up there with Tito Puente or his idol, Manny Oquendo even if he wasn’t “El Tuco”. Hearing him play this Summer made me think that Manny Oquendo had returned in another man’s body. It was inspiring and sublime.

Here he is with Tipica Novel:

Here’s another descarga (jam session):