Master batá drummer Orlando “Puntilla” Ríos, a seminal figure in the New York Latin music scene, died in a New York City hospital August 12 of complications from heart surgery. He was 60.
Ríos arrived from Cuba in 1980 with the Mariel boatlift and formed an Afro-Cuban folkloric group called Nueva Generación (New Generation) intent on preserving and disseminating both sacred Afro-Cuban music and secular forms such as rumba. He became a pillar of the religious Santería community in New York City as well as an in-demand session musician, recording with such luminaries as the Latin jazz pioneer Chico O’Farill.
Ríos relished his role as mentor and teacher to up and coming percussionists, transmitting what Cubans call “fundamento” (fundamentals) on the sacred, two-headed batá drum used in Santería ceremonies and increasingly in secular music. He was also renowned for his prowess on the conga drums and diverse percussion instruments. Ríos’ polyrhythmic performances and recordings such as 1996’s Spirit Rhythms: Sacred Drumming and Chants From Cuba are credited with exposing a wider audience to Cuban folkloric music. His last project was a tribute album honoring the guaguanco rumba legacy of the late Cuban singer-percussionist Gonzalo Asencio (“Tío Tom”). Released this year by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, Ríos recorded the album in Havana’s legendary Egrem studios accompanied by El Conjunto Todo Rumbero.
Born in Havana in 1947, Ríos was a teacher of percussion at the National School of Art in Cuba between 1971 and 1978. He went from performing in the city’s most exclusive hotels - storied cabarets such as the ones in Tropicana and the Hotel Riviera, to accompanying great Latin music figures of the stature of Celia Cruz and Tito Puente on the international stage. He is survived by his wife Ileana. - Lissette Corsa