On February 12, 2008, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings will release 'A Tribute to Gonzalo Asencio, "Tío Tom,"' the first album dedicated to the legendary Cuban rumba composer's music. The album features an all-star lineup including the band Conjunto Todo Rumbero, under the direction of renowned drummer Orlando "Puntilla" Ríos, performing eight of Asencio's most famous rumba songs as well as a new piece inspired by his work and influenced by Asencio's influential oeuvre. A Tribute to Gonzalo Asencio pays homage to Asencio's unique story and contributions to the rumba tradition, which exemplifies the deep roots of Afro-Cuban music.
"The impact of Tío Tom's career stretches far beyond his lifetime," explains Director of Smithsonian Folkways Daniel Sheehy, "as many of his compositions set the standard for rumba composition and performance." Producer René López describes Asencio as "the Irving Berlin of the rumba," and his numerous and notable contributions to the genre certainly justify the comparison.
Better known as "Tío Tom," Asencio was born in Cuba in 1919 and began composing when he was only fifteen years old. Asencio specialized in the popular guaguancó style of rumba, and he composed songs that were culturally relevant, engaging and often political. His first work to gain popularity was "Mal de yerba (The Bad Seed)," in which the singer advises a troubled woman that watching popular movies (including "The Postman Always Rings Twice," "The Great Waltz" and "The Bad Seed") will help improve her mood. Asencio's most famous song, "¿Dondé están los cubanos? (Where Are the Cubans?)," was also his most controversial: Tío Tom was jailed for criticizing Cuban President Carlos Prío Socarrás in his patriotic song responding to North American sailors' desecration of the statue of poet, statesman and national hero José Martí.
Along with these well-known selections from Asencio's catalogue, A Tribute to Gonzalo Asencio, "Tío Tom" also includes "Solo, errante y bohemio (Alone, Errant and Bohemian)," an autobiographical work that describes the lonely life typical of a rumba musician. This lifestyle left Asencio vulnerable to exploitation by other musicians, who fraudulently registered his works under their own names. By the time Asencio died in 1991 in the Guanabacoa neighborhood of Cuba, his friends had helped transcribe and register his songs properly, allowing him to claim his composer's rights.
With annotations from distinguished Cuban musicologist Leonardo Acosta and a foreword by Sheehy, A Tribute to Gonzalo Asencio, "Tío Tom" traces rumba's African and Cuban roots, its rise in the port cities of Havana and Matanzas at the turn of the 20th century, and its growth in the decades since. The talented Conjunto Todo Rumbero led by Orlando "Puntilla" Ríos showcase Asencio's work and legacy throughout the album and especially on the final track, "Tío columbia (Uncle Columbia)." Composed by celebrated rumberos Ernesto "El Gato" Gatel and Ríos, the song pays tribute to Ascencio's profound impact on rumba music and its performers.