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Articles Mongo Rivers. Photo: Jaime Prendes. Mongo Rivers. Photo: Jaime Prendes.

A flowered lute for the King

Much of the history of the Isle of Youth can be told through the sucu suco. From “Bell, bell, / bell climbs the hill / if it weren't for bell / no one would climb the hill”, original piece from 1840, which described the work of those who cut firewood in the mountains in exploitative conditions, to “Stay with Mongo / and its sucu suco / stay at home / with your nasobuco”, choir born in 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the customs, idiosyncrasy and daily life of this place in Cuba can be reconstructed from the intricacies of this autochthonous genre that, before taking as its name the onomatopoeia of the feet flirting with the ground when dancing (suc-suc-suc-suc), had almost as many names as the Island itself: rumba, rumbita, dancita, compay cotunto and cotunto . 

Hence the tremendous merit of Ramón Reinaldo Rives Amador, or simply Mongo Rives, for having rescued and kept alive until today the sucu-suco, which he received as an inheritance from his grandmother Bruna Castillo, together with the commitment to transmit it to the new generations of his family, and ended up making it the heritage of an entire island. 

Born in the rural environment of the Isle of Pines in the first half of the 19th century, cultivated by the poorest peasants as a reason for celebration and also for fighting, and always in the shadow of other more popular rhythms such as the mambo and the chachachá, the sucu suco had in Mongo not only its main worshiper —for which it deserved the qualification of King of the genre— but also its most obstinate defender. 

If it was a question of sucu suco, Ramón was one of weapons, or rather, a lute to drink. He won the dispute with Eliseo Grenet himself that the name should end in o and not in u, as the author of Mama Ines, after his visit to the Island in 1948. 

Photo: Courtesy of Yuliet Calaña.

Photo: Courtesy of Yuliet Calaña.

Grenet proposed something logical: if the name came from onomatopoeia then it should be uniform (sucu sucu), but Mongo defended the idea that sucu suco was named by its creators and that should be respected, in addition to the fact that it rhymed with conuco, bejuco, trabuco... "And now with a mask," he said in recent days like someone who gives the coup de grâce. 

Along with his infinite charisma, Mongo carried a bag of whims that those of us who loved him accepted without question. As he himself had prepared his black bean stew all his life until his strength allowed him because no other seasoning pleased the demands of his palate, he gave up collaborating with very popular musicians, who could have made up for the lack of promotion he always had. to national instances, because he considered that they did not understand the essence of the genre or wanted to distort it.

Some, like the now deceased photographer Jaime Prendes, obtained, by contradicting him, very good dividends. An example is this triptych where he captured him spelling su-cu-su-co. All of us present knew that after the rectification came, in that magical way that only he could do it, the story of the birth of the genre. 

Photo: Jaime Prendes.

Photo: Jaime Prendes.

I interviewed Mongo at least 30 times, in the context of concerts, records, awards, days of Cuban culture and birthdays, but I prefer the casual and intimate version of him, which leaves me the luck of having been one of the many girls pineras who attended his repentismo workshops and, as if happiness were not enough, his neighbor.

The narrow space of the living room of his house, first, and a larger terrace, later, became a school where several generations of musicians who have mourned him these days from the most unexpected places in the world, and who carried, wherever they went, with the sucu suco tradition, its history, its dance and, of course, the teachings of its teacher. 

Photo: Courtesy of Yuliet Calaña.

Photo: Courtesy of Yuliet Calaña.

Those of us who, like me, had no vocation for music, outlined in those workshops our taste and pride for a rhythm that some consider a variant of the son or a son "badly played" and others something completely new, but that positioned this small island in the rich Cuban musical staff. 

Thanks to those workshops, for many young pineros today country music is so cool like any other. In Santa Fe he falls in love with sucu suco, the amorous conquest is celebrated with susu suco and spite… is relieved with sucu suco. 

Guayabera and hat from dawn until bedtime; with a smile sewn to the face that few situations were able to undo; with the compliment and the proverb at the tip of the lips; leaving wherever he passed a trail of musical and popular wisdom; cumbanchero, which he attributed to the fact that he was born on a Saturday; familiar and excellent cook; improviser in parties and in the middle of the street; abandoned dog groomer; always clinging to the lute and turning an island into melody, Mongo Rives, more than a corporeal and therefore finite man, is a state of mind that will never leave Santa Fe. 

The last time I lucidly interviewed him was June 22, 2020, the day his group, at his request, resolved contradictions that had led it to disintegrate and relaunched itself with a repertoire of which 15 songs were composed by him, in the prelude to his 92 years.

I remember that he told me that he was sad because he had lost his voice, that's why in the presentation he limited himself to enriching the pieces with distinctive spoken phrases such as “yummy”, “squeeze”… Even so, he was the greatest show.

I also remember that the word he mentioned the most was death. He was grateful that television was there because "there was a ball that had died", he claimed that in Palms and Reeds They were waiting “for me to die so I can play again” and he denied the request of a musician —I don't know exactly which one— with a cutting: “as long as I live, the sucu suco remains pure, after my death they can do whatever they want” . 

Every time he spoke about death, he did so with the calm of someone who has lived as he wanted, someone who knows that he leaves a strong legacy, especially to those who will continue to make sucu suco the most authentic and beautiful soundtrack of his Island of youth.

With the same tranquility, he placed his body on Friday, January 21, around 11 in the morning, in his bed, in his house in La Fe, dressed in his guayabera, with his hat resting on his belly, surrounded by his close family. and some neighbors. Waiting for lunch and minutes after, with his booming voice reduced to a trickle, he asked his daughter Marilín to straighten his pillows.

Coffin of Mongo Rives. Photo: Courtesy of Yuliet Calaña.

Coffin of Mongo Rives. Photo: Courtesy of Yuliet Calaña.

As he had requested, he was veiled at the Santa Fe House of Culture, which from now on bears his name. In that he did not want tears, he could not be pleased because there were and many, but no more than sucu suco, verses, songs and tenths at the foot of his grave. 

Some of us may feel that Mongo left us owing him a lot, but among this is not the love or admiration of his people, the same one that, spontaneously, as true gratitude is born. without fuss, poses or simulations, has made sure that every day the lute in the Santa Fe park, erected in his honor, wakes up in bloom.

Yuliet Calana Yuliet Calana Chronicler and croquetera. If you don't know how to dance sucu suco, I'll teach you. More posts

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  1. Armando Miralles says:

    A symbol of the Island. Excellent work by Yuliet PC, demonstrating her infinite versatility.

  2. Francell says:

    Nobody better than you to dedicate the best words to the greatest musical icon of your beloved Island. Nobody better than you with the pen in all of Cuba...

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