Chano Pozo  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Luciano "Chano" Pozo (January 7, 1915 - December 2, 1948) was a percussionist, singer, dancer and composer who played a major role in the founding of Latin jazz, best-known for penning the compositions "Tin Tin Deo" and "Manteca".


Born in Havana to Father Cecelio Gonzales, a bootblack. Chano’s family struggled with poverty throughout his youth, raised with three sisters and a brother, as well as his older half brother, Felix Chapottin. His mother Carnacion Pozo, to whom his father was married, died when Chano was eleven, and Cecelio took his family to live with his long time mistress, Natalia, who was Felix’s mother.

Chano showed an early interest in playing drums, and performed ably in Afro-Cuban religious ceremonies in which drumming was a key element. The family lived for many years at El Africa solar, a former slave quarters, by all accounts a foul and dangerous place, where it was said even the police were afraid to venture. In this environment criminal activities flourished, and Chano learned the ways of the street as means of survival. He dropped out of school after the third grade and earned a solid reputation as a rowdy tough guy, big for his age and exceptionally fit. He spent his days playing drums, fighting, drinking, and engaging in petty criminal activities, the latter of which would land him a sentence in a youth reformatory. There are no official records documenting the crime for which he was sentenced, though at least one account has him causing the accidental death of a foreign tourist, adding to a record of thievery, assault, and truancy. At the age of 13, Chano was sent to the reformatory in Guanajay, where he learned to read and write, study auto body repair, and hone his already exceptional skill with a variety of drums.

During this time he became a devotee of Santeria. Santería, also known as "La Regla de Lukumi," is an Afro-Caribbean religion derived from traditional beliefs of the Yoruba people of Nigeria. Developed among Afro-Cuban slaves, the religion began as a blending of these West African spiritual beliefs and Catholic doctrine. Yoruba deities were identified with Catholic saints to fool the slave owners, as the Spanish colonialists had forbidden the practice of African religions. Chano pledged allegiance to the Catholic Saint Barbara, identified widely with Shango, the Yoruba God of fire and thunder, and took him as his personal protector. Both Shango and St. Barbara had associations with the color red, and for the rest of his life Chano would often carry a red scarf signifying his allegiance.

Upon his release from Guanajay, Chano returned to his father’s house in Havana. Cecelio persuaded his son to practice his trade of bootblack, but Chano’s temperament was not suited for this occupation and he quit after less than a year. In 1929 he took a job selling newspapers for El Pais, Havana’s most influential publication, hawking papers on a number of street corners. His forceful nature and success in selling brought him to the attention of newspaper owner and influential businessman Alfredo Suarez, who hired Chano as his personal driver and bodyguard. He was rumored to have performed duties as debt collector or “leg breaker” for Suarez. Chano spent his free time dancing, singing, fighting, chasing women and playing his drums. He also began to compose music.

Chano’s reputation grew among the people each year, not only because of his physical prowess as a dancer, drummer, and success with women, but for the compositions he wrote for carnival. The highlight of Carnival were the nightly celebrations, in which neighborhoods formed highly competitive Comparsas, or street troupes. They consisted of singers, dancers, musicians, and the ever present rumberos. Mostly young, street-toughened drummers, rumberos were integral to each Comparsa, as they provided the throbbing, sensuous rhythms, the base for all Afro-Cuban music. In a few short years he was the most well-known and sought after rumbero in Cuba, with the most talented comparsas vying for his services, and was regularly winning top cash prizes for his compositions. Chano elevated the status and reputation of rumbero to near mythic proportions with his swaggering attitude as he led his comparsa through the streets, and he became a hero to Havana’s poor with each success. Pozo and a group of fellow musicians wrote a conga music composition that earned them first prize in the Santiago de Cuba carnival of 1940: "La Comparsa de los Dandys", a composition that is considered by some to be the unofficial theme song of the city of Santiago, and a song standard at many Latin American carnivals.

Cuba was by this time a popular tourist destination, with two of the biggest hotels, The Tropicana and El Presidente catering to rich American and Europeans, and Chano was determined to break the color barrier which forebade those of dark skin from employment. He began to court musicians and others who might help him by auditioning in unusual places, most notedly in front of the Cuban owned radio station Azul, which broadcast popular recordings as well as live Cuban folk music. Chano befriended many of the musicians who worked there, playing his drum on the street to catch their attention as they arrived for work. Although admired for his prodigious talent, dark skinned blacks were prohibited from working most venues outside of the slums, and Chano searched for opportunities. He would find that opportunity in the person of Armado Trinidad, owner of the radio station. Armado persuaded Chano to work for him, albeit only as the doorman for Azul, where his imposing size and reputation kept rowdy crowds in check.

Once Pozo became famous he also became renowned by his sense of fashion: his all-white top hat and tuxedo look predated that of Flavor Flav by at least 45 years. In 1947(this date is too late) Pozo moved to New York City where he met Dizzy Gillespie. They played bebop together in a big band, most notably songs like "Cubana Be", "Cubana Bop", "Tin Tin Deo", and "Manteca". Pozo co-wrote the latter two.

Chano Pozo was killed in a fight in a Harlem, New York bar at the age of 33, allegedly in an argument over the quality or authenticity of a bag of marijuana he had bought from his eventual assassin. He is buried in the Colon Cemetery, Havana

His grandson Joaquín Pozo, who lives in Cuba as of 2006, is also a famous conguero.

Chano Pozo is the subject of a poem by Jayne Cortez.

See also

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