The Endless Sound of Yomo’s Cuatro: A Daughter’s Love

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A Fania All-Star line-up was queued-up around the hospital hall intermixed with family and friends of an ailing Yomo Toro, the iconic guitarist who took Puerto Rico’s national instrument, the cuatro around the world. A round the clock vigil had formed like a circle of love hovering over and around him for the past six weeks. Hundreds had dropped by to bid farewell to the maestro. Noted cuatrista musician Edwin Colón Zayas flew from Puerto Rico to the Bronx to play celestial stringed music that resounded from his cuatro through the hallway. Producer Rachel Faro’s voice rang through the passageways as she sang his favorite song, Johnny Pacheco sat by him for nearly an hour looking forlorn, as Larry Harlow rushed to his room straight from the airport after a Fania All-Star Performance in Ecuador where they all got the news that Yomo Toro was fighting for his life in a hospital.   

By this time Yomo had gone from weeks at Montefiore Hosptial to a hospice; the last call on the sickbay circuit. It was quiet that night of June 30th, 2012. Everyone had watched the baseball game with him and played his favorite music, all was still. Some reminisced in a room next door as his wife Minnie, alongside other relatives, played YouTube videos of his music at his feet next to the bouquet of flowers the New York Yankees sent wishing Yomo Toro a speedy recovery. Suddenly Denise noticed the pace of his breathing change. She sat close to him, took his hand. She watched his slacked jaw close and got excited.

“Quiet. Papi’s gonna talk.”

She felt something swirl through him before she watched his jaw fall once more, and just like that, the energy force flew from him like a butterfly let loose.

She looked at the clock. 11:40 pm. Hot, full teardrops dripped down her face. The remaining family members and friends entered the room as Denise sobbed. It was over. There was no more pain. Yomo was free.

But Denise wasn’t.

Death was all around her. Still wearing black from the burial of her husband she had lost to cancer the month before, she recalled the funeral of her sister Patty eight years earlier where Ray Barretto, Joe Bataan and many others came to console Yomo.

“My father had to work the night she died. He looked so sad when he picked up his cuatro and asked the public to forgive him if he wasn’t up to par but his child was dying.”

She recalled her father’s first battle with deep depression after the death of his only son Yomito in Brooklyn when the boy was in the bloom of his youth. She remembered the laugh of her mother who is buried right next to her father alongside her little brother Yomito who is two plots down from where her sister Patricia lies next to Denise’s husband, Angelo.

“My entire family is here. They’re all resting in the same place. My mission has to be to let the world know how special my father was and how happy his music makes people. Everyone knew him as a guitarist especially as a cuatrista, and he could play anything with strings,” says Denise Toro, his first-born and only surviving progeny. “But to me, he was my hero.”

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“I grew up in Brooklyn answering the phone for him, taking messages from Ramito, Johnny Albino, Maso Rivera, and Odilio Gonzalez, among others. I’d see Papi perform in theaters, concerts, block parties and especially the shows en las villas, the Spanish Catskills, where we’d listen to pasodobles, flamenco music and lots of boleros before it got popular with the salseros. Mom would always dress Patty and I in identical outfits, somehow finding the same dress in the chubby department for me as the one she selected for my little sister off the regular racks. But no matter how early she put us to bed, we’d wake up in the middle of the night the moment Papi came home lugging two shopping bags full of White Castle hamburgers in one hand, his guitar case in the other. We loved to eat. Throughout elementary school, I was the little fat girl with no friends, unpopular until sixth grade graduation. Papi surprised me that day. He showed up in the auditorium. He took out his cuatro and played for an hour on that stage to the roar of all my teachers and classmates. I became bigger than a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon. I was the most popular girl in school after that. He became my hero that day.”

“I was blessed with the best father in the world. I didn’t like sharing him when he was alive but I had to. Now I need to share his legacy with the world and make sure no one forgets that such a humble yet powerfully talented and gentle soul blessed this world with music.”

Her first assignment, naming of the street in the Bronx where he lived for decades to Yomo Toro Place. Less than a month after Yomo’s death, Mayor Cory Booker bested everyone christening a street in Newark, Yomo Toro Plaza, for the musician. But New York is another bureaucracy altogether. A series of local Bronx community board meetings ensued, where the last, full committee general vote to name the street after her father came back unanimous. Everyone cried at that meeting.

Then came the day for the street naming. With no prior notice, we were given only three weeks with no budget to pull together the block party celebration in his honor. But together we did. Immediately, noted cuatrista Prodigio Cluadio flew in from Puerto Rico to join us. Support came from friends like Bob Sancho of Bronx Lebanon Hospital, Felix Aroche of Hostos Center for the Arts & Culture, Melody Capote and Dr. Marta Moreno Vega of the Caribbean Cultural Center, Hector Aponte of the Parks Department, Melissa Mark-Viverito of the New York City Council, and a host of politicians musicians, djs, friends and family.

Together, we produced a block party on that little street, complete with a stage and an All-Star cast of friends who came to the unveiling, sent recorded tapes, and even called in from Puerto Rico as Ismael Miranda did. Alberto “El Canario” showed up on one days’ notice. Paul Simon and Oscar Hernandez both sent messages that were read from the stage. Adalberto Santiago and Paco Navarro were on tour and sent audio recordings while Nicky Marrero, Eddie Montalvo, Jose Mangual, Jr., Alfredo “Chocolate” Almenteros, and even Alex Masucci, Jerry’s brother, showed up to join the Zon del Barrio orchestra and to pay tribute to the King of the Cuatro who, brought the national instrument of Puerto Rico with its culture of happiness into prominence around the world.

Denise’s next mission was to get her father’s sign restored onto the Bronx Walk of Fame where it had been stolen. Within a few months, the sign was once again proudly displayed on 156th Street sharing a pole with Fat Joe. We laughed at the irony.

The Yomo Toro Houses are scheduled to open in East Harlem sometime in 2015, another marker on her road to heritage building. The biggest challenge: to create a foundation where Yomo’s legacy, music, and history can be showcased, documented, and taught.

Denise’s heritage building efforts have only just begun. With every successful step in her path towards securing her father’s legacy another layer of his musical virtuosity, personality and generosity unravel. “I’m at a crossroads,” she muses certain that she’s been chosen to honor a tradition she feels is even bigger than her father. People of all ages, races and nationalities reach out to her with stories of how Yomo Toro touched their lives.

“My father had this special kind of magic that’d make anyone, even someone suffering the loss of a loved one, laugh and be happy again. He was asked to play a funeral once where everyone left smiling. I envision a place where the next generation can learn to play the national instrument of Puerto Rico and where its jíbaro music can be studied, learned and kept alive.”

Christmas is hard now. For all those close to Yomo this was a special time of year that he truly personified. From the first twangs of Yomo Toro’s small ten stringed cuatro, hair raising moments ran through arms, backs and necks when the diminutive virtuoso vamped, arpeggioed and soared through musical genres from his native Puerto Rican plenas, seis and bombas to salsa, jazz, and rock, rounded out by classical guitar passages and Flamenco music. The virtuoso interpreted eclectic styles through cherubic fingers that flew through frets before languishing on lengthy solos weaved on Spanish songs. When rock guitarist Eric Clapton first saw the Fania All-Stars perform, it is rumored he asked the person next to him, “Who’s that little monster on the guitar?”

Born in the sleepy harbor municipality of Guánica, in the barrio of Ensenada, Puerto Rico on July 26, 1933, Yomo’s father Alberto was an artisan who made guitars and cuatros. The six year old Yomo was startled by his father one day when he was caught playing the cuatro hung over the senior Toro’s bed. Instead of anger, his father calmly told the boy he nicknamed Yermo (short for his middle name Guillermo) to get back on the bed and keep playing. A week later, his father called him out to the yard. A scared and nervous little Yomo dutifully went expecting his punishment. Instead, Alberto presented a handmade cuatro to his son that day, and told him to play. When the young boy looked up, his father was weeping.

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He’s moved millions since.

An ambassador of Puerto Rican culture, Yomo Toro is a noted guitarist, but his “ax” of choice, as musicians say, was the cuatro, the Island’s national instrument; a 10-stringed instrument descended from the lute and later adapted with double strings similar to the Spanish vihuela

After making a name for himself in Puerto Rico as a first call guitarist, he landed in New York in 1954 and immediately embarked on a series of Caribbean tours with his band, Los Cuatro Aces. During this time, Yomo recorded the classic albums with cuatro masters Maso Rivera and Nieves Quintero aptly titled, Los Tres Cuatros something like the Three Tenors Puerto Rican style.

And it was on the streets of New York that his dream of playing with the legendary Trio Los Panchos was realized. Yomo recorded four albums with the celebrated group in the early '60s, including one featuring Eydie Gormé.

The Yomo Toro Variety Show over New York's Channel 41 had a decade long television run from the late '60s into the '70s that brought him to the attention of Jerry Masucci and Johnny Pacheco, co-owners of the legendary Fania label. He eventually joined their world-famous showcase band the Fania All-Stars. Especially noteworthy was the year 1970 when Yomo recorded the critically acclaimed salsa album honoring Cuba’s tresero, Tribute to Arsenio with the Larry Harlow Orchestra.

When guitarist Roberto Garcia wanted Yomo to sub for him on a Christmas album Pacheco was recording with a new group, he asked Yomo to bring the popular electric guitar of the times, but, as Yomo tells the story, when he heard “Christmas” he grabbed his cuatro instead. When Hector LaVoe saw the instrument, he immediately thought of his mentor, and Yomo’s friend, the great folkloric singer Chuito de Bayamón, and began to compare Christmas songs with Yomo. Asalto Navideño was a hit. Yomo remembers that session being improvised, with no papers, no music, on the spot, with the rest of the musicians joining Yomo and Hector as they improvised through tradition. Fania Records followed up with Asalto Navideño Vol. 2 that featured the Boricua lion Daniel Santos in a vocal dual with the much younger Hector underscored by some of the labels best musicians. In the 90s, Ashé Records picked up the Christmas baton producing Yomo in the center of a Christmas recording that brought together the cream of Puerto Rican musicians to Celebremos Navidad.  All of these are good recordings. However, through Hector’s musical expertise and Yomo’s virtuosity, they caught lightning in a bottle with the 1972 release of the classic Asalto Navideño that continues to be a best-selling holiday recording and Fania label classic.

In the '70s, '80s and '90s, Toro's career careened like a freight train. He appeared on over 150 albums, recording more than 20 solo albums for Fania, Island, Rounder and Green Linnet Records. He returned to television and film, playing in commercials for several major international companies, on television shows the likes of Sesame Street and The Ghost of Father Fohner while working on the soundtracks for several films, including Crossover Dreams with Ruben Blades and Woody Allen's Bananas.

Called “the Jimi Hendrix of the cuatro,” by the N.Y. Times, Yomo’s left handed rapid-fire riffs spanned many musical miles recording with Harry Belafonte, Paul Simon, Linda Rondstadt, Gloria Estefan and David Byrne. His image is captured in a statute erected in his honor in Ensenada, a barrio of Guánica in Puerto Rico.

Through it all Yomo maintained a simple, almost Zen-like existence living humbly among the people of the Bronx community he returned to after his globetrotting.

“My father never wanted to own anything,” Denise remembers. “He didn’t want to be a landlord, a homeowner, he didn’t want to worry about those things. He just wanted to play his guitars, travel, have fun, laugh and eat good food and make people forget their troubles and be happy.”

 Yomo did just that.

 Settling into the Tremont section of the Bronx in 1973 after close to two decades in Brooklyn, Yomo performed at the White House with the same pride, vigor and enthusiasm he shared with his musical brothers during his yearly neighborhood get-togethers at the Bronx Lebanon Hospital Center performing his last gig there in October of 2010. Among his peers, Yomo was considered the humblest and happiest of artists—one who personified that exceptional “salt of the earth quality,” a rarity in this urban society.

In 1994, Yomo began touring and recording with Larry Harlow’s Latin Legends. Two years later he released the well-received and critically noted Celebremos Navidad, considered Yomo’s favorite, over Ashé Records before hitting the road again in 1998, this time as part of David Gonzalez’s off Broadway musical Sofrito

“We loved Sofrito,” Denise points out of the off-Broadway children’s show. "Our kids loved it, even Harlow’s grandkids kept singing the songs they put to David Gonzalez’ stories. My father loved playing the tree that sings. That’s what he was with that cuatro, a singing tree made of strong wood from Puerto Rico.”

The jazz world always beckoned and recognized Yomo with one of his last recordings done with trombonist Roswell Rudd over El Espiritu Jíbaro in 2007. Hilton Ruiz’s last posthumous recording of unreleased tracks features the great maestro of strings, Yomo Toro over the critically acclaimed, “Hilton’s Last Note”.

“One of my favorite shows,” recalls Denise, “was when he played with you guys over at the Harlem Stage and those dancers with the costumes created an entire carnaval at the end. I loved the cultural images: the dancer in chains like a slave; the big-headed characters of Juan Bobo and Doña Fela, even the blinged out vegigantes. That was an amazing show and one of the reasons Papi loved playing with Zon del Barrio the last ten years of his life. That’s the legacy he wanted to bring to the world. Our beautiful Puerto Rican music, dance and culture.”

Yomo’s musical legacy was recognized by the industry when he received a Lifetime Achievement GRAMMY in 2012 accepted by Denise and his widow. An effort put forth by Yomo’s producer Rachel Faro, the Academy was able to speak to Yomo while he was in the hospital to congratulate and let him know he was to be awarded the coveted gold gramophone.

Denise dabs her eyes, plants her feet firmly to the floor and calmly makes her peace for the creation of a cultural foundation in the name of her father: Víctor Guillermo Toro Vega Ramos Rodríguez Acosta professionally known around the world as Yomo Toro and to Denise as Papi.

Yomo Toro was laid to rest at St. Michael's Cementery in East Elmhurst, Queens next to his daughter Patricia (Patty) and his son Victor (Yomito).

For those seriously interested in the Yomo Toro Cultural Foundation please email Denise Toro at

Yomo Toro can be heard over Zon del Barrio’s Cortijo’s Tribe CD, 2006 and Homenaje al Sonero Mayo single recorded in July of 2010.

YouTube Videos:


Latin jazz of Yomo’s "Cuesta de Josefina":

Yomo Toro solo with Harlow's band:

Yomo Toro block party:

Yomo Toro World’s Most Dangerous Cuatrists with Nelson Gonzales:

"Aires de Navidad," Yomo with Zon del Barrio:

© Aurora Flores. Published by permission in Centro Voices on 17 December 2014.

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Centro Voices (ISSN: 2379-3864).
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Centro Voices, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies or Hunter College, CUNY.