Sergio El Haitiano Rivero, a man whose creativity defies time and space


I met Sergio Rivero over a decade ago, in the days when I was the Entertainment Editor at el diario-LA PRENSA, in New York.

A friend who worked at the newspaper invited me to meet an artist, a painter, whose creations portrayed a long gone era, back in his native Cuba, but whose essence remained vivid in the cultural lore of all Latinos who in one way or another enjoyed all music that started from the sounds of the drum.

Little did I know that the paintings that attracted me at the instant of our first meeting, would lead me into the auto-didactic world of a true renaissance man, an artist that was also a singer and a composer, as well as an anthropologist.  Yes, Rivero is all that and more, and the pursuit of his dreams now serves as a window, through which all Latinos can look at an era that dates as far back as the times of the colonization of the Caribbean Islands by the Spaniards.

The beginnings

Born of humble origins in Santiago de Cuba in 1931, Sergio Rivero is quickly moving on to his 80th birthday, although a look at the energetic bounce in his walk, as well as the clarity of his thoughts and his expressions truly manifest the contours of a much younger man. His family moved to Cuba’s capital, Havana when he was a child, and there Sergio was soon exposed to the artistic life that permeated the country in its pre-revolutonary days, or as the artist prefers to refer to the time as, "the Republican Cuba."  They were very poor and Sergio had to find work as soon as he was physically able and after finishing elementary school he began working at an auto repair shop, a job he kept until the death of his mother.  It was his mother who provided the first incentives for Rivero, both in the arts and in music, as she provided a very simple painting set. Her approval of his first composition, one she heard as he sang it while in the bathroom, sent him on his way to his pursuit of a career in the arts.

With his painting utensils in tow, Sergio began painting portraits at every opportunity he saw possible and began to earn some pennies that allowed him to barely manage through those very hard times. “I had to sleep anywhere I could, at a time a friend allowed me to sleep in his store, others in cars, and many others on the stairs of many of the buildings in Havana. We had a hard time, as we try to salvage a piece of bread to eat, while pursuing the opportunity of performing or, at least, finding someone that would perform your songs, as a way of getting your name known in the music world.” He was barely 17 when he composed his first song, in 1948. Although the song did not help him get into the music scene, he used it to quickly pursue his first love interest, and noticing that he had talent, he soon began to peruse the nightlife of Havana. In 1956 he formed part of the Orquesta Super Colosal, which was his first professional try at the hard to crack music scene.  His time there gave him a little experience, but did not bear success and once again he grabbed his paintings utensils and made a painting of Modesto Vázquez, head of the Cadena Habana, Radio Station. “I met him at the CMQ Radio Station and I sang a song, “El Haitiano,” for him. He loved it and authorized me to sing the song with the Neno González Orquestra and that opportunity gave me a running start.” “El Haitiano,” soon became a popular song and the title gave me my professional appelative, one by which I have been recognized up to this day.

From that day on forward, Sergio Rivero, became “El Haitiano.” His big opportunity occurred when he became a member of a historical vocal group named “Los Zafiros.” “That group was a phenomenon in Cuba during those days,” remembered Rivero. He remembered those days, “we all played in the same spots, as I was a cabaret performer at the time. There had been a series of squabbles between two of the members of the group, and they asked me to come in. I did and performed and toured with the group for five months. The squabbling members were also related so after the five months they got together again, but to me it was a great experience. I was the only person, outside of the original five members to participate with the group. That is a part of history that I am particularly proud of.” A truly great experience indeed, as Rivero continued to find success in Cuba’s nightlife, winning the award as "Cuba's Best Cabaret Performer" and becoming a succesful solo performer on his own, competing amongst the greats that characterized the era of the 1950’s in Cuba. By 1958, Carlos Argentino Torres, a renowned singer with La Sonora Matancera, recorded a song, ”my first, a Cha Cha Cha, titled Los Reyes Magos and that began my career in earnest.“

Soon Rivero was out every night at Club 21 and quickly became a fixture in the Cuban nightlife with the song “El Haitiano.” Sergio “El Haitiano” Rivero, had finally experienced a little success on his own, with a major hit single, but there was still much more to be accomplished. Finally Sergio “El Haitiano” Rivero recorded a song that brought him fame and allowed him to travel as a solo artist throughout the Americas, the well remembered hit “Anita Tun Tun.” Rivero also authored many songs of importance, amongst which we can remember “Ando buscando novia,” “Jaraneando,” “Si me voy pa’ la Habana,” “Que no me empujen,” “Quin, quin, quin, Can,” “Me quedé sin chivo,” “Pa’na’ma’ besarte,” “Lluvia,”and “Dices tu digo yo.” Rivero was sanctioned with three years in prison in 1968 for leaving Cuba, and finally left the country in 1980 as a political exile, finding a destination in Spain. Thanks to the popularity of songs like “Anita Tun Tun,” and “Lluvia,” Rivero was soon touring again finding frequent opportunities in Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico, Central and South America, and in France, amongst many other countries. His career in America “El Haitiano” soon found refuge in the United Stated where he has found a place and an opportunity to re-manufacture his artistic persona since the 1980’s, and it was in New York where his artistic career began taking a new and steady direction. Although the painter had expositions on his work in Cuba that date as far back as 1964, one sponsored by the National Institute of Fine Arts in Havana, and his painting “Peces,” grazed the cover of Bohemia magazine in 1970, his career as a painter took a totally different dimension upon his arrival in New York City.

The energetic artist now combines his abilities as a singer, musician and composer, while dabbling in ethnic street poetry and painting full time, this at an age when many can't get out of bed. Rivero is indeed an inspiration, and through his art, he plays an educational function by preserving, with anthropological honesty, the beauty of a time that is long gone, but that survives and breathes through the varied musical expressions of the drum today. In his art, “El Haitiano” brings back a past that is deeply rooted in his afro-cuban experience in “the Solares” of Havana, where the macro cosmic experience of Cuban life, became manifest in a micro-cosmic presentation through the life in the solares. That is how his technique which he calls, “Transparencias cósmicas dentro de la Cultura Afro-Cubana,” came to life. In his Transparencias, Rivero is able to pass on the memories of his childhood experiences in the Cuban solares in a manner that captures the movement and the experience of virtual sound into a still painting. When you look at a painting by Sergio Rivera you can close your eyes and see a masterful depiction of the drum overtures as they are danced in their patterns of Rumba, in the styles of El Yambú, El Guaguancó and the Columbia. El Yambú is the earliest type of Rumba known. Here the sensual rhythmic patterns are slowly and methodically danced by the partners. The continuously arousing movements of the woman following the melodic beat of the wood drum, show her attempts at conquering the sound, and as such the musical expression. Rivero’s virtual exposition captures the erotic and deeply sensual interaction of the man and the woman dancers in the gestures of El Guaguancó.

Here the man tries to physically give the impression of an attempt at love-making as the facial expressions and contorted movement’s gyrate into the woman’s pelvic areas. If the man can surprise the woman in the ritual and she is not able to cover her parts from the sensual arousal of the man, it demonstrates the dancing superiority of the man; otherwise the woman shows her virtuosity and strength. Finally, the Columbia is a rapid rhythm that is danced by a male. Here the dancer is trained to move to the beat of the quinto showing the dexterity of the warrior getting ready for combat. As in the Guaguancó, the singer makes a vocal introduction before the lyrics begin, called the Diana. In the expositions of these musical expressions it is possible to feel the mix of the Spanish musical and cultural influence as it merges into the traditional African mores expressed by the sound of the wood drums. This art collection is truly expressive in its visual form as tradition, movement, and sound give the impression of a mental transport to a timeless moment where the traditional sound of the wooden box maintained a musical expression that presents the historical perspective of the life in the Cuban solares. This is a true anthropological and visual experience for those that love the connotations that follow the sound of the drum, from the times of slavery, all the way up to modern times. One of his most interesting paintings is in the Rumba de Cajón, Transparencias series, it presents singer Marc Anthony leading the vocals in a Guaguancó performance in a Cuban solar. Here, the artist, who wishes to give this painting as a present to Marc Anthony, transcends time, taking the singer 100 years into the past, in a magnificent presentation. His transparencies have also been featured on Bill Cosby’s television show, as Mr. Cosby owns a collection of his Transparencies. His biographical series Rivero has also painted biographical portraits that have been given to music great Celia Cruz, New York City Mayor Ed Koch, Mexican movie star Mario Moreno, the great Cantinflas, Cuban actor Andy Garcia, actor, comedian and educator Bill Cosby, and music great Dizzy Gillespie, who called him “the artist of his age,” just to mention a few. He has just finished one depicting New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg that he wishes to give the mayor as recognition of his work in pro of New York City after he wins the next election. “He will win,” says Rivero, “he has done a great job for this city.” I recommend that those interested contact Mr. Rivero. He has a unique collection that deserves to be exposed to the public at large.  His visionary approach has captured a part of the history of all of our countries and it is a perfect example that the search for man’s purpose continues, irrespective of time and place. Sergio “El Haitiano” Rivero is a perfect example of a never ending search to improve himself. The painter has reinvented himself time and again, and as he is well into the third age, he doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon.

I asked him if he planned to retire, he looked at me with a surprised face and said, “retire, never. I am a fully functional human being and the flow of ideas in my mind is constant. I can still create, and do work of excellence. There is no need to retire, you retire when you die. I have a constant need to create, and that motivates me every day of my life.” The artist has a message for our youth, “trust yourself and trust God. Talent is something that is not man made, talent is given by God, but it must be cultivated. You must persevere, every day, and face each and every challenge, because hard work will always pay back. Follow your calling, not because of the money you might make on your pursuit, but because it is your calling. Time will always reward your efforts.” Each of these paintings, with the exception of the exception of the Celia Cruz over the map of Cuba is an original. Sergio “El Haitiano” Rivero, can be reached at 212 781-1067 or 212 795-0587 so call him, and get to meet a quite unique Latino, and maybe you can own a very unique piece of art and Latino culture for a very reasonable price. If you are a lover of dance and Latin music, these are art pieces that are worth owning, I personally own six "transparencies of the Rumba de Cajón series." His original paintings range in price between $275 to $2,000.

Juan A. Moreno Velázquez es un autor y periodista galardonado nacido en Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico y radicado en la ciudad de Nueva York. Es autor de "Desmitificación de una diva, la verdad sobre La Lupe", "La Rumba es la Reina, por siempre Celia", y "Maelo; Hijo de Borikén, Rey de los Soneros", en adición a documentales sobre Machito, Tito Puente y Celia Cruz y el guión de cine "A Fall to Grace". Al presente cursa estudios doctorales en la Universidad de Nueva York y es Editor Asociado de la Revista BROADWAY LATINO.  



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