José Cobles, also known as Puerto Plata, appears at Meany Theater March 14. The 85-year-old Dominican guitarist released his first album just two years ago.
Eighty-five-year-old guitarist and singer José Cobles’ appearance tonight at Meany Hall has deep roots in the long and storied history of his native Dominican Republic.
Better known as Puerto Plata — a name he took from the resort town in which he was born — Cobles’ tale is one of personal and artistic survival in the nation’s cultural center, Santiago. Among other things, his music spent years out of favor with the cultural tastes of the late Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican Republic’s brutal dictator.
But that was long ago. Cobles moved to Denver two decades back to be near his daughter and grandchildren. He was making his living as a carpenter by day and playing with a trio at night, when a novice New York-based producer, Benjamin de Menil, gave him a call.
The result of that introduction was “Mujer de Cabaret,” Cobles’ award-winning — and very first — CD, released in 2007 to acclaim from Billboard, The New York Times and others. His Seattle show is one stop in a series of debut appearances in the U.S., backed by some of the finest Latin American musicians around, since its release.
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De Menil helmed “Mujer de Cabaret,” a reflection of guitar styles developed in the Dominican Republic during Cobles’ life there. The album includes a song called “Los Piratas,” about the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Cobles happened to be in Seattle that day, visiting his partner’s daughter. He wrote the song that night.
Speaking by phone from Denver, the Spanish-speaking Cobles — whose words were translated by de Menil in New York via conference call — sounds delighted and proud.
“After all this time to have this happen in old age makes me satisfied and happy,” Cobles says. “I feel like I’m representing the music of my people.”
Cobles’ memories of life in Santiago inevitably turn to the bloody dictatorship of Trujillo, who reigned from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. Trujillo suppressed wildly popular Latin American guitar music, in all its forms, because of African influences.
Unable to record, Cobles and other musicians made their living among common people in the barrio of La Joya, a Santiago neighborhood.
“We would be hired by men to play serenades to women in the early part of each evening,” says Cobles. “Then we would play in the cabarets.”
Yet life was anything but safe or certain.
“There was a lot of fear of the government,” Cobles says. “A lot of people in the cabarets were soldiers. Wherever soldiers were involved, you had to be careful how you acted. They would take your rum and your girl and there was nothing you could do about it.”
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org