“JESUS CALIXTO RIVERA: MORE CULTURAL COWBELL, PLEASE”
By Edwin Pagán
| BY THE TIME CHRISTOPHER WALKEN CLAMORED FOR “MORE COWBELL” on Saturday Night Live’s now cult comedy skit on April 8, 2000, Jorge Calixto Rivera had already been pounding out those hollow staples found in most percussionist’s repertoire into precise melodic form for more than twenty-six years. In fact, we are sure Walken would approve of what Calixto has accomplished over the last forty years in his South Bronx workshop.
JCR Percussion sits in a nondescript storefront located at 980 Ogden Avenue at the corner of 162nd Street. Inside its dark interior, flashes and long streams of hot metal hit the floor. Behind the lathe is Greg, a dedicated African-American apprentice of five years, who is filing down the rough edges off one of the store’s legendary cowbells. After inspecting it thoroughly, he sets it aside on a risen bench next to another baker’s dozen. Calixto sits in a tiny cluttered cubicle that serves as his office looking over a more refined instrument pending his approval. Above him, custom-made bongos, panderetas, unused skins, and Cubangüiros hang from the rafters, while a nearby bench is covered in conga rims and tuning lugs. Half a lifetime of rusted metal shavings give the workshop its unique matte patina – this is not Santa’s sparkly toy haven, and organized chaos is the order of the day. To be sure, no one comes for the décor (except for a photographer).
Nestled in the Highbridge section of the Bronx, JCR Percussion first opened its doors around 1974 (even Calixto cannot provide an exact date). A musician in his own right, Calixto realized there was a need for quality percussion instruments among New York’s Latino musicians. Increasingly, even the raw materials to make them became scarce due to the Cuban embargo, and as imports were choked off from other regions by U.S. Customs. Back then, the musical pioneers who became his first customers were steeped in creating what was being called the “New York sound,” the infectious tempo that would ultimately become known worldwide as Salsa, a direct derivative of Afro-Cuban music.
The walls of the space are entirely covered in signed photographs, publicity stills, and promotional flyers that read like a who’s who of Latin music. Even the front windows are obscured in music mementos. One in particular announces a street renaming in honor of the late, great Fania All-stars cuatro guitarist, Yomo Toro, who lived just up the street until he passed away in 2012, and who was a personal friend and frequent band mate of Calixto. Fittingly, the Yomo Toro Place street sign now looks down over JCR Percussion like a guardian angel of sorts.
To his friends and colleagues he’s simply known as Caly, but to the numerous musicians who have patronized his exacting instruments for four decades, his anointed moniker serves him best: ‘el padrino de los tambores.’ A set of his timbales and bells sit in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Not too shabby for a boy from the humble town of Coamo, Puerto Rico.
According to Grammy-nominated percussionist/ bandleader Bobby Sanabria, a frequent patron and friend of Calixto’s (and benefactor of my introduction to JCR), it’s not uncommon to have a Japanese news crew walk past the doors one minute, and a renown musician the next, here to either buy one of JCR’s hand-crafted instruments or have a former purchase fine-tuned or repaired while in between concerts/tours.
Sanabria, who’s also a noted music historian, points to Cheo Feliciano’s ‘Anacaona’ as one of the tracks of those early formative years in which Calixto’s cowbells played a pivotal role in the distinct sound of the recording, thanks to percussionists Orestes Vilato and Johnny Rodríguez. Asked to compare JCR’s craftsmanship to any of his contemporaries, Sanabria goes one better: “Cali’s pieces are the ‘Stradivarius’ of cowbells.” Punto.
Aside from a welding torch and grinding wheel, everything in his shop is an ode to a bygone era and virtual nod to a wood- or metal-smith’s stock-in-trade: hammers, chisels, pliers, clamps. There’s even a 500 lbs. anvil like those that frequently pop-up in cartoons and fall on the head of an unsuspecting Coyote for laughs, and I couldn’t keep my eyes off of it (Beep, Beep). But JCR is no joke. There’s no computer to speak of and his shipments are hand-written and entirely fulfilled on site. His annual marketing budget is zero and he doesn’t need social media or public relations tricks to gain foot traffic. He’s become a brand unto himself in the music industry, and his craftsmanship is his best word of mouth, his instruments calling out to others around the world.
During the years his doors have remained open, Calixto has managed to sustain a living making fine, hand-made percussive instruments that are the envy of other brands who use industrial methods to mass produce their wares. Local legend has it that Latin Percussion (LP) has even approached Calixto over the years to launch a JCR brand extension. Folklore also says the comeback has always been an unequivocal ‘pass.’
Not that he hasn’t sold his instruments via third party outlets before. JCR items can be found on the shelves at Sam Ash and Guitar Center. But for the most part, Calixto has chosen to keep the retail pipeline directly between his shop and the patron, an old-world view that sits well with his customers—he prefers to call them friends—who also get the value-added benefit of his personal counsel and wisdom.
Over the years, several ventures have cropped up and tried to imitate JCR and compete against the shop with limited success. All have come and gone. They failed where Calixto has excelled because they lacked his combinación perfecta as a wood craftsman, welder, and attuned musical artist – something he’s developed since childhood heralding from a musical family. Calixto has been making cowbells and bongos since the age of ten, and plied and honed his craft to the point where he’s developed both his own methods and tools for making his one-of-a-kind products, thus ensuring he stands alone as his own best lead to follow. And the music industry knows it, too, which is the primary reason for the high customer retention rate over the years.
In 2006, the New York Times published an article about JCR Percussion that read more like an obituary than a profile piece, citing ‘the end of an era’ due to the area’s encroaching gentrification. In 2008 Calixto’s shop was included in the Places That Matter registry, which is jointly administered by CityLore and the Municipal Art Society with the aim of recognizing ‘historically and culturally significant places.’
Elena Martínez, a folklorist and curator with CityLore who worked on the project, puts it all into clear perspective:
“Cali’s workshop is important on different levels,” she says. “For one, not many products are hand-crafted anymore and his cowbells are in great demand; also the Bronx has such an incredible Latin music history but so many of the theaters and clubs that featured the music are gone. Very few places relevant to that history remain, among them are the music store Casa Amadeo and Cali’s workshop. In a world of corporate branding these small businesses remain the last repositories of that legacy.”
Asked today if he is concerned with the changes taking place in the community and skyrocketing rents, Calixto simply laughs it off. “No, not all,” he says in Spanish. “I’m still here and doing just fine. Besides, I’ve only begun to put my shop on the map. There’s still so much more to do.”
Even now at 65, although retired as a musician, Calixto cannot envision doing anything other than continue making the instruments that are the hallmark of his name, and the thought of a second retirement seems to echo all too mutely in the distant future, if at all. For him, there’s only one remedy for the cultural fever that burns inside the soul of this great artisan and cultural Puerto Rican icon: more handcrafted cowbell. RAN KAN KAN.
¡La Cultura Vive, Y Su Historia Sigue!
NOTE: This essay was originally published in La Repuesta Magazine, as part of their first anniversary anthology on August 18, 2014. Jesus Calixto Rivera passed away on July 30, 2017. May he R.I.P.