Joe Quijano, 'King of Pachanga' and Salsa Pioneer, Dies at 83

Joe Quijano
Kevin Yatarola/Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts

Joe Quijano at Damrosch Park during Lincoln Center’s Midsummer Night Swing on June 27, 2018. 

Born in Puerto Rico, Quijano grew up playing mambo and stickball on Kelly Street in the Bronx, a breeding ground for New York Latin musicians of the era.

Joe Quijano, the singer, musician and bandleader known as “the king of pachanga,” died on Thursday (April 4) at age 83 in Puerto Rico, where he was born. Qijano’s widow, Grace Pérez, told San Juan newspaper El Nuevo Día that pneumonia caused his death, and that their daughter, Norma Mia Quijano, was at his side when he passed away.

At age seven, Quijano moved with family to New York City. They lived in The Bronx, first on Simpson Street, and then on Kelly Street, a breeding ground for musicians who bridged the mambo era and the fiery advent of the new Latin urban sound called salsa. He attended PS 52, the Kelly Street public school, which was also the alma mater of musicians including percussionist Ray Barretto and pianist Eddie Palmieri, who lived just up the street.

In the 1940s, the neighbourhood kids were influenced by the Cuban music playing on the radio, and at nearby dance clubs catering to the newly arrived and growing Puerto Rican population, Quijano explained to this writer in a phone interview this past January. “Then Boricuas, like Barretto, started playing the conga too, after watching Mongo Santamaria, who was Cuban. And there were the Puerto Rican timbales players like Tito Puente and Mike Collazo, the great timbalero who played with Tito Rodríguez. And the singers, like Tito Rodríguez himself," he said. "There was so much talent. Orquestras and smaller bands started coming out of the Bronx – allí se formó la rumba (the rumba formed there), like the Cubans say,” Quijano said, savouring the moment like it was yesterday.

Quijano recalled studying piano with Sra. (Eduvijes) Bocanegra, a strict teacher with dark hair who gave lessons to the neighbourhood children on nearby Longwood Avenue.

He sang and played bongos in his first band, formed together with Eddie Palmieri and Orlando Marín, when they were in their early teens. Calling themselves Los Mamboys, they practiced during lunch hour at PS 52 and gave weekly performances at the school. Soon they were playing at the Hunts Point Palace ballroom in the Bronx, earning $5 a night for each musician.

The working band expanded and had several incarnations: Banana Kelly’s Mambo band, and the Conjunto Orlando Marín, El Conjunto de Eduardo Palmo (Palmieri) and Joe Quijano y Su Conjunto. When Marín was drafted into the army, Palmieri led the band, and when he moved on, Quijano took over. “But I changed the line up,” he recalled. “I put in two trumpets and a flute.”

After P.S. 52, Quijano attended the High School of Industrial Arts and went on to study music at Columbia University for three years.

He debuted his band, the Conjunto Cachana, in 1957. Quijano sowed the seeds of salsa with his hip interpretation of la pachanga, a dance style featuring violins and trumpet that came out of Cuba in the 1950s and was popularized by Eduardo Davidson and José Fajardo.

“I really liked the sound of Sonora Matancera and the flutes like Orquesta Aragon,” he said. “So I made my own sound.”

Quijano also founded his own label, Cesta Records. Among the label’s catalogue are little known recordings credited to the Cesta All Stars, led by Charlie Palmieri. According to Quijano, they are actually 1964 recordings of members of the Alegre All Stars, which came out of a legendary series of sessions recorded for Al Santiago’s Alegre label. (Those jam sessions were an inspiration for the formation of the famous Fania All Stars, who took salsa around the world.)

“Al Santiago had recorded eight numbers[for an album] and then he got sick,” Quijano revealed. “So he offered to sell me those eight numbers; I changed the name from Alegre to Cesta All Stars.” He recorded more tracks under that name.

He described the recordings as “maximum salsa.”

Quijano had announced his retirement in 2015, but in July 2018 he performed with Conjunto Cachana as part of Lincoln Center’s Midsummer Night Swing series.

In recent months, his health had been delicate. Still, he was scheduled to appear at a Living Legends of Salsa Concert in Medellín, Colombia on March 30. That gig was cancelled after he fell in his home in San Juan on March 7 and was admitted to the city’s Presbyterian Hospital. 

Joe Quijano is being remembered by fans and musicians, including Willie Colon, who posted this tribute on Twitter: