The story of guitarist José “Puerto Plata” Cobles is an interesting one, though it intersects with one of the darkest periods of Caribbean history. Cobles was born in the the town of Puerto Plata (hence his nickname) in the Dominican Republic in the 1920s and bought his first guitar at the age of 24. He quickly gained fame playing Afro-Iberian guitar music in the dance halls and underground venues of Santiago, but Cobles unfortunately was in the prime of his career during the dictatorial reign of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina…”El Jefe” (the boss).
Cobles’ music came from the Afro-infused guitar traditions of bolero and son, which were forms primarily played in the music circles of Cuba. Trujillo was not a fan of such styles; he preferred the accordion-heavy merengue típico. And what Trujillo liked, everyone needed to like. “El Jefe” ensnared his people in a cult of personality built around his image and his tastes. The city of Santo Domingo, for instance, was renamed “Ciudad Trujillo.” Statues of him were placed all over the country. Bridges, public buildings, and even a mountain were renamed in his honor. Churches were made to post slogans such as “Dios en cielo, Trujillo en tierra” (God in Heaven, Trujillo on Earth). And he established a brutal racial hierarchy.
Trujillo’s musical tastes meant that Cobles was not allowed to record his music, and the musical styles he loved were generally repressed in the country. By the time Trujillo was assassinated in 1961, the music scene had been changed. Cobles had long left the clubs and had found work as a carpenter for United Fruit Company. Much later, he made his way to the United States in the 1990s. Though he had abandoned the life of a professional musician, he had never stopped playing his guitar.
A few years ago record producer Benjamin de Menil was tipped off to Cobles’ talent. Now in his mid-80s, Cobles was signed to his first record deal, and in 2007 his first album was released. International recognition followed, and now Cobles’ second album, Casita de Campo, just came out last year. The little bit of it I’ve heard sounds fantastic.