I met Robi around ’94-’95 at the Mayflower Hotel near Columbus Circle; he was working with a prolific manager of Mexican rock bands who were also staying there, but he was a man apart, his mind and field of perception racing past me yet still allowing me to speak to him. Instead of the hotel lounge rock stars prefer he motioned me into Central Park to sit in the grass with him like he was someone I went to high school with, and in a way I did, because the story he would tell me about his early adolescent move with his family to Puerto Rico from New York was so much like the one my parents once planned for me.
They had taken me to Bayamón somewhere where we had family and my cousins or second cousins took me to play basketball in the neighborhood and I didn’t like the way people played there and in general the soft-as-dew suburban sights and smells didn’t agree with me and I said no and my parents for some strange reason listened to me.
Robi’s parents didn’t listen to him and he wound up back en la isla, where he found unimaginable fame, glory, and this kind of inexplicable look of shock and sadness, tempered by that slow smile that never seems to leave his face even when he’s not smiling. It’s not like I think I would have turned out just like Robi if my parents forced me to move like his did, because there’s no way I could sing (and certainly not dance) like he does, but there have been times when I felt he was a kind of amazing alternate version of someone I could have been, someone more willing to face the raging ecstatic love and pathos that burns inside our imaginary nation.
I found out today that Robi was sick and we should all pray for him. So he can be there for his family and so he can finish all the work that’s still stored up inside him.
(Robi prefers to be called Draco and I respect that but when I met him he was Robi and I still remember him that way.)
Here is an excerpt from an interview I did with him in 1999:
I was born in New York and my mom used to listen to one kind of music and my dad listened to a totally different kind of music. Mom was born in Mayaguez but went to live in New York. She loved the Beatles, she gave me the White Album, she came home one day with Led Zeppelin, a crushed velvet poster. She came home with the Who, and then I heard about the Doors, so she got me the Doors, I was a big fan of Jim Morrison, and that’s how that whole thing evolved with my mom. My dad was a big salsero. Until this day, he just listens to the old school. But back then they used to get together Saturday nights downstairs and listen to the old school salsa. I listened to it, I wanted to hang with my Dad, and he closed the door, there was good music down there. My dad also listened to the crooners—he had his take on Julio Iglesias and he listened to Camilo Sesto. But with the boys it was always about la Fania All Stars. He was always into salsa, the dark kind, the one that was tough. The aggressive side of salsa. Mom was like what she was all about. My mom used to work in Hempstead in a predominantly black neighborhood. She used to hang out at a YMCA type place. I used to go every Thursday night and that’s when I got my first boombox. That’s when I first heard Sly, and I was like wow, listen to this. That lasted for two years. I was like 7 or so. Neither of my parents were musicians. But both of their families had people that played cuatros. My dad didn’t because we ran into some real tough times and he was the one that was responsible to take care of the whole family, so he went in another direction.
Menudo comes cause one day my pop just comes home and says, we’re going to give you another week, and then we’re going to Puerto Rico. At this point I was having a little trouble getting along with my dad, getting along, standard stuff, you know. So I wasn’t too happy about going to Puerto Rico, at the time I was so upset with him and I got really close to my mom’s brother, and he was the one who said, hey why don’t you come stay with me in San Juan, because we were in Ponce. He said there’s this group, Menudo, he showed me this article, I didn’t know, I just came from New York. Menudo, what is that? I said. He hooked up an audition, I didn’t get the job, it came down to nine finalists. Then they hired me to do background music, ironically enough. When I was in Ponce I had a heavy metal band. I was a little too tall at the time. I went with them. It was a little tough decision at the time because some of the boys were saying, “porque te vas a tirar pa’ alla?” I’m thinking about this. Do I stay at home and shoot a basket all my life or travel because I paid attention to what Menudo was doing—they were traveling around the world, and then I had my dad, he was annoying me, so I said, you know what, I’m getting out of here. That was my break. I was 12.