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Cali Rivera, Renowned Percussion Artisan of The Bronx, Dies at 79

Cali Rivera in his shop, JCR Percussion Inc.
Mathew Cohen
Cali Rivera in his shop, JCR Percussion Inc.

Cali Rivera, the Puerto Rico-born founder of the highly regarded JCR Percussion in the Bronx, died this past Sunday from complications of a brain tumor at 79 years old, according to his wife and business partner Lily Rivera.

For decades, from a tiny and crowded space in a nondescript building in the shadow of Yankee Stadium, Rivera operated a place of magic and legend. Rows of gleaming cowbells — the shop's speciality — each buffed to perfection by Rivera or his longtime workmate Pete Lugo, were stacked amid decades of history; old bongo shells and machine parts, boxes ready to be shipped to customers around the world and the metal working tools that have hardly changed since cowbells, or cencerros, were first used in Cuban music at the turn of the 19th century.

The cowbell has been the subject of an enduring punchline thanks to Saturday Night Live — but really, the instrument produces the nuanced sonorities that make salsa and folkloric music sparkle and pulse. JCR cowbells are so coveted by musicians that it was not uncommon for musicians to spend hours striking bell after bell, looking for just the right pitch to personalize their sound.

Which is also how the JCR workshop became known as a must-do "hang" among musicians in the know. Rivera's warm smile, easygoing manner and his gift of storytelling kept many, from the famous to the neighborhood timbalero, lingering longer than they usually anticipated.

Though Rivera closed the shop last year as health issues got the better of him, even as the space sat empty it remained, for many, a living breathing institution.

In 2015 our colleagues at Jazz Night In America captured Cali Rivera and the JCR story on video — take a look.

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Felix Contreras is co-creator and host of Alt.Latino, NPR's pioneering radio show and podcast celebrating Latin music and culture since 2010.