The Problem with Henry Fiol

"I'm a New York kid. The idea of me living in a private home and mowing a lawn is just ridiculous. I was born on the streets of New York, I've lived here all my life, I'm an apartment dweller, and I just identify with the city. Native New Yorkers are like a different breed, and that's just who I am."

His is a strong and beautiful presence. Henry Fiol is dressed in a pin-striped suit, white pocket square, red tie, black shoes recently shined. The soft scent of his warm cologne follows like a distant echo. He demands attention. There can be little question regarding Henry Fiol's confidence, his faith in himself, his desire to set his own special course, yet he is quick to trace his influences directly to his distinct familial background. Half-Italian, half-Puerto Rican, Fiol grew up in New York's Washington Heights and, though he has traveled much, he continues to make New York City his home. Where else would he go?

"Part of the problem with me," Fiol explains, "is that I went back and forth. When I was a young child, my Italian grandparents lived across the street from me, and I grew up hearing the Italian language and eating Italian food. So, I was more of an Italian kid. It wasn't until I became a teenager that I discovered my Latino side."

Though his father wasn't around much—he was "the kind of guy who just made pit-stops"—when he was home, he filled the house with music.

"My father used to play his old 78s—Latin music—on Sundays," Fiol continues. "And I thought a lot of it was corny, I didn't identify with it. But one Christmas, I went to visit my family in Puerto Rico—this was around '59, '60—and I saw Cortijo y su Combo with Ismael Rivera when they were in their heyday, and it just completely knocked me out, it just blew me away. I had never heard anything that was so exciting, had so much swing. So, when I got back to New York, I took my doo-wop records and pushed them to the side. From that point on, I began collecting and learning about Latin music. And when I got old enough, I started going to the clubs, dancing. All of my girlfriends were Latinas from that point on."

He pauses, smiles, reflects. To gain a better understanding of Henry Fiol, it's perhaps important to understand the persistent conflict, the internal struggle that is inherent to any person of mixed blood, the constant search, that searching desire to simply be, to belong.

"I've gone through my life in different phases. When I was young," he reiterates, almost as though he's trying to get it straight, "I identified with the Italian side. I think I got my values—as a person—from my grandfather on my mother's side. But then I got into the Latino thing. I started playing conga, I became a musician, and for many years—for decades—I worked in the field of Latin music. But then, about ten years ago, I got to a point where I felt I had to re-discover my Italian side and synthesize it with what I'd accomplished as a Latino."

That's when Fiol wrote his novel, The Short End of The Stick, which explores the Italian-American culture. Despite his efforts, Fiol was unable to find a publisher for the book.

"I got tired of shopping it around. I got to the point where I had to set it aside and just move on. In retrospect, it was a good experience because it helped me to finally fuse those things together, and, for the first time in my life, the issue of identity just became a moot point."

Here, again, Fiol pauses, collects his thoughts.

"I really don't have that identity conflict anymore. I'm Henry Fiol. I'm half-Italian, half-Puerto Rican. I'm like a nectarine, and here I am," he concludes with a smile.

It's the first time we've met, though we've already exchanged several e-mails and a couple of phone calls. I didn't know what to expect when I first approached Henry Fiol. I had read the interviews. They called him "idiosyncratic" and "prickly," and I had been told that he was "mad at the world." "Mad at the world for what?" I wondered. "He's been cheated by the record business." I wasn't sure if he'd even respond to my initial e-mail.

I was happily surprised when, just two days later, I received the warmest response, thanking me for my interest in his music. In e-mail, as in person, Henry is kind and generous, quick to offer helpful insights into his work and his life, almost as though he can't help but share and teach. It comes as no surprise, then, that before beginning his career in music, Fiol worked as an art teacher in New York City's Catholic schools and also as a student counselor for the New York Board of Education. It was art, not music, that Henry first pursued. He studied art at Manhattan's Hunter College with the goal of becoming a painter. Yet, for Fiol, music and art have always been tangled, inescapably, together.

When he walked into my office on that cold, rainy day in the middle of November, he presented me with his latest album, Guaperia, signed in silver ink.

"I'm not happy with it," he admits. "But there are a few things in there that are not bad. For this record, I used two congas and they were tuned too high. I'm not happy with that. There are other things—little things—that I'm not happy with, but, you know…. My early stuff? I can't even listen to it! I find all the mistakes, man."

Henry Fiol is nothing if not critical of his own work. He is a perfectionist to the core who believes that "improvisation is a joke, an application of a bag of tricks," who has never been interested in the first idea that comes into his head—"I'm interested in the best idea."—who feels that, if anything, his work—both in music and in painting—lacks spontaneity, is, in fact, overworked.

"First, I was trained as an oil painter. An oil painter is different from a watercolor painter, for instance, because a watercolor painter is interested in the accident—the things that happen spontaneously. Oil painters plan things out, they work step by step, they develop things in stages, they look at things, they analyze things, they wipe it all out and they start again. And I make my recordings exactly like that. Like an oil painter paints a painting—that's Henry Fiol, okay?

"And the key to understanding where that comes from is my Italian identity. I'm going to generalize now, and any time you generalize, you're gonna wind up with egg on your face—there are always exceptions to the rule—but my observations have led me to certain conclusions in life. And I would say that, for example, the African element that is brought to Latin music—the beauty of the African—and you can see this in jazz—is the spontaneity. The African lives in the moment, deep in the moment, focused on the here and now. On the other hand, the Italian—and you can see this in so many great works of classic Italian art—is able to sustain his concentration at an intense, feverish pitch for a long period of time. I'm very, very proud of my Italian side, and my identity as an artist, and whatever I've accomplished as an artist, comes from my Italian side."

After graduating from Hunter, Fiol's dream of becoming an artist was soon put on hold.

"Unfortunately, I started to come face to face with the realities of the art scene—the galleries and the aristocracy—I came into contact with a whole bunch of people that I couldn't identify with. The art scene was a disappointment," he says flatly.

"Even though I had talent as an artist, I was always just a neighborhood guy."

Disenchanted with the faces and fashions of New York's galleries, Fiol turned again to his father's music. He began to play conga, and would soon discover Cuba's musica campesina, a form of improvised country music.

"I discovered it completely by accident, and it was a very important thing in the development of my sound. If it hadn't happened, I doubt very much that I'd be doing the type of music that I am now."

For a time, in the late '60s, Fiol was working upstate in Tarrytown, NY, within a neighborhood that was home to a significant Cuban population.

"And I used to go to this Cuban bar to have lunch," he says. "I'm sitting there one day, and I hear on the jukebox this song called "El Carretero" by Guillermo Portabales. This song was like the skeleton of son—but it's not son from Santiago, it's not urban—it's country. It would be like hillbilly music. The hairs on my arms stood up. It just got to me. Not only the simplicity of the rhythm, but that this particular recording had only two guitars, bass, one conga, and this man's voice. Portabales. He's a very big influence on my style of singing. The country singers of Cuba sing with a lot of lyricism, a lot of sentimiento—a lot of feeling. Especially Portabales.

"I went to the jukebox, saw his name, wrote it down, and began my investigation of country music, which is basically white. The roots of Cuban country music are in Spain—mostly from the Andaluca region and it's basically white Spaniard music with a little bit of African influence."

At the same time, Fiol maintained his deep exploration of the conga, which finds its roots in Afro-Cuban folkloric sounds.

"I don't want to call myself a rumbero," he continues, "because that's a term I hold very high, but I've been a lover of the rumba ever since I first put my hands on a conga and, in fact, it's the music that I listen to most. I put on my headphones and I play conga along to my rumba records. That's my therapy," he laughs.

Fiol began as a working musician in 1974 as lead vocalist and conga player for Saoco, a band that combined the sounds of traditional small-scale Cuban groups with a heavy dose of New York City flavor. If you happen to come across a Saoco album—Siempre Sere Guajiro or Macho Mumba—be sure to take it home with you. The songs on these albums are on fire, on fire, on fire. These are Afro-Cuban sounds with all that sun and sand and rum, with echoes of the raw and wild jungle, played to the urgency and energy of a New York City summer.

"At the beginning, when I first started recording with Saoco, I was trying to recreate that Cuban conjunto style that I loved so much—that vocal sound of the singers I admired so much: Abelardo Baroso, Portabales, Cheo Marquetti, Miguelito Cuni, Beny More—these are the great soneros of Cuba, these were my role models.

"But then, once I started recording under my own name, I tried to develop a conjunto sound that was more contemporary. I was never into nostalgia. The idea was to create a contemporary son, a son moderno. I tried to bring in elements of New York. I introduced the tenor sax, I talked about things that were in my frame of reference, looking from a Lower East Side window and singing about what I saw. Now the LES is trendy, everybody wants to live there, there are sidewalk cafes on Avenue C where there used to be bombed-out blocks that looked like Europe after World War II. But the real problem with the LES back then was that there were people coming in and just lining up on the sidewalks to cop heroin. That's what I was seeing down there—the rubble, the poverty, the drugs. On a positive note, it was really an exciting place for music."

Fortunately, Fiol's paintings found a perfect home alongside his music, too. Saoco's first two albums, as well as Fiol's first three solo albums—Fe, Esperanza, y Caridad, El Secreto, and La Ley de la Jungla—utilize Fiol's paintings as their cover art. Capturing everyday island scenes, they are remarkable and vibrant. In 1976, Fiol's work for Saoco's Siempre Sere Guajira was recognized by Latin New York magazine as the year's best album cover.

"The LP was a good-sized canvas for an artist," he says. "You could do something on that twelve inch square. So I figured, 'Well, you know, I'm going to use whatever talent I have as an artist and instead of putting my work in a gallery and be kissing the hand of some rich guy who's going to put my painting in his beach home in the Hamptons, I'll put fine art in a commercial art context, and, even though it's reproduced, at least it's getting to my people, the people that identify with it.' So, I was doing that for awhile—until the LP format was brought down to CD and cassette."

If you get the idea that Fiol has a soft spot for the glory days of vinyl, then I'd be willing to bet that you're right. His eyes light up when I ask him about the old record shops.

"There used to be a place called The Record Mart (Footnote). The manager, a good friend of mine named Harry Sepulveda, used to have all these re-issues, these LPs, on fly-by-night labels of Cuban music from the '40s and '50s. They were only $2 each, and that was our school. When something only costs a couple of bucks, you can take a chance. You can listen to it and you can learn from it, and, if there are only a couple of tunes that are good, well, you're still learning. But now, CDs are expensive. Young musicians just can't plop down twenty dollars on a CD only to investigate. So, unfortunately, you don't have that body of work at your fingertips like we had back in the day."

Fiol's view doesn't seem to take into consideration the fact that kids have plenty of access to music via the vast internet. But why would he think of this? Fiol comes from a different school. When I asked him about his Myspace page, he nearly fell from his seat.

"My Myspace page? I have a Myspace page? I don't know anything about my Myspace page because I don't think I've ever seen it.

"My son turned me on to YouTube the other day. He says, 'Do you know how much stuff there is of you on YouTube?!' Every couple of days somebody's putting something else on there. In a way, it's good because it's free promotion, but the stuff is badly filmed and the sound is bad. It's not the quality you'd like.

"The problem with me, as a person, is that I'm not really like your generation. I know very simple operations on the internet. I just use it for business, for people that want to contact me for gigs. The idea of selling my music on the internet doesn't really appeal to me. I'm gonna have to devise a new way of skinning the cat because making records with a record company doesn't really seem like the way to go in the future."

Fiol's got more in common with certain audiophiles than he may realize.

"I think that one of the unfortunate things that happened in the music business," he continues, "was the invention of the CD. The CD brought about the decline of everything," he says without a hint of sarcasm. "On the one hand, it was convenient—you know, you just press a button and jump around from cut to cut, but, by the same token, it opened up the flood gates for burning and copying and pirating. With LPs, you had certain protections which don't exist with the CD format. One person buys a CD and they make copies for their brothers, their sisters, their friends, everyone on their block, and, obviously, that affected the whole record business, and the record sales took a nose dive. All you've got to do is witness the closing of Tower Records…."

Fiol catches his breath, sighs.

"It's not really viable—selling records these days. You can't do it. In a way, they cut off their nose to spite their face. They invented the CD because, 'Oh, if we come out with a CD, then people are gonna like it and they're gonna want to replace all of their LP collection with the new format, and we'll make a lot of money.' So, okay, in the beginning, they did make a lot of money but, in the long-run, artists are being dropped and companies are scaling down."

Yet Fiol continues to work, passionately, at something which he admits is impossible. He struggles against all reason, against himself. When we met, on that cold November day, Fiol was building the strength to record his next album. It had been nearly six years since the release of Guaperia.

"I've been hesitating for the last year or so. That's the way it works with me. If you look at my discography, you'll see four or five years separate my albums. And it's because every album is a disappointment. Okay?"

In that moment, it felt as if the room was too small for us. I shouldn't have even been there, as though Henry Fiol was confronting himself.

"A big disappointment," he says. "And the degree of disappointment is contingent upon the amount of effort you put into something. If you're one of these artists who lets the record company pick the songs—you've got a producer, you've got an arranger, and they bring you in and you sing their songs—you're not an artist. Your investment of yourself—your blood, sweat, and tears—is not that deep because it's a team effort going in. I don't read or write music. I sing the parts: 'The bass says this, the piano says this, lead trumpet says this….' I'm there in the studio from A to Z, and then, when you don't get the results…. Invariably, the record is a disappointment."

While Fiol acknowledges that something must change, he has no intention to stop creating. What else would he do?

"I would like to continue to work as an artist. I go through this birthing process, all of the agonies, and it's hard to do it again. There has to be a period of rest. So far, I've been able to keep my enthusiasm up, in spite of all the disappointments. I can start doing arrangements now. The new material is ready. How I'm going to go about doing my next project, I'm not clear on yet. But one thing I know for sure is that you can't invest a lot of money in a recording like you used to. It just doesn't make sense. One of the reasons I'm still around is because of people like you. Every once in awhile, somebody comes along who looks a little below the surface and notices something. They invest a little time and they write about it, or they talk about it on the radio, and for these things, I'm very, very grateful. Over the years, these are the things that have kept me alive, so," he says with a bow, "'Muchas gracias.'"


I'm delighted to say that, in the months that transpired between that cold November day and this sudden summer, Henry Fiol discovered just how he'd accomplish that next project. His latest album, De Cachete, is available as a free download from his website. Along with the 320kbps files, album artwork and liner notes are available as pdfs. The Spanish phrase "de cachete" translates to "freebie," and Fiol is offering up this gift to all of his loyal fans, while hoping that it'll also expose him to a new audience. The arrangements may lack much of that youthful fire, but the musicianship is as solid as ever, with cuts like the aggressive "El Agua Busca su Nivel" and the thoughtful "La Cancion del Delfin," which opens with ocean and saxophone, standing tall among all those in Fiol's impressive catalogue. Fiol's voice, which in the past has ranged from a jubilant, youthful howl to a woeful cry, is noticeably weathered—thinning at the edges—but it works so wonderfully for him. Like the cunning painter who has been limited to fewer colors, Fiol somehow manages to produce a masterwork.

I asked Henry how he felt regarding the outcome of the material, expecting to hear that he was painfully disappointed. I was surprised by his response.

"I feel pretty good about the album—definitely a lot better about this one than the previous one."

What more can a guy ask for? I suggest you download the album and find out what's got Henry Fiol so happy.


Footnote: Shortly after we conducted this interview, word came from the New York Times that the much-loved Record Mart had re-opened near its original location in the Times Square subway station. CDs and DVDs and iPod accessories take up much of the small space, but there is still some vinyl. Snatch it up before I get to it all.

rvance's picture

Stephen, A wonderfully written interview. Top notch, as usual. We need to nominate you for a Pulitzer even if blogs aren't eligible.

johndevore's picture

Probably the most exquisitely cinematic interview I've ever read/seen. Beautiful Stephen, thanks.

Omar's picture

Every now and again I come across a forgotten photo, peice of art, or writing that upon rediscovering it, makes me extremely proud of having the creator of the found article in my life... Today it was this interview.