Santos Rubio Morales, Cantor a lo Divino y a lo Humano (1938-2011)
Santos was a legend. His name and person carried all the weight of someone like Doc Watson in the United States. His knowledge of poetry was encyclopedic, his love of music was deep, and his zest and humor unmatched.
Multi-faceted doesn’t begin to describe his mode of being, but it is a start. Guitar, guitarrón, rabel, harp, accordion were just some of his instruments, and he performed with a deep set intuition built on his years of following the older singers of Pirque, his perfect pitch and his days as a radio singer. Although best known as a representative of traditional musician, Santos could sing all the classic pop songs and chromatic harmonies of his younger years, and he didn’t discriminate in his love for both popular and folk music.
I first met Santos in the late 1990s, but didn’t get to know him and his family until 2004 when I studied guitarrón with him and with his brother Alfonso. I purchased a guitarrón from him that he had restrung to be played by women. By using nylon guitar and charango strings instead of metal, the 25 strings could be tightened up to the key of C or D where it was easier for a soprano voice to sing the melodies (called “entonaciones”) of traditional poetry. For both Santos and Alfonso, the guitarrón was wedded to the poetry. Lessons seldom focused on the instrument itself, but on how to sing with the instrument and how to improvise verse.
Santos could write a poem at the drop of a hat. Before a canto a lo divino vigil, he would help those folks who had a harder time improvising to write a ten-line décima of introduction to match the 40-line verso they were about to sing. And he could write an entire verso encuartetado in the space of 10 minutes. A verso encuartetado is a long poem that is built from the four lines of a couplet. Each line is used as the basis and final line for one of four décimas that are united in theme: for love, for nature, for the Old Testament, for the birth of Christ, and many other “fundamentos.” Santos also had legions of poems memorized from his years of performing at cantos and wakes.
If you asked don Chosto who the best singer around was, he would say it was Santos. If you asked Santos, it was Chosto. Both of them had a high and easy sound, and sang smoothly up to the very top of their voices. While don Chosto was not a friend of canto a lo humano (or secular song), Santos was a brilliant entertainer as well as a devotional singer. His wit and double entendre was the centerpiece of any “paya” where improvisers of poetry would gather to exchange semi-competitive verses before an audience.
Santos loved to teach children, and he was the music instructor at the public school in La Puntilla de Pirque which now carries his name in tribute. He moved so very many people throughout his life, and his memory and music will continue to inspire generations of singers and poets.