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Community-Based Oral History: Salsa Musician Yomo Toro


Courtesy of Music of

Lesson Four: Community-Based Oral History

What is the history and the identity of the people in my environments? What is my and my family’s history/identity?

To introduce the oral history as a research method using the Smithsonian Institution's LVGI and the Latin Jazz Oral History collection as a model.

Terms/ Vocabulary:
• Oral History
• Transnationalism
• Influences
• Identity
• Cuatro
• Fusión
• Comparsos
• Conga

Museum Studies Concepts:
• Artifact
• Timelines

Guiding Questions to be posted throughout the lesson:
• What is identity?
• How is this interview part of history?
• Who tells history?
• Whose voices tell history?
• What is oral history?
• What is your story?
• Where is your story in history?

Ask students to read the interview on Salsa musician Yomo Yoro:

Yomo Toro

Salsa is a contemporary Latin musical style and part of a youth culture that was exploding in popularity throughout New York City beginning in the 1970s. Yomo Toro is the Jimmy Hendrix of salsa. He is the best known cuatrista in the world, meaning that he plays the cuatro, a traditional Puerto Rican instrument that has five sets of double strings. As the name implies, the cuatro started out with just four simple strings; it is featured in several types of typical Puerto Rican song styles such as rural, or jíbaro, music and Christmas music, known as aguinaldos.

Yomo Toro began his career as a child prodigy from a very small town in Puerto Rico, and gradually became famous for his incredible technique and sense of musical style. Thanks to his talent and determination, he was recording and playing with some of the biggest names in Latin American music by the time he was a teenager. By the late 1950s he was in his early twenties, married, and living in New York City. It was a Christmas album from 1971 by the name of Asalto Navideño that transformed him into a household name among salsa fanatics around the world. He was performing constantly, but his career truly exploded after his guest performance on this album recorded by two of the biggest stars in salsa - Willie Colón and Hector Lavoe.


Yomo Toro was born Victor Guillermo Toro Vega, on 26 July 1933, in Guanica, in the southeast part of Puerto Rico.

Yomo Toro is noted for pioneering the use of the cuatro in salsa music such as in his album Manos de Oro, with songs like partial Real Audio clipVerde Tropical.

He began his musical interest at the age of six. His father played the cuatro and encouraged him to learn to play the instrument. By the time he was 15 years old he played at his school with three fellow students in a band called "La Bandita de la Escuela."

He began his professional career playing for "Bury Caban y los 4 Ases," along with Tito Lara. He also played with Jose Antonio Saleman, "El Trio Universitario de San Juan," "Los Antares" and with Felipe Rodriguez.

He has recorded with Larry Harlow, Willie Colon, and the Fania All-Stars. He has traveled repeatedly to Japan, Europe, and many other parts of the world, playing the cuatro, Puerto Rico's national instrument.

He has done several recordings with his own group for Polygram Records. One of his biggest hits was "Funky Jibaro." When you listen to any of his recordings, you quickly appreciate his mastery of the cuatro and the unique contribution it makes to salsa music, in the hands of such a talented artist. Courtesy of Music of Copyright © 2001 - 2005, Jaime Serrat 

In the following excerpts from an interview conducted in Spanish in 1992 at the Smithsonian Institution, Yomo Toro shares anecdotes about his life and historic career.

English translations follow the original Spanish; if you think your students can, encourage them to read the excerpts in both languages.

Yomo Toro

Activities/Lesson Plan
• Analysis of oral history transcripts.
• Discussion of Toro oral history.
• Discussion and identification of transnational objects.

Lesson plan:

Review Concepts
• Begin by reviewing the key terms.
• Ask students what the terms mean and what they mean in their own lives.

Introduction to Oral History

Introducing the concept:
• Write the word, "history" on the board.
• In order to provide students with a context for these interview excerpts, prior to the discussion you might want to have several students write down responses to several questions listed below.
o How do we learn about history in school?
o How do we learn about the past at home or in our community?
o What sources teach you about the past?
o Have you ever thought of an interview as a historical source?
o Share with students that one way historians come to understand the past is to listen to (or read) interviews conducted with elders, that is—oral histories.
Historians select these people based on what they want to learn about. For example: a particular time period the person lived through, their culture, or aspects of their lives (e.g. their profession). For the next couple of days the students will learn about history by analyzing the oral histories of Latin American or Latino musicians.

Analyzing the oral histories: Broadening the analysis

• Hand each student a transcript and a copy of the HANDOUT A with printed excerpts from the Yomo Toro oral history.
• Have students read the attached excerpts (or play excerpts if available)
• Ask them to respond to Items 1-4 on the HANDOUT B.
• Have students share their responses with the class.
• Have them read the excerpts once again, and ask them to use a highlighter to underline any section where the artist speaks about the key terms.
• Ask students to respond to question 5.
• Split the class into 4-5 groups.

GROUP l: Identity
GROUP 2: Influences
GROUP 3: Trans-national
GROUP 4: Fusion
GROUP 5: Factors for success

• Have groups present their findings.
• Discuss each of the terms given their findings.

• Assemble new groups with representatives of each of the four "analysis groups" and have them work together to respond to the following reflective questions. Their responses should reflect their analytical themes.




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The Standards 
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NMAH - Oral Histories
Resources for Teachers
Yomo Toro Interview - A
Reflective Questions - B


Authors: TejanhLaura Jones, NBCT; Eliana Marcenaro, Language Arts Teacher.

This project has received support from the Latino Initiatives Pool distributed by the Smithsonian Center for Latino Initiatives.


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