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Leopoldo F. Fleming: The Boricua Who Played For Mama Africa and Nina Simone

Errol L. Montes Pizarro


From the mid-1960s onward, one South African artist captured the imagination of international audiences. Her name was Zenzile Miriam Makeba (1932-2008). Miriam arrived in the United States at the beginning of the decade, after the South African Apartheid government prohibited her return to the country as retaliation for her criticism of the institutionalized racism in South Africa. The well-known singer and activist Harry Belafonte was one of the people that helped her to get started working in New York. For almost fifty years, Miriam Makeba, who died on November 9th, 2008, became one of the most important cultural ambassadors for the African continent, to the point she received the title, “Mama Africa.”

For a little more than thirty years, I have been collecting records and studying the history of African popular music, and the African musicians that have carved out professional careers for themselves around the world. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until two years ago, while I was watching the documentary “Mama Africa”, that I found out that Leopoldo F. Fleming, a Puerto Rican musician, was a starring member of the three-piece band that backed up Miriam Makeba during the 1960s (the other two members of the trio that accompanied Miriam Makeba were the Brazilian accordionist, guitarist, and composer Severino Dias de Oliveira, alias Sivuca, and the African-American bassist William Salter). Leopoldo worked with Makeba from 1965 until she established herself in Conakry, Guinea near the start of the 1970s. Afterward, he continued working with her intermittently and backed her up when she was able to return to South Africa again after the liberation of Nelson Mandela and the collapse of Apartheid.

When I found out that Leopoldo F. Fleming had a starring role in the work of Miriam Makeba, I gave myself the task of getting to know his story. Searching for information on his career, I learned that in addition to working with the South African diva, since 1971, Fleming had been a member of the band that accompanied Nina Simone, to which he also made important contributions. Finding out via the internet these aspects of Leopoldo’s professional life made me feel like a kid with a new toy.

I did a search and was able to contact Leopoldo F. Fleming via Facebook, and on June 14th, 2015, the anthropologist Isar P. Godreau and I went to visit him in his current residence in Paterson, New Jersey. We found ourselves with a very friendly, talkative man, full of anecdotes and proud to be Boricua. What follows in this article is a summary of the interview that Leopoldo gave to Isar and myself, as well as other information I was able to obtain through later conversations with both him and other people that know him, most notably the Danish actress and singer Annette Blichman, who kindly answered my questions, and who wrote a profile of Leopoldo for the website All About Jazz that includes his discography. For other biographical facts about Leopoldo F. Fleming that I haven’t summarized in this article, you can check out the writings of Bibiana Hernández on the website “Puerta de Tierra, San Juan, Puerto Rico.”

The life of Leopoldo F. Fleming is in many respects paradigmatic to the life of all Caribbean people for whom migration has been a defining act. He was born on September 16th, 1939 in the public housing complex known as the Falansterio, which was inaugurated in 1937 in Puerta de Tierra. His mother was Asunción Burguillo Díaz, who was born in that same neighborhood in 1918 or 1919.

His father, Leopoldo Leander Fleming (Leo) —from whom Leopoldo inherited his name and talent for music—arrived with his mother in San Juan as a child, from the neighboring island of Saint Thomas. The elder Leopoldo was raised in the Las Casas and San Antonio housing projects. The young Leopoldo has an older sister who is still living and a younger brother who passed.

In 1947, when Leopoldo was eight years old, his parents separated and his father, Leo, took him and his younger brother Johnny to Saint Thomas. They stayed there for four years until his father finally brought them with him to New York, moving to 117th in Spanish Harlem.

Leopoldo showed signs of musical talent from an early age. According to what he told us, his paternal aunt with whom he lived in Saint Thomas for four years before coming to New York complained that “this child is going to be a percussionist because he’s always banging on the tables and chairs”. Even at 77 years of age, Leopoldo still bangs on the table, which he does intermittently while we are interviewing him. That aunt definitely had a good ear to take notice of her nephew’s musical talent because Leopoldo’s paternal side of the family had been musicians for generations. His grandfather, William ‘Willie’ Fleming played mandolin and trombone. Also, three of his paternal uncles —Bill, Herbie, and Jimmy— were noted singers and instrumentalists; one of them, Bill Fleming, played trumpet and harmonica in a jazz orchestra in Saint Thomas.

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His father, Leo Fleming, was a diesel engine mechanic and musician. He played the double bass, the guitar, and the Cuban tres, distinguishing himself as a much sought after musician in the local scene of New York, just as in San Juan. Don Leo worked, among others, with Mon Rivera, Soneros de Oriente, Son de la Loma and the band Alfarona X, which was founded by the well-known Puerto Rican musician Luis Cruz in 1941 in Santurce and who later moved to New York in the summer of 1945.[1] When Leo began to work with the Alfarona X orchestra—under the direction of Luis Cruz—he played the Cuban tres and continued doing so until he came to direct the orchestra, circa 1960-1965, and assumed the role of double bassist. He also backed up las Hermanas Sustache, the band Alma Juventil, and the Cuarteto Mayarí, among others.

Leopoldo F. Fleming learned to play congas and other percussion instruments from a young age. He began with Cuban rumba, and later he learned Puerto Rican bomba with his dad. In addition, he played clarinet with the school band. When he was around fifteen years old, he was already playing percussion at a dance school in the Katherine Dunham system. He told us that his job consisted of playing ‘Afro’ rhythms from Haiti and African rhythms, during dance classes. There, he was seen playing and recruited for a big band directed by the saxophonist Red Dixon and the trombonist Jesse DeVore. They spoke with Leopoldo’s father and received his permission so that his son could play in the band with the condition that they picked him up and brought him home. In this way, at the tender age of fifteen, Leopoldo began his career as a professional musician. This lineup played jazz primarily, but mambo and calypso were also part of its repertoire.

One night in 1965, Leopoldo received a phone call from the South African trumpet player Hugh  Masekela—then married to Miriam—inviting him to rehearsal of the trio that backed up Makeba. He told us that days before receiving the call, his then-girlfriend had said: “Leopoldo, you’re such a good percussionist, why aren't you playing with Miriam Makeba.” In that moment, Leopoldo had been playing with the band of Joe Panamá, but he didn’t let the opportunity to join Miriam Makeba’s band to pass him by. He told us that since he was very young, he felt a great affinity for Africa. One of his paternal uncles who had worked as an itinerant carpenter on many different islands in the Caribbean was, in Poldo’s own words, an Afrocentrist that strongly identified with the ideas of Marcus Garvey. He also told us that when he was about eight years old, his mother told him, “…never forget that above all, you are African.” In fact, Leopoldo affirms that his mother told him that her grandmother (or greatgrandmother, during the interview Leopoldo did not recall which one) was born in Congo and had been enslaved in Puerto Rico. Up to the present day, Leopoldo claims it was his Congolese spirit that helped him to learn to play drums. This affirmation of blackness on the part of Leopoldo confirms what Hilda Lloréns and other scholars of the African Diaspora have shown as the challenges that come from the margins of the national discourse on whitewashing that has been a fundamental part of the cultural imaginary which comes from the powers that be in Puerto Rico, and in other places in the Caribbean and the Americas.[2] The way in which Leopoldo and his family identify with Africa show that the whitewashing ideology isn’t always completely hegemonic, insomuch as there are individuals, families, and communities that continue to affirm their blackness and see themselves as part of a community of afro-descendants, relatively speaking.

Leopoldo F. Fleming joined Miriam Makeba’s band just when she was starting her meteoric rise to worldwide stardom. Besides her extraordinary gifts as a singer, another factor that contributed to Miriam positioning herself as the premier African star on a world scale, was her militant opposition to the racist apartheid system in South Africa, support of struggles for civil rights by African-Americans, and solidarity with the struggles of independence and decolonization in Africa.

The first recording of Makeba’s where Leopoldo participated was the album Click Song, released in 1966 by the record label Fontana.[3] That same year, he visited Africa for the first time when Makeba performed in Ghana to sing during a meeting of the African Union. Leopoldo told us that in his first trip to Ghana, what most impressed him was “…the smell of the land.” Miriam Makeba was received like royalty in the African countries she visited and during the second half of the 1960s, she had become a worldwide symbol of contemporary African music. Even in countries on this side of the world, Miriam Makeba’s popularity was in full ascent. Leopoldo describes that during a visit to Suriname, Miriam received “an apotheostic welcoming…they brought her in procession to the monument of Kwa Koe, liberator of slaves in Suriname.”

In 1967, Miriam Makeba released a song titled “Pata Pata” (LP Reprise RS6274), which was an unexpected commercial success, and that became her most famous and requested song by the public until the end of her life. "Pata Pata" was the song that ended up opening all the doors to Makeba’s commercial success. Numerous cover versions of the composition have been made, including one version by El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico released in 1968 and another featuring the Puerto Rican singer Chayanne released in 1988. The song is a composition by the Zimbabwean Dorothy Masuka, who lived in South Africa from 1947, when she was twelve years old, until the beginning of the 1960s, when she was forced into exile to flee the repression of the South African government. Both Miriam and Dorothy had released versions of the song “Pata Pata” in the marabi style that was popular during the 1950s in South Africa. Nevertheless, the most famous version, and in my opinion, the best, continues to be the 1967 version because of its distinct musical arrangement. The arranger that appears in the album credits is Jerry Ragovoy, but the characteristic rhythm of “Pata Pata” was Leopoldo’s contribution. (You can watch and listen to Miriam Makeba performing “Pata Pata” here. Notice a young Leopoldo F. Fleming on the congas). He told us the rhythm he contributed to “Pata Pata” was adapted from a rhythm he learned while he was visiting Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo, specifically the neighborhood of Poto Poto. According to Leopoldo, Poto Poto means “mud” and says that he felt he identified with this neighborhood because as a young child he lived for a time in a working class community in San Juan (no longer existing), that was called “El Fanguito” (“little mud”), and where his brother was born.

The rhythm that Poldo gave the song “Pata Pata” is a variation of a Congolese rumba that was popular in the Congo during the 1960s and that was known as boucher. One of its pioneers was Johnny Bokelo Isenge (circa 1939-1995).[4] The boucher rumba was so popular in Congo-Brazzaville that its then-president Alphonse Massamba-Débat declared it a national dance. In my opinion, the popularity of the song “Pata Pata” is owed to the catchy dance rhythm and its Pan-African character. To start, its lyrics are in xhosa (which was Miriam’s first language), an artist from Zimbabwe living in South Africa composed it, and its rhythm was a contribution from a Puerto Rican utilizing a variant of the Congolese rumba that he learned while he was visiting Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo with Miriam. Also, the Congolese rumba is itself a musical genre that originated and developed in constant dialogues with Afro-Caribbean music, mostly, but not exclusively, Cuban Son.[5] Other rhythmic contributions from this “Pan-African” boricua to the music of Makeba can be heard in the versions that she did of songs like “Kilimanjaro”, where Fleming played conga phrases from Dominican merengue.[6] A video of Miriam perfoming Kilimanjaro with Leopoldo playing the congas can be watched at Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7coXOfz5zY0 .

While Leopoldo worked with Miriam Makeba, he had the opportunity to travel throughout nearly all of Africa. In 1973, during a visit to Uganda, Makeba’s group had a dinner with the ill-fated Ugandan president Idi Amin. Leopoldo told us that Amin was extremely surprised when he found out that he hadn’t been born in Africa and immediately authorized for him to receive a Ugandan passport. Thanks to his Ugandan passport, Leopoldo was able to travel without problems to countries where he wouldn’t have been able to with such ease using his American passport. In 1973, for example, he traveled to Cuba and East Berlin using the Ugandan passport. He also used it to visit the Ivory Coast, entering the country via Nigeria.

Leopoldo F. Fleming also was Nina Simone’s percussionist for almost ten years. His Pan-African background and vocation played an important role in some of the African-American diva’s songs. One such example was on “My Way”, where the double time rhythm that Leopoldo plays on the bongo is fundamental in creating the sense of urgency that Simone communicates through her performance.[7] You can watch Simone singing "My Way" here, and an alternative version here. In one concert, he backed up Nina with a rhythm taken from Plena while she sang “See Line Woman.” Nina liked to say that Leopoldo made her dance, which can be seen in a video of the song available on YouTube.[8]

It’s interesting, moreover, that Leopoldo played percussion on an album recorded in 1976 (released in 1978) by the famous musician José Carlos Schwarz, Zé Carlos (1949-1977), who was one of the creators of the so-called “music of intervention”—which was fundamental in the liberation of former Portuguese colonies in Africa—and is considered the most important pioneer of contemporary popular music in Guinea-Bissau. The record is called Djiu di Galinha and Zé Carlos recorded it in New York thanks to efforts of Miriam Makeba, who sang backup.[9]

Throughout his musical career of more than sixty years, Leopoldo has also distinguished himself as a composer and arranger working with a large quantity of bands and artists (cf. discography cited at the beginning of the article). Also, he has done theater work, especially aimed to children. Currently, at 77 years of age, Leopoldo F. Fleming continues to be active in music, performing successfully in multiple events around the world with his own group, the Afro-Caribbean Jazz Ensemble, where he plays the congas and other percussion instruments. The Afro-Caribbean Jazz Ensemble has two lineups. One in New York which includes Karen Joseph (flute), Dinah Vero (piano), Bryce Sebastien (double bass), Emilio Valdés, son of Chucho Valdés (drum kit and timbales); and another group in Denmark featuring Ben Beasikov (piano), Kaare Munholm (vibraphone), Yassér Morejón (double bass), and Jonas Johansen (timbales). Leopoldo is still young at heart, and his musical genius has not waned, but rather continues to grow.

With this brief account of the role Leopoldo F. Fleming had in the Miriam Makeba trio, backing up Nina Simone, and in the recording work of the Bissau-Guinean José Carlos Schwarz, I wanted to illustrate, on the one hand, how the links of a long chain of mutual influences related to the African diaspora show up in diverse places, even when  we aren’t always consciously aware of it. On the other hand, I also wanted to pay tribute to this Afro-boricua musician with roots in Saint Thomas and New York, that was part of the cultural battles waged by two of the most celebrated divas of black music in the 20th century, and one of the founders of popular music in Guinea-Bissau. The performances of Fleming with the trio that accompanied Makeba during the 60s and early 70s were so important that during concerts, she would frequently present him—always last—saying, “...and last, but not least, the man who can play almost anything and that keep us all together, the African via Puerto Rico: Leopoldo Fleming.”[10]


[1] The elder Leopoldo Fleming directed the band Alfarona X from aproximately 1960 until 1965. Ewin Martínez Torres' writing on some of the band's history can be found here

[2] Lloréns, Hilda. “Beyond Blanqueamiento: Black Affirmation in Everyday Life in Twenty-first Century Puerto Rico”. Paper presented at Latin American Studies Association. May 30th, 2015. San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Pending publication)

[3] To my knowledge, the only Puerto Rican that had recorded with an African musician was Ray Barreto with the Nigerian Babatunde Olatunji on the album “Olatunji and his Percussion, Brass, Woodwind, and Choir” (1961, Columbia CL-1634).

[4] An example of boucher is the song "Tambola Na Mokili" performed by Bokelo Isenge with his band Conga Succès. Another example is the song "Tala likambo ya Catherine” by Franco Luambo Makiadi. The variant boucher of the Congolese rumba also reached other parts of Africa. One such example is the song “Binin Hounnin” by la Orchestre Super Borgou de Parakou de Benín, cf. on the record The Bariba Sound 1970 – 1976, Analog Africa, AACD 071, 2012.

[5] To read the lyrics of "Pata Pata" and a translation, click here

[6] You can watch a video of "Kilimanjaro" here

[7] Here are two videos where you will be able to appreciate Leopoldo Fleming backing up Nina Simone on the song "My Way": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lP2LBxqDkOA and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rVhMJPza294.

[8] You can watch a video of Nina Simone perfroming "See Line Woman" here.

[9] https://www.discogs.com/Jos%C3%A9-Carlos-Djiu-Di-Galinha/release/5421161

[10] In a segment of the documentary Mama Africa, Miriam Makeba presents the members of her band and leaves Leopoldo for last. By mistake, she identifies him as Leopoldo Silva, although she does say he is from Puerto Rico. Leopoldo told us that it's not possible to explain Miriam's mistake, who on every other occasion presented him with the correct last name. 

*Isar P. Godreau also contributed to this article. 

**Translation by Néstor David Pastor

© Errol L. Montes Pizarro. Published by permission in Centro Voices 29 June 2017. 
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