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NPR: All Things Considered

Profile: Cow Bell Maker Cal Rivera

February 20, 2002
Copyright © 2002
National Public Radio. All Rights Reserved.

JACKI LYDEN, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: And I'm Robert Siegel.

Cali Rivera puts the beat in most of the salsa, or Latin jazz records produced in New York. Rivera, who was born in Puerto Rico, is a maker of cow bells. The bells have their roots in Africa, and are a key part of a lot of Latin and Caribbean music. Up until the 1960s, the cow bells were made by hand. Today, the bells are more popular than ever, but almost all of them are made in factories. Every Wednesday for the past few weeks, we have been presenting New York Works, a look at jobs that are slowly vanishing in New York City. Ben Shapiro produced today's story on Cali Rivera, one of the few who still make cow bells the old way, in his one-room workshop in the Bronx.

Mr. CALI RIVERA (Cow Bell Maker): I'm Cali Rivera, and my shop is right up in the heart of the Bronx--the Bronx. You know the Bronx? Yeah. I'm about two and a half blocks from Yankee Stadium. We make any kind of percussion instrument, but my main thing here is the bells.

(Soundbite of bells)

Mr. RIVERA: At the beginning, everything that was on my mind was bells, bells, bells. And that's what I started with bells, bells, nothing else. You know why? In salsa, or any kind of music like Caribbean music, the cow bell is number one. Everybody going to follow the bell. The bell is the hammer. We call them the hammer, right there, dock, dock, dock, dock.

When you hear the pock, pock, pock, that's the rhythm.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing in Spanish)

Mr. RIVERA: Is this type of music, they need this type of instrument.

(Soundbite of bell)

Mr. RIVERA: This is the bell that we make.

(Soundbite of bell)

Mr. RIVERA: The bell has to be bright like this.

(Soundbite of bell)

Mr. RIVERA: Now this is the bell, the factory-made bell, machine-made in Thailand.

(Soundbite of bell)

Mr. RIVERA: That's a dead bell. This is ready to go to sleep.

(Soundbite of bell)

Mr. RIVERA: Now the difference between these bells is the power of the machine. When they put these dies on the machine, the machine goes vroom and makes the bell, one shot. It's easy for them to do it this way. But not for us. We do a lot of things to get these bells done.

(Soundbite of bell)

Mr. RIVERA: This is the way that we bend the bells. This a bending die right here. But the metal in the die, and we bend the bell. And zoom, go. You have to have some muscles to do this.

(Soundbite of clanging)

Mr. RIVERA: Now what you need is use a hammer, we got this here.

(Soundbite of hammering)

Mr. RIVERA: See, the bell is complete. Now all we have to do is weld it.

(Soundbite of welding)

Mr. RIVERA: Now these type of bells, they come in different, like, high pitch, medium pitch, low pitch. You can hear how low this is.

(Soundbite of bell)

Mr. RIVERA: Hey! We got another one, it's high, high pitched. This is where you go, zoom, high, C, high.

All my family loves music. They play the music. My father used to be like me. He used to make the guitars, fix the guitars, and my mother used to cook on Sundays. Maybe by that time I was 12 years old, 13. There was about five or six guys in the house, and they all--they play guitars and sing. My mother used to serve me the food, or whatever, I used to take the fork, and when they hear the music, I start banging on the plates. Sounds like a cow bell for me. And everybody was singing and right there. And that was beautiful.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. RIVERA: I never thought I was going to be a bell maker, but this is almost 30, 35 years already. And I'm here making bells, still making bells. Millions of bells came out from here. That's the story. Beautiful story, eh?

SIEGEL: Our report on Cali Rivera was produced by Ben Shapiro. New York Works is produced by Emily Botein and Joe Richman and edited by Deborah George. The series is a collaboration between Radio Diaries and WNYC's "The Next Best Thing." For more information about New York Works, you can visit out Web site,

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