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Conjunto Folklorico Nacional de Cuba,
Toques y Cantos de Santos Volume 1 CD
(reissued as Musica Yoruba on Bembe Records) and
Toques y Cantos de Santos Volume 2 CD

Review: Conjunto Folklorico Nacional De Cuba

by David Peñalosa

Although it doesn't say it anywhere on the covers or liner notes, these two CDs are actually two records by the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional de Cuba. They are some of the most definitive musical documentations of Lukumi, Congo, Abakua, Rumba and Pregones in Cuba.

Throughout Cuba there are regional amateur and professional Afro-Cuban folkloric groups which teach and perform. They are supported by the government and pass on Cuba's unique cultural heritage to future generations.

Although the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional specializes in folkloric music and dance of Havana (where they reside) province, they also collect, study and disseminate Afro-Cuban culture from the entire island. In the Conjunto, the folkloric masters from the various regions are encouraged to take each other's classes.

These recordings have captured the era of the group's beginning, when they had the founding elders in residence. Most of these elders have either died or moved onto other groups, leaving their students to carry on.

I have never seen the personnel for these records written down anywhere, but I recognize the lead vocalists, know some of the history of the Conjunto, and have asked individuals who are more knowledgeable than myself to help me piece together the following information. Volume 2 is actually the older of the two records, recorded shortly after the Conjuntos founding in the early 60's.

Selections 1 through 3 are Lukumi (Yoruba) songs for three orisha (Yoruba deities). They are accompanied by batá drums. Batá are a set of three double-headed, hourglass shaped drums which play a musical liturgy that is without a doubt the most complex of all Afro-Cuban music. Lukumi is the name given to the descendants of Yoruba slaves in Cuba, their Cubanized dialect of Yoruba and Yoruba religion as it's practiced in Cuba. It is also known as Santeria.

The akpón (lead vocalist) on cuts 1 and 2 is Lazaro Ros, who can be heard on recent releases by Sintesis and Mezcla. Jesus Pérez (died 1985) was the Conjuntos musical director at the time and is heard here playing the lead baté drum known as lya. Pérez was a student of the great Pablo "Okilakpa" Roche. Okilakpa inherited Cuba's very first consecrated batá set which was made by two Yoruban slaves named Ayanbi and Atanda around 1830. Jesus Pérez was fortunate to be able to represent his country on a trip to Yorubaland in Nigeria. This event represented a great homecoming for Cuban-Yoruba culture. Although Nigerian batá and Cuban batá had been separated for over one hundred years, Pérez played for the Alafin of Oyo and was acknowledged as Oba Ilu (King of the Drums). Joining Jesus Pérez on the batá for this recording are Mario Jauregui and Ramiro Hernandez. The sound of the drums on these first three songs is haunting and regal.

Selections 4 through 8 consist of Cuban Congolese music which is played on congas or authentic congolese drums. These selections have a feel that is more fiery and direct that the lukumi music. The Congolese elders/informants in the Conjunto at this time were Emilio O'Farrill, Oriel Bustamente, Sibando Gutierrez and Justo Pelladito. Most, if not all of these men have probably passed away by now.

The ninth, tenth and eleventh songs come from the Abakua, a male secret society originating from the Calabar region region (present day Cameroon) of West Africa. The lyrics are sung in the Efik language. Jesus Pérez is the lead vocalist.

Track number twelve is a collection of beautiful street vendor song calls known as pregones. One can hear an Islamic influence in these particular songs. It is also worth noting that there is an African-American tradition of vendor calls from the southern United States.

Next, we hear a classic Yambú, the slowest and most majestic of the three types of Rumba. There was a great Rumba Columbia and Comparsa on Conjunto Folklorico's original LP, however for this re-issue on CD they instead put in a song for the orisha Changó. Since this last song also appears on Toques y Cantos de Santos Vol. 1, I fail to see the wisdom of this choice.

Volume 1 was probably recorded in the late 70's. It consists entirely of Lukumi Orisha songs accompanied by batá drums. The production quality on this CD is higher that that of the older one. The chorus was well rehearsed and polished. They even got creative in their arrangements with male and female chorus taking turns answering the akpón, then coming in all together. The lead vocal duties are shared here by Lazaro Ros, Zenaida Armenteros, and Felipe Alfonso, who passed away Nov. 1991.

Playing the batá drums are Mario Jaureguí, Carlos Aldama and Ramiro Hernandéz. Jaureguí and Aldama have both had their turns as musical directors of the Conjunto. They are considered to be two of the most knowledgeable batá masters alive today.

I recommend these two CDs to anyone who enjoys Afro-Cuban folkloric music. They are truly classics. Thanks to Jerry Shilgi, a researcher for the Orisha/Rumba anthology '91, for help on the background involved in this review.

Note: For the past five years Cuban folkloric masters such as Lazaro Ros, Felipe Alfonso, and Mario Jaureguí have been giving two week workshops across the border from San Diego CA. in Tijuana Mexico. Since the USA and Cuba don't have formal relations, this has proven to be the easiest way for Americans to learn Afro-Cuban dance and music from the source. A week's worth of classes is priced very reasonably. This years workshop will occur April 29 to May 10, 1993. For more information, call the Bay Area Workshop Committee at (415)648-9546

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