Review: Afro-Cuban Folkloric Music, Part 2: Rumba
by David Peñalosa
This is the second part of a review (Part I was in Descarga Newsletter Vol. 2, No. 2) of Afro-Cuban folkloric music found in the Descarga catalog. The first part of this review covered Lucumí music while this one is concerned with Rumba. It should not be assumed that these are the only two forms of folk music found in Cuba. They are just the most prevalent amongst the releases available in the U.S.A. There are some great recordings of Bembé, Iyesa, Guiro, Arara and other Afro-Cuban folkloric music which are sitting in the Egrem studios in Havana. I hope we will see the day when these important records are licensed for distribution in the United States.
Cuba's great musical tradition includes both a wealth of liturgical drumming and singing that was brought over from Africa, as well as the Afro-Cuban musical hybrids: Rumba, Són, and Danzón. According to most accounts, these hybrids emerged around the 1880's.
While the Són originated in the eastern end of the island known as the Oriente, Rumba was born in the Western provinces of Havana and Matanzas. Both musical styles began as folk dance and music. The Són evolved over the decades into what is known today as Salsa, while Rumba has remained for the most part folkloric. The fundamental ingredients of percussion, voice, and dance make Rumba the most African of the original music forms to come from Cuba.
There are three main types of Rumba: Yambú, Guaguancó, and Columbia. Yambú and Guaguancó are male-female partner dances that evolved from the Cuban-Congolese fertility dance Yuka. Columbia is a solo dance done mostly by men, and has strong ties to the music of the Abakwa, a male secret society.
While Rumba remains a living folklore within Cuba, it's influence has been felt in other musical expressions on and off the island. Guaguancó in particular has been a deep musical well from which Latin musicians have consistently drawn from for inspiration. Salsa has always made good use of the hauntingly beautiful Guaguancó melodies and lyrics. The text of the lyrics is a form of poetry which expresses the popular sentiment of the Cuban people, but also speaks to a greater Afro-Latino culture. The rhythmic aspects of Guaguancó were fused with the Són a few decades ago to create Songó. In recent years Songó has been used on many Latin jazz records produced in the United States and Europe. Now that I've said something about Rumba's importance, I'd like to briefly review some of the better recordings of this genre.
Conjunto Guaguancó Matancero/Papín y Sus Rumberos
Guaguancó Vol. 2
Grupo Guaguancó Matancero/Papín y Otros
These two CDs are some of the first releases by Los Muñequitos de Matanzas (formerly Grupo Guaguancó Matancero), and Los Papines. They were previously reviewed by your's truly (Descarga Newsletter Vol. 1, No. 1 '93.) I want to make a couple of corrections in regards to that review. One problem was a typo error, while the other stemmed from a lack of specificity on my part, brought to my attention by Andy Gonzalez. So now without any further ado, I would like to present my corrected statement: These were the first recordings of folkloric Guaguancó in which the modern Rumba clave pattern was played on the claves. They were also the first recordings of folkloric Guaguancó where the middle pitch conga (called segundo) played it's fundamental note on down beat three (using four downbeats per clave) instead of down beat one. These two developments created a new Guaguancó that was far more syncopated.
I've used the term folkloric Guaguancó here in order to differentiate from popular band music in which the conguero plays the Guaguancó drum melody. Andy Gonzalez cited some examples for me in which band's conguero played segundo on downbeat three back in the 1930's and examples of the modern Rumba clave pattern played, though not on the actual clave instrument, by bands as far back as the 1920's.
This is the classic Rumba from Los Muñequitos. Their innovative drumming creations are present here, though rather tame compared to what would later follow.
One gem in particular on this album is lead drummer Jesus Alfonso's song "Congo Yambumba." It was later recorded as a salsa arrangement by Eddie Palmieri (on his album The Truth) and most recently it appeared on Cuban Classics Vol. 3 performed a capella by Grupo Vocal Sampling. It's one of those catchy tunes that can easily get stuck in your head. In fact, this is a record of catchy tunes.
Cantar Maravilloso-The Rumba Originals
The advantage of this CD is its "live" feel. It was recorded in the UK in August 1989, during their first trip outside of Cuba. There are a couple of treats available here. One is a guest appearance by Carlos Embale, Cuba's greatest Rumba singer. The other bonus is a long medley of call and response songs to the Yoruba deities (called Orisha) Yemaya and Ochun. This is the only commercial recording I'm aware of which feature Los Muñequitos playing Batá drums. The feeling on this selection gives one the impression that they're at a toque in Matanzas, rather than listening to theatrical performance of Lucumí liturgy recorded in a studio.
This particular CD has two main drawbacks. There was either too much reverb used in the mix down or just too much natural ambiance in the room in which it was recorded. This tends to make the drumming sound muddy. The other problem is that the vocals are often not in tune. This is not that uncommon on recordings of Afro-Cuban folkloric music, but it is the exception in the case of Los Muñequitos.
Rumba Caliente 88/77
If you wanted to get just one CD by this fantastic group, I would recommend Rumba Caliente. The sound quality is quite good. Records produced in Cuba have tended to have poor fidelity. It's been explained to me that the problem has been in the pressing phase of the vinyl LP's. Qbadisc has consistently brought Cuban recordings to CD format with good results in sound quality. A welcomed development.
The songs selected for this compilation are top notch, with great lyrics and superb drumming. This is cutting edge Rumba. Plus some extensive liner notes (for a change).
Los Muñequitos de Matanzas are arguably Cuba's best performing folkloric group. Plans are now being made for another Muñequitos U.S.A. tour. It's a show not to be missed.
Bolero, Rumba, Guaguancó, Salsa
These rumba masters of Havana show their expertise in a variety of Cuban music styles. There is only one traditional Rumba selection ("Mi Quinto") on this album, which is mostly a collection of rumba based band music. Every song here is unique, unlike anything you would find anywhere else (except perhaps another Papines record). "Zarara" shows the virtuosity of an electric guitar and bass player (not named: no liner notes) who converse in the rhythmical language of quinto, the lead in rumba. "Para Que Niegas?" is my favorite song on this release. It superimposes a half-time bolero over a cooking Guaguancó where the Papines sing their parts instead of playing them on drums like they ordinarily do. Meanwhile, the bass, electric guitar and piano play in the same manner as "Zarara." "Mi Congas de Cuba" is one of the most exciting comparsas ever recorded. Papín's quinto pops while the bombo drum plays so funky that it could serve as a foundation for a hip-hop tune. One drawback is the sound quality. Most of the selections sound flat. I would like to see somebody remaster this gem for a high-fidelity CD.
Guaguancó and nothing but Guaguancó. "Rumba Va A Empezar" may sound familiar since it was recorded by Tito Puente and later Carlos Santana. There's some playful drumming here in a style that's different from Los Muñequitos. These are classic performances. The sound quality is fair.
Homenaje a Mis Colegas
This CD has good sound quality and great performances. If you are going to get only one release by Los Papines, this is it. We hear pure Guaguancó as well as versions that are augmented with bass, tres guitar and/or piano and horns. There is an amusing rendition of Harry Belafonte's "Banana Boat" that's done to rumba columbia. The rock batá cut is the only one I don't prefer. Hearing a thumping four pulse throughout that entire piece always makes me go for the fast forward button.
This is not a Rumba record per se, but it has several Rumba cuts on it. The entire CD is such a classic, it's worth mentioning. Other artists featured here are Francisco Aguabella, Armando Peraza, Pablo Mozo, Willie Bobo, Chombo Silva, Paul Horn, Cal Tjader and Al McKibbon.
Patato y Totico
This is classic Guaguancó with a couple of Abakwas thrown in for good measure. Featured here are Totico (lead vocals), Patato (Congas), Arsenio Rodriquez (tres) and Cachao (Bass). Recorded in the l970's, this was the last record that Arsenio made before he died. The performances are raw and rather unpolished, but the groove is deep. Very deep. This record is a true summit. Unfortunately, the sound quality is (once again) a bit flat.
Totico y Sus Rumberos
Recorded in New York City, this is the best produced (by Rene Lopez) Rumba CD available. Sure, there's nothing like the Cuban's themselves playing their own music, but there really is something to be said for being able to hear every part clearly. Great fidelity here. Each performance was obviously well rehearsed. You can hear this in how in tune the chorus is in their execution of harmony. Despite the polish, there is plenty of emotion and fire present. Check out "What's your Name?" a Batá/Rumba/Doo-Wop. There are so many drums playing by the end of this song, but you can still hear everything clearly. I wish all Rumba records had this level of fidelity. Among the featured drummers are Totico, Puntilla, Flako Hernandez, Jerry Gonzalez, Milton Cardona and Gene Golden. One bonus is at the presence of Andy Gonzalez on acoustic bass. Bass is not a typical instrument of Rumba of course, but Mr. Gonzalez plays in a manner so much "in the feel" that his contribution sounds right at home. I'm looking forward to the day when we will see more releases by Cuban Rumba groups. Some excellent rumberos who have not yet appeared in U.S. record stores are Yoruba Andabo, Grupo Folklorico, Afro-Cuba de Matanzas, Columbia De Puerto Cardenes, Obba Tola , and Conjunto Clave y Guaguancó. If you should ever come across a recording by any of these groups, I suggest you grab it.
Note: Just before going to press we received Real Rumba From Cuba a great new release that features some of the bands David just mentioned. (See new catalog items) David says "grab it." Ed.