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Review: Voice and Drum: Afro-Cuban Folklore Releases

by David Peñalosa

It's amazing how many CDs of Afro-Cuban folkloric music are available today. It certainly hasn't always been the case. This type of music used to be very difficult to find, but now new releases and re-issued old classics are coming out all the time. Some of the older material was originally released on vinyl in Cuba. An unsubstantial number of aficionados in the United States were able to collect them. They were obtained by traveling to Cuba, or by finding one of those few stores which had connections with somebody who traveled to Cuba. In the 1980s, I was lucky enough to be able purchase some of these elusive records. However, every time I played one of my Cuban LPs, I winced at each new pop and scratch I heard. I knew it was a record I would have a nearly impossible time replacing.

Today, I am still rapt with the fact that so many of the classic recordings of Afro-Cuban folkloric music are available on CD in the United States, distributed by U.S. distributors. Now I can easily replace my scratchy old LPs and zillionth generation cassette tapes with the CD versions.

The proliferation of so many CDs of African-based drumming in general is a fascinating phenomenon. It leads me to believe that the popularity of drumming in the United States is growing in this decade as in no other period of time before. One sees it with the expansion of drumming into women's groups, men's groups, New Agers, Deadheads and other people from all walks of life. The current president plays saxophone. Maybe the next one will be a conga drummer..... (not!) Certainly African-based drumming has been alive and well in the African American community for decades, and the Hispanic community has been exposed to Afro-Cuban percussion for a long time as well. In recent years, I have delighted at seeing so many diverse social groups present at drum workshops taught by Cuban masters like Conjunto Folklorico Nacional and Los Muñequitos. Who can say where it will all lead?

Milton Cardona CD American Clave

The Yoruba people of Nigeria have a rich religious liturgy which includes hauntingly beautiful call and response songs and some of the most rhythmically complex drumming in the world. The Yoruba's Oyo empire collapsed in the early 1800's after decades of internal strife and warfare with their neighbors. One of the consequences of this ethnic group's bad fortunes was their being sold into slavery and brought to the New World to work on plantations. Strong traces of Yoruba culture, specifically their religion, can be found today in Cuba, Brazil, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago.

Cuba, in particular, has a phenomenal amount of liturgical Yoruba music and dance that has survived. This is quite incredible, considering the oppressive environment that existed during slave times. Besides the tenacity of the slaves and their decedents, the main reason that Yoruba ceremonies were able to be practiced and preserved in Cuba was the fact that the slaves synchronized the Catholic saints with their own deities called orisha. For instance, Santa Barbara is understood by Cubans to also be the Yoruba orisha Shango. This is why the Yoruba religion in Cuba is often called Santeria. It is also common for this religion to be called Lucumí. Lucumí is likewise the name given to descendants of Yoruba slaves in Cuba and their Cubanized dialect of Yoruba.

Bembe is one of the names for the Lucumí ceremonies in which the orishas are honored. Batá drums are often used in these ceremonies. Batá are a set of three double headed hourglass shaped drums which can be found today in both Nigeria and Cuba. The Batá play a musical liturgy that is the most complex of the Afro-Cuban drum systems.

Since their conception, the popular Cuban hybrids Rumba and Son have had a tradition of borrowing from Lucumí songs and themes. For several decades now, Milton Cardona has been one of the most visible New York Batá drummers who's carried on that tradition. He played Batá on Grupo Folklorico Experimental and Libre records back in the 70s, and has continued to record Batá and sing Lucumí songs with the top artists in the Big Apple ever since. Some of the more recent CDs with Milton Cardona doing this include Sueño (Eddie Palmieri), Llegó; La India (Eddie Palmieri/India), Obatalá; (Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band), Changó te Llama (Daniel Ponce) and Breakout (Papo Vasquez). Besides his folkloric talents, Cardona is also an accomplished band conguero. He played congas in Willie Colón's band for years.

When this recording originally came out on vinyl back in the early 80s, it was all the rage with batá aficionados. Never before had a record of Batá drums and orisha songs of such high audio quality been available. All six drum heads of the batá battery are clearly audible and carefully balanced here. For the small body of Batá drum students in the U.S., this record was a welcome arrival. To all the other lovers of this music it was an aesthetically pleasing recording.

Cardona who plays the role of akpwon (caller or lead singer) has a strong voice, perhaps more attractive to the novice listener than the more typical nasal sounding Cuban akpwon. The tight chorus on Bembe is well rehearsed. Again, their voices have a sweeter quality than their Cuban counterparts. This is a good introduction for someone who has had little exposure to the music of Santeria. For a more bona fide hard-core sound may I recommend:

Rituales Afrocubanos
Grupo Folklorico Afrocuba de Matanzas CD Egrem

Matanzas and Havana are in close proximity to each other. The two cities/provinces share a great deal of common folklore, but also have subtle differences in their styles of Rumba, Abacua and Batá drumming and songs. It has been said that Matanzas is the more African of the two Cuban provinces. In the twentieth century, Matanzas has not had anywhere near the commerce and cultural interface with other countries that Cuba's capital Havana has. This probably accounts for the greater preservation of African traditions found in the more rural Matanzas. Things have tended to change much more slowly there.

Grupo Folklorico Afrocuba de Matanzas are the custodians of the Afro-Cuban folkloric music and dance from the province of Matanzas. Their repertoire includes quite a few drumming systems not yet heard on record. Most of the Afro-Cuban folkloric music which has been available to the listening public has come from Havana-based groups: Los Papines, Carlos Embale, Lazaro Ros, Merceditas Valdez, Conjunto Folklorico Nacional, Conjunto Clave y Guaguancó. Matanzas' Los Muñequitos are the obvious exception to this rule.

Rituales Afrocubanos offers three African traditions which have survived in Matanzas: Lucumí (Yoruba), Arara (Fon) and Congo (Bantu). The majority of this recording consists of Lucumí batá drumming with songs, not unlike the material on Bembe. There are songs and rhythm for the orishas: Eleggua (opening), Oggun, Ochosi, Inle, Babalu Aye, Oricha Oko, Dada, Oggue, Osain, Aggayu, Shango, Obbatala, Yegua, Obba, Oya, Ochun, Yemaya, Eleggua (closing). Rituales Afrocubanos has an unmistakable authentic feel due to their akpwons, who are greatly respected elders and their master drummers who trace their lineage back to the very first two Batá drummers in Cuba. There simply is no substitute for growing up in the rich Afro-Cuban culture of Matanzas. On the minus side, the audio fidelity on this CD falls far short of Bembe. Typically, recordings from Cuba have tended to have excellent music, but poor sound quality. This has thankfully begun to change.

The Fon people of Benin (formerly Dahomey) are closely related to the Yoruba. They share some of the same pantheon of orishas with the Yoruba. In some cases though, the deities are called by different names. One of the most well known examples of this is the Yoruba god of thunder Shango who the Fon call Ebioso. Like the Yoruba, the Fon were taken from West Africa to the New World to work as slaves. In Cuba, the Fon are known as Arara, in Haiti they're called Rada. The Arara religious rituals have not survived in Cuba to the extent that the Yoruba ceremonies have. In fact, because the Batá drums are so versatile, the Arara, as well as Iyesa and Guiro traditions have been adapted into the Batá drum system. On Rituales Afrocubanos we hear the rather obscure Arara drums played.

Many Bantu people from the interior of central Africa were brought to work the cane fields of Cuba. In Cuba, this ethnic group is also known as Congo. Some of their rhythms, songs and dances have survived in Matanzas. Palo is the rhythm offered here.

I hope that Grupo Afrocuba will someday record and release the more obscure elements of their repertoire such as Bricamo, Olokun and their incredibly slow Yambu. They have yet to release a crisp, high-fidelity recording of their creation Batá-Rumba. After the music of Matanzas comes out, people may begin to look to the other provinces of Cuba and their own unique folkloric music. The Oriente (eastern end of Cuba) holds many treasures yet to be exposed to music listeners outside of the island.

Real Rumba From Cuba
Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, Grupo Folklorico Afrocuba de Matanzas, Columbia de Puerto Cardenas, Cutumba with Carlos Embale CD Corason

Real Rumba is a collection of four different Cuban Rumba groups: Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, Afrocuba de Matanzas, Columbia de Puerto Cardenas and Cutumba with Carlos Embale. The word "real" in the title refers to the fact that Son music has been mistakenly called Rumba (or Rhumba), outside of Cuba since the 1920's. This recording is truly the real Rumba.

There are three main styles of Rumba: Yambu, Guaguancó and Columbia. Yambu is a slow rhythm and partner dance. It has close ties to the Cuban-Congolese fertility dance Yuka. The Yambu surfaced with the end of slavery in the 1880's. At that time, the authorities who were of Spanish descent, looked down upon their citizens of African descent. Because of this, dances/rhythms with strong African roots were often suppressed by the authorities. So it was with Yambu. The pelvic thrust from the Yuka dance was not allowed by the authorities. African type drums were not encouraged and in fact, were often confiscated by the government. Yambu was not originally played on drums, but on packing crates. This style of playing Yambu on boxes (called cajones), has been preserved up to the present by many of today's Rumba ensembles. The group Yoruba Andabo plays cajones exclusively. Guaguancó is a partner dance like Yambu, only faster. Conga drums (called tumbadores in Cuba), are used in Guaguancó instead of the cajones. The contemporary style of Guaguancó we hear today was developed in the 1950s. Rumba Columbia is a solo dance done usually only by men. Columbia has close cultural and musical ties to the Abacua, a male secret society originating from the Cameroons, West Africa.

Real Rumba features all three styles of Rumba. In addition, we are treated to three Batá-Rumbas, two by Afrocuba and one by Cutumba. As far as I know, Grupo Afrocuba was the first group to fuse the Rumba and its three congas with three Batá drums. Batá-Rumba is a dense hybrid rhythm, but it's not really done justice here because of the rather flat fidelity of the recording. To date, the most audibly clear Batá-Rumba can be found on the CD Totico y sus Rumberos.

Cutumba comes from Santiago, on the eastern end of the island. Joining Cutumba is Cuba's most famous Rumba singer, Carlos Embale. This CD also has three typically remarkable performances by Los Muñequitos de Matanzas. Columbia de Puerto Cardenas are dock workers from the port of Cardenas. To the best of my knowledge, they perform only Rumba Columbia. They are a one-beat band. One of their trademarks is having the 4/4 cascara stick pattern played simultaneously with the typical 6/8 bell pattern. This creates a rhythmic tension and an excitement that is palatable.

The performances are excellent on Real Rumba. The sound quality of this recording is its greatest drawback. These seem to be the two main factors one considers when buying a new CD. Of course it would be great if the performance and sound quality were both extraordinary on every CD we buy, but often we must balance the strengths of one factor against the weakness of the other.

Oyelos de Nuevos
Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, Folklorico Matancero (Grupo Folklorico Afrocuba de Matanzas) CD Qbadisc

The melody created by the two lower-pitched supportive drums in Guaguancó has been used in salsa and Latin jazz tunes for a long time. Many rock and roll fans first heard the Guaguancó drum melody in the late 60s when Santana burst onto the scene. Guaguancó is a rhythm that one gets acquainted with quite early on if they have a taste for conga drums. You can hear it in the city parks on the weekends and at other drum jams.

Guaguancó seems straightforward enough, but it's an illusionary rhythm. What one hears at first is that familiar melody of the lower-pitched supportive drums and the riffing higher pitched lead drum called quinto. Because of the rhythmically complex nature of the quinto's vocabulary, its connection with the supportive drums is not always obvious. In truth, the complete drum melody of Guaguancó consists of all three congas. While Guaguancó has been very popular with drummers in this country, an understanding of this rhythm has been elusive. The more one investigates Guaguancó, the more subtleties are revealed. With recordings like Oyelos de Nuevos, everyone can now hear what an authentic Guaguancó sounds like.

There are two main branches of Guaguancó, one from Havana and the other from Matanzas. The Matanzas style started out with a more structured drum melody than its Havana counterpart. Over the past several decades the the Guaguancó played by Matanzas' Los Muñequitos, has grown more complex, while still adhering to the basic structure. Today, their elaborate drum conversations within Guaguancó are reminiscent of those heard in the Batá drums.

This CD was originally recorded in Havana on May 2, 1970. The selections have never been released as an album, although the five songs by Los Muñequitos were released as 45s in Cuba. Greatly degenerated tapes of those 45s have been in the possession of some lucky U.S. rumba aficionados for years. What a pleasure to hear the material now in CD quality, remastered off of the original masters. On Oyelos de Nuevo we hear what sounds like the engineer announcing each song. This might have been included on the CD as proof that this release has indeed been taken off the original masters.

The other group here is Grupo Afrocuba de Matanzas. This drum and dance ensemble began in 1957 as "Guaguancó Neopoblano". In 1959 they changed their name to "Conjunto Cuba," and in 1968 became "Folklore Matanzas," the name under which this recording was made. In 1973 they changed their name one last time to "Afrocuba".

The majority of Los Muñequitos recordings have now been released on CD by Qbadisc. I hope they will someday release the real early material like the song "Omele."

Congo Yambumba
Los Muñequitos CD Qbadisc

Recorded in November 1983 and previously released as Guaguancó/Columbia/Yambu, this CD has been out for awhile. I reviewed it in a prior Descarga Newsletter so I won't be redundant here, other than to say that this record now has a new name and it is as great as it ever was. If you like Rumba, you will love Los Muñequitos, for they are considered by many to be the greatest rumberos alive today.

Los Muñequitos CD Qbadisc

This is the Muñequitos' first recording of new music in years. The wait was well worth it! Recorded during their North American tour last year, Vacunao contains some songs that were in their performance "Patakin," but it's not a CD of their show per se.

The title of this CD refers to a gesture done by the man while dancing Guaguancó with a female partner. Vacunao translates into English as "vaccination" and refers to the sexual penetration of the woman by the man. The vacunao can be represented by the movement of his hand, foot, or a pelvic thrust which has roots in the Yuka. Guaguancó is a dance of competition between the man and woman. The man tries to "possess" the woman by getting her with his vacunao. The woman in turn, resists the gestures of the man by covering her pelvis. The CD cover shows the two young dancers of the group, Barbaro and Vivian (brother and sister, by the way), demonstrating the vacunao. When both dancers are good, the man rarely "gets" the woman. In all the times that I've seen Barbaro and Vivian dance together, I have witnessed Barbaro catch Vivian off-guard only once.

The cut "Vale Todo" starts this CD off with a bang! The combination of bass cajon with conga drums is seriously funky. It is the first new Rumba invention, from a group famous for inventions, to be recorded by the Muñequitos in years. The drumming on the entire CD is top-notch. Lead drummer Jesus Alfonso composed most of the songs. Jesus, who also wrote "Congo Yambumba," is a prolific composer.

I just can't resist revealing that I designed the tee shirt (of an Abacua Diablito) that the group's leader Diosdado Ramos is wearing in the picture on the back of the CD. Hey, everybody's entitled to their own claim to fame, however small.

Songs & Dances
Conjunto Clave y Guagauncó CD Xenophile

Conjunto Clave y Guaguancó have their own unique approach to playing Rumba. Each of the three drummers play one cajon and one conga drum apiece. The drum arrangements, unlike those of any other group, are their own creations, with drum melodies that are based on the tradition. Perhaps with more Rumba "inventions" being created these days, many more groups will come up with their own signature arrangements.

The vocals are well rehearsed and quite polished, but would have been done fine with less reverb in the final mixing. The chorus has appealing harmonies, and the lead vocals of Amalita stands out as one of the strongest components of the group. Amalita toured the U.S. with Lazaro Ros a few years back, and more recently came here with her all-woman folkloric ensemble. Besides being a celebrated vocalist, Amalita has her own all-women Batá battery.

Tambores Cubanos
Los Papines CD Egrem

The four Abreu brothers, better known as Los Papines, are Havana's premier rumberos. This CD is a reissue of previous works. It covers some of the group's most innovative contributions to Rumba and popular Cuban dance music. The material comes from three different LPs that were released ten to twenty years ago. Since it began releasing CDs, the Cuban record label Egrem has had a habit of putting parts of different records together and having the same tracks on different CDs. When purchasing a Cuban CD, it's important to check the list of songs to make sure that you're not getting duplication of material from other releases you may already own.

Now that the disclaimer has been stated, let's move on. Some of the material here has definitely not been out on CD yet. Some has. All of the selections are outstanding.

The opening cut "Mi Congas de mi Cuba" is a Conga that is a percussive masterpiece. The bombo (bass) drum is as funky as the funkiest hip-hop beat. Papin's burning quinto drum states its tasty phrases with an extraordinary authority. The next tune, "Zarara," is played by a small conjunto. It features a distorted amplified tres (or is it an electric guitar?), bass, percussion and voice. This number is a sort of rootsy Songo piece, heavy on the Rumba. The tres and bass converse in the rhythmic language of Rumba quinto. The combination of Papin's quinto with the riffing tres and bass is a powerful effect. "Zarara" is a unique piece of music and points the way towards possibilities of popular dance music based on Rumba. Unfortunately, when this was mixed-down, somebody moved the faders up and down in a way that seems random. The resulting effect has the various instruments coming into the foreground and then into the background in an aimless way. The tendency at Egrem has been to erase over the original multi-track tapes, so this two track version is probably all we'll ever have. "La Cachamba" is another tune featuring a small conjunto.

"Mi Quinto" (done as a Yambu) is an exquisite version of a Papines' standard. With a total of five to six drums between the three congueros, the drum melodies in the Guaguancós on Tambores Cubano are thick and lively. Jesus Abreu's spirited style of playing cascara utilizes cowbells and is reminiscent of the Songo patterns played by drummers in the popular Cuban dance and jazz bands.

"Esto no Lleva Batá" is another unique piece. It begins with the bass line that is likely inspired from the Conga bombo drum and sounds like something out of Motown. The entire rhythm is based on the tension between the bass and the Rumba clave pattern. The song begins in 4/4 and ends in a 6/8 Batá rhythm, although these don't quite sound like Batá drums.

Los Papines CD Bravo

The cassette version of Papines' Guaguancó was reviewed in a previous issue of the Descarga Newsletter. This CD is all Guaguancó, and while it has quite a lot of playful drumming, it is more traditional than Tambores Cubano. Another difference is the fact that this is the entire original record. It's a classic, folks.

Rumbero Mayor
Carlos Embale CD Egrem

The text of the Rumba tells the story of the Cuban people. Carlos Embale is a national treasure who sings classic songs in both the Rumba and Son genres. Besides fronting his own Rumba group, Embale has sung with the Septeto Nacional de Ignacio Piñero. His distinctive voice is instantly identifiable on the many records he has blessed with his presence. There are several classics present on Rumbero Mayor, including five by the legendary Ignacio Piñero.

Drums and Chants
Mongo Santamaria CD Vaya

Recorded in 1961, this gem was at one time one of the few LPs featuring Afro-Cuban folkloric music readily available to American audiences. Mongo's Yambu, Mongo in Havana and Tito Puente's Top Percussionare contemporaries of Drums and Chants. The period of time in which all these records came out has some parallels with today. Just as with today, the late 50s and early 60s saw the interest in conga and other African-based drums grow. The greatest number (up to that time) of drum records came out then. Today there is also a great proliferation of Afro-percussion recordings being released. When I began collecting this type of music in the 1970s, these were the records everyone recommended. Because they were originally released at least ten years before, they were not always easy to obtain. 1995 is a good time to be a collector of Afro-Cuban folkloric music.

The period of the late 50s - early 60s also saw the release of quite a few jazz records with Cuban percussionists as guest artists. Mongo, of course, made a career out of blending African-American jazz and funk with Afro-Cuban rhythms. I imagine some jazzers who may have dug "Watermelon Man" got turned-on to Afro-Cuban drums and chants through Mongo.

The material on Drums and Chants includes Rumba Guaguancó, Rumba Columbia, Conga, Abacua, Iyesa and Bembe. While all the songs are traditional, the Iyesa, Bembe and Abacua rhythms are not authentic. These rhythms are so altered as to qualify as completely different rhythms. At the time of the original release, this was actually quite an annoyance for many aspiring young conga drummers. They had to search far and wide as it was to find accurate information. Today in the "information age" though, whether some rhythm is traditional or not is not such a big concern. These are actually quite creative arrangements.

Another non-traditional element of this recording is the flute playing by someone whose name I no longer recall. It's a shame that the liner notes are so sparse on this historic recording. Anyway, the flute is a delightful addition to the sound. Besides a red hot Mongo on quinto drum, we are treated to a young Carlos "Patato" Valdes on drums and a youthful Julito Collazo singing lead on several of the selections.

The fidelity of Drums and Chants is quite good, even by today's standards. Don't let the lame looking cover fool you. This is a quality piece of work.

AfroCuba: A Musical Anthology
Various Artists CD Rounder

A good portion of this CD was originally released on vinyl as Viejos Afrocubano. To accommodate the expectations of today's CD buyers, who want more than twenty minutes of music on a disc, additional tracks were added to this release. The sound quality here is fair, but not up to today's standards. The value of this recording lies in its historic content.

Some of the more obscure music offered here includes the Tumba Francesa. This type of drumming came from Haiti to Cuba as a result of the Haitian revolution. French planters fled across the narrow Windward passage from Haiti to the eastern end of Cuba (called the Oriente). The descendants of the slaves who came with those planters have preserved their Afro-Haitian culture. The songs are sung in Creole with a few Spanish words. Also from the Oriente, is a selection of carnaval music: an uncommon rhythm from an old Abauca house called Cabildo Carabali, a brass band and a Comparsa group from Santiago de Cuba.

Other Afro-Cuban folkloric music offered on this release includes Iyesa, Batá, a cappella Arara (with a young Larazo Ros), Abacua, Palo, Yuka, Congas de Comparsas, Guaguancó (Los Muñequitos, Carlos Embale), Rumba Columbia and Yambu.

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