Last night, Cuban musicians from both sides of the Florida Straits came together to share the stage at the Savannah Music Festival. The legendary rumba group Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, who are on a one-month tour across the U.S., and the Miami-based timba band Tiempo Libre, represent, in many ways, two very different sides of the Cuban musical spectrum. Los Muñequitos are a virtual Cuban institution, an extended family of performers known both at home and abroad as a living repository of Afro-creole music and tradition spanning everything from rumba to the hallowed rhythms and cantos of the island’s many African-derived religions. Unlike many folklore ensembles, Los Muñequitos’ sound is neither entirely scripted nor vapid; they somehow manage to push the envelope while remaining firmly anchored in the African roots of Cuban culture. Tiempo Libre, many of whose members left Cuba for Miami in the 1990s, during the so-called “Special Period,” is a relatively young band and the first U.S.-based Cuban timba group to achieve a modest but notable level of success here. Their image is plastered on cans of Bustelo Café and, more recently, they appeared on the TV show Dancing With the Stars. “You know how things are,” Tiempo Libre’s singer Joaquin “El Kid” Díaz joked with me during soundcheck, “they come from the ‘communist’ side and we are on the capitalist end.” “But apart from all that, we’re all ordinary Cubans!,” he added.
Although there was some anticipation that perhaps we were in for an unprecedented display of musical diplomacy, it quickly became clear that no such diplomacy was necessary. Members of both groups mingled freely, told jokes and stories, posed for photographs, and engaged in intense discussions regarding the fate of so many popular Cuban musicians who have immigrated to the U.S., only to then fall short of revamping their music and careers. “El Médico de la Salsa,” Manolín, was a name that kept popping up in the discussion. There a few Cubans who do not know Manolín’s story; he was blacklisted in Cuba for singing a song in which he declared his intention to build a bridge between Havana and Miami, “so that the people of Havana can come, and the people of Miami can go.”
Los Muñequitos played two impressive 50-minute sets, each one followed by Tiempo Libre and their polished, Miami-style timba. After Tiempo Libre took the stage for the last time, many of Los Muñequitos’ 16-member ensemble retired to their hotels rooms, fatigued from travel, and many still recovering from a cold that has been making its rounds. But a handful did stay behind. Sitting off to the side of stage, I watched as they occasionally nodded their heads or stomped their feet in response. But when Jorge Gómez, Tiempo Libre’s director and keyboard player, began a romping version of Adalberto Álvarez’s “A Bayamo en Coche” – telling them this was a song “they knew very well” – the remaining members of Los Muñequitos jumped to their feet, sang along, and grabbed a few local women out of the crowd to dance. After that, they jumped on stage and grabbed guiros, congas, and, every now and then, the microphone, accompanying Tiempo Libre on a conga and a timba called “La Llave” that had the whole place jumping. The night ended with enthusiastic embraces, hearty pats on the back, and promises to keep in touch. Not only was it a great show but a striking testimony to the power of music to bring people together, nourish and sustain a sense of community, and transcend the polarizing ideological divides that characterize so much official political discourse on U.S.-Cuba relations.
|Photo by Frank Stewart|