Thursday, May 19, 2011

You Have to Dance Before You Can Walk: Los Muñequitos de Matanzas in 2011

Afropop Producer Ned Sublette recently attended a rare and special performance by Los Muñequitos de Matanzas in NYC and filed this report.

New York, May 17, 2011. Legendary Cuban music-and-dance group Los Muñequitos de Matanzas returned to the U.S. for concerts in April and May 2011 after a nine-year absence. The tour included three shows at New York City’s Symphony Space on May 5-7, presented by the World Music Institute. (The photos accompanying this piece were taken by Banning Eyre at the May 6 performance.)

Not only have Cuba and the United States both experienced major changes in that time, so has the group. Since their first, precedent-shattering U.S. tour in 1992, four senior musicians of the troupe have died. First we lost magisterial founding member Gregorio “Goyo” Díaz, then singers Ricardo Cané and Alberto Romero, and finally quintero and composer Jesús Alfonso, who was the group’s music director and one of the most magical musicians I’ve ever heard.

Meanwhile, we lost touch. There was 9/11 and the consequent implementation of the Homeland Security state. The onset of bushismo in U.S.-Cuban relations at the end of 2003 unilaterally slammed the window shut and stopped communication. No Cuban groups were allowed into the United States to perform between the last days of 2003 and October 2009, while travel from the U.S. to Cuba got much harder.

Though the Muñequitos were regular visitors to the U.S. in the 1990s, with fans all across the country, their last U.S. appearance was in 2002. Only now has it been possible to bring them back -- a mind-numbingly difficult labor involving much bureaucracy, a lot of lead time, and the risk of a considerable amount of money. And with so many senior members gone, there were going to have to be a lot of new faces. It was going to be a new group.

I knew that Matanzas was a great incubator of talent, so I wasn’t concerned they wouldn’t be good.

But I didn’t know how good.

They did it right. This new, younger version of Los Muñequitos de Matanzas is a model of generational continuity and transmission of knowledge, drawing on the collective cultural understanding of an interconnecting web of families who have conserved and nurtured the rumba all these years in the same barrio where the style grew up. It’s a powerful group that will continue to grow in the years to come.

* * *

Inspired by Arsenio Rodríguez, Los Muñequitos de Matanzas were founded in 1952 under the name Guaguancó Matancero by a group of rumberos who were patrons of a bar called El Gallo in the black barrio of La Marina in the old sugar-and-slave Gulf of Mexico port of Matanzas. They acquired the name by which they were subsequently known because they had a hit record in Havana, “Los Muñequitos,” about comic-strip characters (“muñequitos”) in the Saturday newspapers – not a historically-themed lyric, but a contemporary one. (The other side of the 45 was called “Los Beodos,” or “The Drunks.”)

They fell inactive in the 1960s, then regrouped toward the end of the decade. By the time they first traveled outside Cuba, to London in 1989, they were almost entirely a second-generation group, continuing in the style of the founders, with only Gregorio Díaz (“Goyo”) remaining active from the original lineup. They made their second trip outside Cuba in 1992, when they played a ten-week U.S. tour to sold-out houses across the country.

At the start of that tour, in the heavily cubanophile Bay Area, they received a standing ovation before they started to play. They weren’t used to that. Despite their good name, Los Muñequitos had not exactly been headliners in late-80s Havana. Like the rumba itself, they were seen in Cuba as subcultural, and living outside the capital, they were practically invisible.

Foreign travel revolutionized the group’s own understanding of the importance of the culture they represented, and appearing on different stages in different cities night after night further professionalized them. They came back to the U.S. again and again as the cultural opening widened in the 1990s, appeared in Europe and Latin America, and even headlined in Havana.

* * *

This writer does not claim objectivity. It’s hard for me to know where to begin in talking about Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, so thoroughly was my life transformed by them.

Knowing the high regard in which they were held by the most serious members of the New York Latin music community, I set out to hear them in February 1990 during the first of twenty-five trips I would make to Cuba, driving to Matanzas from Havana in a rented car, arriving like an extraterrestrial cowboy one Saturday morning. The previous weekend in Havana, I had met the late Pedro Izquierdo, better known as Pello El Afrokán, and I asked him if he knew how to find the Muñequitos. He shrugged. “Ask anyone in Matanzas.” I followed his advice and found them quickly by asking around in the street, and was immediately invited into the home of singer Israel Berriel while Diosdado Ramos was out arranging things for their gig later that same night.

I first heard them play that Saturday night, February 3, 1990, in a state-maintained Casa de Cultura in the dim light of the old sugar town of Cárdenas. They invited me to attend a Monday morning rehearsal of Yoruba batá music in the front room of Diosdado’s nineteenth-century house – high ceiling, tiled floor -- in the traditional Matanzas barrio of La Marina. They were preparing the show they brought to the U.S. two years later, though at the time they had no travel plans. But they were ready.

I thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever heard. I still think that.
Of all the things I’ve done in my life, none has brought me more honor than being associated with the Muñequitos. I didn’t book their U.S. tours – I would be incapable -- but let’s just say, I was there. The 1992 tour was the right place and time: a watershed in Cuban-American cultural relations, a popular and artistic smash hit that established important bureaucratic precedents and, after years of intimidation and threats (which on December 29, 1978 included the bombing of Avery Fisher Hall by the domestic terrorist group Omega 7), demonstrated to presenters around the country that it was possible to produce Cuban artists in their communities.

Together with a partner, Ben Socolov, I released six albums by Los Muñequitos de Matanzas on Qbadisc, the record label I co-founded. Three of those albums I produced myself, including Live in New York, a concert recording at Symphony Space in New York in December 1992 undertaken in my capacity as producer for Afropop Worldwide, which broadcast it over National Public Radio. I subsequently traveled with the group to Puerto Rico – that was fun -- and to Brazil, the latter of which trip included a jam at Ilê Axé Opo Afonjá, Salvador’s oldest candomblê house, as documented in an Afropop Worldwide show I produced (“Percussion Panorama”). I make no bones about being really proud of all this. Suffice it to say that the personal respect and affection with which the group has always treated me is something I aspire to be worthy of, and though I have not been to Cuba since 2003 and did not have a hand in the 2011 tour, I still feel deeply connected.

I am apparently not the only one who feels this way. The entire team that made this tour happen was the one that made it happen back then – producer Ann Rosenthal of MAPP; tour manager Estrella Quiroga; audio and drum tech Scott Wardinsky, who at show after show prompted the venue’s sound engineer about which drum mike needed to come up in order to make the percussive cross-melodies cohere; and Caridad Diez, the group’s Havana-based Cuban representative, whose life has been illuminated by the Muñequitos as much as anyone’s has.

Thankfully, the group still counts on plenty of elder knowledge, with singer Rafael Navarro Pujada “Niño,” who for me is the very voice of rumba, and with Israel Berriel, the group’s akpwon, or lead singer for the Yoruba sacred repertoire. There is dancer / singer Ana Pérez, the only female voice in the chorus, who dances Oyá (warrior goddess of storms and the cemetery) and partners in the yambú (the sensual style of rumba, for older couples) with Diosdado.

I think Diosdado Ramos must be the most subtle rumba dancer alive.

I first realized that when I saw him dance at an Abakuá ceremony in Matanzas twenty-one years ago (which is not rumba, but the two are closely associated). He was a teenager in the 1960s when the founding members of the Muñequitos, at the time an all-music group, invited him to join in order to reinvent the group as a dance-and-music troupe, of which he subsequently became the director.

The dance side of the Muñequitos is a Ramos family specialty, and includes Diosdado’s sons Bárbaro and Figurín, daughters Vivian and Yamilé, and Vivian’s son Luis Deyvis Ramos, all grown to adulthood. Featured on the cover of the album Vacunao, Bárbaro and Vivian were the masterful young dancers of the troupe in 1992; now they’re the intermediate generation.

Figurín, meanwhile, has emerged as not only a fine dancer, but a percussionist, composer, and singer who can work the crowd as a charismatic front man. The first generation of Los Muñequitos consisted of musicians only, not dancers, and it was all-guaguancó (the most popular style of rumba, fast-paced and with a danced game of sexual pursuit-and-capture). I didn’t get to hear them live, and hardly anyone is still around who did. I only know them from a handful of immortal recordings, which was way more than the legendary rumberos before them left behind. But I heard the second-generation group in concert dozens of times. They were phenomenal, they created their own glory out of a grand legacy, and they took the continuity of their group seriously. In doing so, they burnished the names of the founders, taking them beyond a status as revered discographic figures to being living influences, founders of a school that continues rocking the world at the heart of an art that at this point is the great African city of Matanzas’s principal claim to fame.

I might best explain the new version of the group by talking about Deyvis, whom I met when he was a toddler. In many Cuban households, everything is done while dancing – mama does a few steps while she cooks dinner -- but at Casa Ramos, it’s a little more intense. Before Deyvis could walk, he was following his mom and her girlfriends as they danced around the house, and when they changed steps, he changed steps with them. I saw this. Meanwhile, the men showed him how to play drums. The kid’s talent was a common topic of discussion. Deyvis knocked everyone’s socks off as a 10-year-old whiz kid on their 1998 U.S. tour; now he’s a man, and he’s multitalented.

What I’m saying is, you don’t just answer an ad in the paper and join Los Muñequitos de Matanzas.

* * *

The program Los Muñequitos brought to the U.S., titled Tambor de Fuego, varied in content depending on the night, but it always began with a sung prayer and invocation of the departed members of the group.

The dead were dancing with them.

All three of the drummers in the Muñequitos’s 2011 rumba lineup – Freddy Alfonso, Eddy Espinosa, and veteran Agustín Díaz – are sons of Muñequitos drummers. Like Deyvis, from before the time they could walk, they were hearing and imitating the greatest drummers, observing the inner workings of the rumba motor every day.

Freddy Alfonso sat in his father’s chair, and when he smacked the quinto (the high-pitched, hard-cracking, soloistic, commenting drum), he cocked his head to the side the way Jesús did, with the same ecstatic open-mouthed expression.

Jesús was there in the room.

Eddy, the center of gravity on the (low-pitched) tumbadora (conga) drum, is the son of Victoriano “Tití” Espinosa, who was the group’s quintero before Jesús. Augustín, on salidor (or “seis por ocho”) is the son of Goyo. Between the two, they carry the tumbao, or groove. It’s not the same sound as the father-and-son pocket between Goyo and Augustín used to be, nor, on the basis of the records, did Goyo sound with Agustín like he did with Pablo Mesa a generation before. Right now Eddy and Agustín are it, and then someday they will be the bygone heroes.

What lived is still alive.

You honor your father by living a good life. To honor what has lived, the new group has to be alive, using their knowledge to put their own seal on their own version of it. That’s why this music still exists, because it lights on the head of generation after generation, and it’s illuminating these younger heads now. They know what they have to do, and what they have to live up to.

Another new addition to the group is Luisito Cansino, a former member of the venerable group Afro Cuba de Matanzas (and Ana Pérez’s nephew, of whom she is mighty proud). He’s not an obvious replacement for any particular chair; he’s there for his deep knowledge. He switches positions during the show, now playing this drum, now that, now singing in the coro. His influence is felt in the group’s present musical direction, and it looks like he’s going to be a key figure in the future development of the group.

Diosdado brought in two impressive young singers: José Andro Mella Bosch and Reyniel López González, who were previously in Rumbatimba, a youth rumba group in Matanzas that effectively wound up functioning as a farm team for the Muñequitos. Part of the novelty that made the Muñequitos so popular back in the day was that their singers, Esteban Lantri “Saldiguera” and Hortensio Alfonso “Virulilla,” had been in son sextets. In the era of Arsenio Rodríguez, they brought the two-voice primo and segundo harmonies of the son into the guaguancó. These two young singers have made a serious study of Saldiguera and Virulilla – it’s not just a style, it’s a school -- and they negotiate those tricky harmonies in tune, with strong voices. The result is that the group’s singing is now better than I’ve ever heard it.

The Muñequitos came not only with new personnel, but with a substantially new program, following the same general format of espectáculo they brought across the Straits of Florida nineteen years ago. The first half consisted of traditional African religious music of Cuba centered on the Yoruba tradition of sacred dances for the orishas, the music played on hourglass-shaped batá drums. In 1992, when they first came to the U.S., they did much to spread awareness of the Yoruba religion through their presentations; many people got their first glimpses of the personalities of the orishas from the Muñequitos presentations. But even the orisha dances, though they are essentially unchanging, weren’t done the same way on this tour as on previous ones. And during the three concerts and a workshop that I saw, they did not only Lucumí (the older name for Yoruba), but also Iyesá, Arará, Abakuá, and Congo numbers. At the workshop I saw, they did makuta – a Congo rhythm that I’d never heard them do in the dozens of Muñequitos shows I’ve witnessed over the years.

I would be derelict in my duty as scribe not to mention the rumbatap, inspired back in the 90s by a collaboration with New York tap dancer Max Pollak, who was as fascinated by guaguancó dancing as Bárbaro Ramos was by Pollak’s tapping. It’s been – I don’t know, fifteen years now? – that they’ve had to think about this, so by now they have a socko-show-biz number in which Bárbaro, Figurín, and Deyvis, the three young male dancers, dressed in flash-of-the-spirit orisha-color-coded sequins, tap-slap batá rhythms with their shoes on the floor and their hands on their bodies. To compare it with African American tap would be to miss the point, and in any case, the real power of it comes from the fact that you get to see these three young figures communicate on a high level.

The second half of the program was rumba, which is street music. The power of the rumba today is that although it’s historically conscious, it’s not a museum piece. It’s a living, breathing, growing thing that is still sung and danced in the street and still serves the expressive needs of the barrios where it first appeared in the nineteenth century.

Continuity rules. It seems as though the elders are trying to be sure that the youth master the grand arc of the Muñequitos repertoire, and what a songbook they have. In the three concert performances and one workshop I saw on this tour, they didn’t repeat the same tunes all the time. They called up “Los Muñequitos,” the group’s first hit for the Puchito label, which popularized the Matanzas clave de guaguancó in Havana back in the ‘50s, and I heard them do “Baba Cuello Mao,” recorded in 1977. They also sang a bunch of rumbas I hadn’t heard before: at least four of the group’s young members are composers.

The late Jesús Alfonso created a repertoire of his own compositions that use traditional images and African-laced language to tell stories of his time and place – most famously, with “Congo Yambumba,” a hit when covered by Eddie Palmieri in the 1980s, whose lyrics are a street challenge to a barrio braggart. They didn’t do that one in the shows I heard, but they did Jesús’s blissfully lovely “Chino Guaguao” and his exultant “Saludo a Nueva York,” written upon the group’s arrival in 1992.

They did an incredible amount of work to make this all happen. In Matanzas, the Muñequitos rehearse every day. They arrived prepared to a T, with a show that was tight, but still loose enough that it could accommodate guests on stage.

How often do you get to hear a sixty-year-old group and say, they have a lot of potential? The ensemble’s powers are growing before our eyes and ears.

* * *

The difficult transition they’ve managed is not their first one. They went from 1952 across the rupture of 1959, reinventing themselves after a period of inactivity at the end of the 1960s, transitioning into a second generation of musicians, making it through the “Special Period” following the crash of the Cuban economy in the early ‘90s to play to an amazed world, and now returning in the unpredictable 21st century with a well-prepared new generation. Which is to say, the arc of the Muñequitos over the last sixty years pretty much traces the arc of Cuba.

For all that rumba is associated in folklore with guapería – a street-style, rum-fueled, cocky machismo -- Los Muñequitos, who are as true a posse of rumberos as exists, have always represented themselves and their patria with dignity.

Because I pay attention to Cuban issues, people sometimes ask me what I think will happen there. For the last twenty-plus years, my answer has been the same: I have no crystal ball.

But my hope is that a wide swath of Cuban society, youth and elder, might turn out to be as prepared as Los Muñequitos de Matanzas proved themselves to be on this tour.

Or, as a concertgoer shouted at Symphony Space in 2011 – the same guy who had shouted the same thing the same way in the same room in 1992, it’s on the record:

¡Viva Cuba!
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