by Dan Rosenberg
Among fans of Cuban music, the city of Matanzas has long been known as a cultural mecca. Founded in 1693 by the Spanish as a port for the sugar cane industry, the city quickly became home to tens of thousands of African slaves. Today Matanzas is a stronghold of African culture in the Americas. Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, founded in 1952, are now Cuba's national ambassadors of rumba.
Performances by this troupe of fifteen singers, dancers, and drummers are like living lessons in 500 years of Afro-Cuban history. This show is their first visit to Ann Arbor since a sold-out show at Power Center in 1998. That performance, in typical Muñequitos form, dazzled the audience with a scorching blend of artistry and athleticism. As is customary in Cuba, their concert opened with an invocation of African Yoruba and Abacua orishas (deities) accompanied by the bata (a two-headed drum), congas, claves (rhythm sticks), and cajones (wooden boxes). Originally makeshift instruments (empty codfish containers) played by slaves when drums were banned by the Spanish, cajones are now an integral part of Cuban rumba.
Another Muñequitos trademark is a look at the evolution of rumba, and the 1998 show was no exception. The group wowed the audience with a series of flirtatious and athletic dances, including the guaguanco, a dance contest in which the women try to "avoid" the sexually charged advances of the men. Their songs almost always open with the claves, the pair of rhythm sticks that set the tone and the pace for the music, followed by a series of calls and responses, starting with the chant to Ellegua, the orisha of the crossroads, who is always saluted first to "open" the ceremony. From there, layer after layer of flowing dresses begin to take on new cylindrical shapes as the dancers twirl, flip, and spin. Their program for their show at Hill Auditorium on Friday, March 15, includes dances to Ogun (the orisha of war), Chango (the orisha of thunder and lightning), Yemaya (the river goddess), and others, all accompanied by the captivating singing and powerful percussion of the two-headed bata drum.
While many other styles of Cuban music and dance are familiar to American audiences (cha-cha, mambo, and salsa, for example), these rumba styles are rarely performed outside of Cuba. So, except for those who ignore the government's embargo on travel to Cuba, the Muñequitos give audiences a unique opportunity to witness, firsthand, five centuries of rootsy, authentic Afro-Cuban song and dance traditions.
[Originally published in March, 2002.]
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