Cuba, A Forbidden Musical Paradise

Matanzas

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A bata carver in Havana.

If there is only one place besides Havana you must visit, let it be Matanzas, birthplace of rumba. A bus to Matanzas is an easy two-hour ride from Havana. Groups like Afro Cuba de Matanzas and Los Munequitos de Matanzas exemplify the style and should be in the archives of any serious drummer studying rumba. Matanzas is also the home to many prominent bata players as well as Santeria and Palo priests, musicians, and initiates.

It’s a beautiful city with cobblestone streets, brightly painted houses, and bustling markets. While Matanzas doesn’t have the tourism structure and big hotels of Havana, there are many private homes called Casa Particulares that are licensed to host foreigners and usually cost just $25 a night. It’s a small enough town that if you let your cab driver or host let you know you want to see drums, they’re probably just a few calls away from finding you jaw-dropping music and dance.

On my first trip to Matanzas, within hours of arriving we’d been invited by Francisco “Menini” Zamora (leader of Grupo Afro Cuba de Matanzas) to a tambor or SanterĂ­a ceremony where we watched as bata drummers wove a tapestry of rhythms that induced trance and brought out multiple personalities in some participants. The following day we met with the late Afro Cuban percussionist Daniel Alfonso Herrera, who as luck would have it was just putting the finishing touches on his book/DVD on bata drumming, El Lenguaje del Tambor.

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Cuban tumbadoras.

Congas are all around, only don’t ask for them by that name or people won’t know what you’re talking about. What we call congas in the States, Cubans call tumbadoras, and a conga player or conguero is referred to as a tumbador on this island. There isn’t much standardization in their sizes or shape. Every conga I saw in Matanzas seemed almost unique, some straight-sided, some with coopered bands, and in sizes ranging from scrawny 9" quintos to 14" tumbas sporting bellies bigger than the Family Guy. The middle drum, which we generally know as the conga, is known here by one of many other names including segundo, salidor, or tres-dos.

In rumba you hear all three drum voices, each played by individuals, and the drums can be all tumbadoras, all Cuban-style (pyramid-shaped) cajons or a combination of the two. The drums are accompanied by shekere, claves, and cata, a small box played with sticks. In urban areas the cata is often substituted by the jam block or yamblo as you’ll hear it called. The first thing you’ll notice when you hear authentic Cuban rumba is the dialogue between drums and the value of rhythmic melodies, which are far more important than chops. A quinto player in Matanzas might play for two or three minutes adding only a few notes so as to bring out the conversation of the supporting drums.

Ask around about attending a tambor, cajon or guiro. I know we think of those as instruments but in Cuba these are also all types of ceremonies. In fact, the guiro ceremonies I’ve been to don’t even use guiros as we know them but rather shekeres, a single tumbadora and hoe blade, or guataca playing a 12/8 bell pattern. You might even find yourself at a birthday party complete with cake, balloons, and streamers for one of the orishas, or saints, in the Santeria religion.

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