A Night of Rumba and Revolution – Matanzas, Cuba

A Night of Rumba and Revolution
Matanzas, Cuba

What do you do on a Friday night in Matanzas, Cuba? Not much except go to a tacky cabaret on nearby Varadero Beach. But if you are jazz and Latin music aficionados and musicians like my two American traveling companions and I, touristic Varadero night life doesn’t cut it.

“We’ve got one more night in Matanzas and we are not going back to Varadero until we have cruised the streets for some real rumba.” My friend of thirty years from Seattle was always testing our comfort level.

“But Chuck, we already know that both Munequitos and Afro-Cuba are out of town,” I said with some impatience.

We wanted to catch one of the legendary rumba groups practicing or performing in their home city, birthplace of folkloric rumba. But we had no way to check this ahead of time as we made our two-week cultural road trip around the island.

But wait! It’s Friday, September 27, 2002. The country is celebrating its 42nd anniversary of the formation of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR). There will be block parties in every city, including Matanzas. We watched the street decorations, mostly comprised of paper chains and chalked slogans, going up around the city.

‘Los Cinco Caballeros’, the five gentlemen, and their little black car ‘La Negrita’

With excited apprehension, we left our Casa Particular (a kind of bed and breakfast run by a Cuban family) and piled into our rented Toyota with our Cuban friend and guide, Juan, from Havana. It was about nine in the evening and dark. Despite the party atmosphere in most neighborhoods, dim street lights were all that illuminated the narrow passages between decaying buildings. It looked like a dangerous inner city jungle.

Everywhere Cubans in all their colorful diversity were mingling on the streets, families, a group of teens, a cabal of men drinking peso rum in a corner pub-without-walls. Our headlights rudely burst on bustling street scenes that would otherwise be seen only with Cuban night vision. Our small shiny black car, one of the few vehicles on the streets with working headlights, made us feel like foreign VIPs in a limousine. We were regarded with curiosity, but no hostility.

We stopped in one of Matanzas’s public squares, near the river. Juan jumped out to speak with loiterers outside a bar. Momentarily he returned. “You guys are going to be very happy,” he stated with excitement, but wouldn’t say why. We were cruising more city back streets following the directions Juan got from the Matanzeros. After circling around the same confusing, potholed neighborhood streets a few times, we found our goal. “We’re definitely in the ‘hood’ now, Chuck,” an adventure traveler observed dryly.

We pulled up next to an old city bus parked across the street from a long, rather grim, four story slab apartment building, probably built in the 1970s with Soviet aid. Balconies fronted the apartments on every floor and people were overlooking the street below from their dwellings. More people were gathered on both sides of the street, forming a sort of amphitheater.

At one end near the bus, a mixing board was set up. At the other end, a live music production was getting ready to start. I recognized the group – instruments of the creators of Bata Rumba, the faces of the performing group that formed one wing (with Los Hermanos Cepeda of P.R.) of the 1998 Dos Alas Tour, the progenitors of a direct line of one of the world’s great folkloric music and dance traditions. This was the percussion, song and dance conjunto, Afro-Cuba De Matanzas.

Thanks to Chuck’s persistence and Juan’s Cuban street smarts, we found one of the best CDR block parties in Cuba. I have seen Afro-Cuba De Matanzas in concert performance a number of times, in Cuba and in the U.S. But I have never watched them perform in the community for Cubans. Usually the best Cuban musical events are comprised of predominantly Cuban audiences, where the shared culture and energy of band and crowd react in an explosive, almost religious revival-like communal experience. That night would be one of these, though oddly reserved in the political context of the day’s national holiday.

In a communist command economy like Cuba, all enterprise, including world famous performing groups like Los Van Van, Isaac Delgado, and Afro-Cuba De Matanzas are employed agents of the government. As such, they are obligated to perform often for Cuban audiences in events where the fans pay little or nothing, and the band is paid little or nothing. Tonight was such an event. But this was home turf for Afro-Cuba and the community showed its love for the group.

The ensemble opened immediately with one of its signature Bata Rumba numbers where the three double-headed tambores bata are incorporated in the traditional three conga rumba guaguanco, creating a supercharged version of the classic rumba form. It was a family crowd.

At first, adults, teens and children resisted responding to the clave swing, perhaps to avoid generational embarrassments. But soon enough, the high school age boys and girls, on one side of the street, began an understated demonstration for each other of the uniquely Cuban dance style that accompanies this music. Meanwhile, the adults on the other side of the street started to swing, and many of the smaller children let go in the middle, aping the older people and experimenting on sticks and bottles with the rhythms that permeate the air here.

As the group began the montuno of the second number, a couple broke from the crowd into the open street in front of the ensemble. The man was young, very handsome, and sharply dressed for the occasion. The woman was older, matronly in appearance. But they were the authentic item, demonstrating the classic rumba guaguanco flirtation dance with a sense of humor given their obvious difference in age and social situation.

Other dance couples, young and old, some clearly professionals, gave their interpretations in an increasingly sophisticated match up – almost a dance competition. The children crowded around our video camera, tickled to see themselves on the handycam monitor. As the only foreigners present, we practiced a little rum diplomacy with curious onlookers. Then the band took a break for a formal presentation by the CDR.

A conservatively dressed woman representing the local CDR briefly addressed the crowd, acknowledged the political significance of the occasion and gave an award to one of those present who was recognized for her outstanding community service as a CDR volunteer. During these dry remarks, most of the audience paid little attention. The teenagers were blatantly uninterested and carried on conversations through the proceedings, even as the two or three uniformed policemen looked on.

On the one hand, the CDRs are constructive community organizations that render valuable volunteer services to neighbors for public health and welfare purposes. On the other hand, it is a sort of revolutionary watch institution in which the local CDR leadership passes judgment on the political fitness of individuals in connection with desired job promotions and other government controlled benefits.

Juan advised Chuck to refrain from videotaping the CDR presentation. As a courtesy, before the performance began, Juan and Chuck approached the group’s director, Francisco Zamorra Chirino, to request permission to film the event. Chuck offered to give the group a cash gift, customary in such situations. Senor Zamorra refused and told Chuck to go ahead and record whatever he wanted. I believe he refused because of the event’s connection with a formal government sponsorship.

As the group began the second and last set, Senor Zamorra apologized saying that the performance would end soon so that the group could travel to Havana to play for an event the next afternoon. They then opened the set with a rumba guaguanco song with lyrics that addressed political support for the modern Cuban Revolution. Listeners were encouraged to continue the struggle against the U.S’s economic “blockade,” among other themes – a musical selection no American tourist gets to hear very often. We wondered whether the delivery was sincere, or just part of the group’s performing obligation. No one danced during this number, perhaps remembering that tomorrow the daily struggle would begin again. But tonight, rumba ruled.

For more insights about travel to Cuba, contact the author through his website, PlanetCuba.com.