May 4, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Widely considered the world’s finest rumba group, Cuban dancers and musicians Los Muñequitos de Matanzas pull from a 60-year history to present their traditions and energy as an extended family
The group has returned to the United States for the first time in nine years and will perform at Mass MoCA, in conjunction with Jacob’s Pillow, on Saturday, April 30, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, May 1, at 2 p.m.
In what started around 1951 as a musical group, Diosdado Ramos Cruz joined as the first dancer in 1967 and changed the scope of the act forever.
Now he helms the troupe as director, overseeing his children, grandchildren and more as he spreads the importance of rumba outside of Cuba.
“For me, it’s one of the principal things because from the rumba stems almost all Cuban music,” Cruz said in an interview this week, speaking through translator and company manager Estrella Quiroga. “It is music that was influenced both by Africa and Spain and from there is born all the rest of Cuban music, like the pilon, like the son and mozambique. All of that — even if you go back to the clave, which is in all that music — its roots come out of rumba. From there, everything is born.”
The group is still based in Matanzas, Cuba, something Cruz believes is not only purely logical — both the group and the music are from there, so that’s why they remain there — but as a way of keeping the music alive. Their home base provides an important geographical center to seekers, as well as the opportunity to keep the sounds and moves relevant to the present, rather than removing it from the source and relegating it to a moving museum piece. Through their involvement, rumba is a living thing.
“The music was born there and maintained there,” Cruz said. “Even though we have shared it with the world, and there are places all over the world where it is played, there are people from all over the world who come to them in Matanzas to learn from them about this music.
“This music, it’s a cultural music; it happens on the streets. It’s a familiar music stemming from family,” Quiroga said. “This is a fourth-generation group with many familiar and family roots. If you were to take them out of that context, they would eventually lose that feeling because it’s all based on everyday life. If they’re not within that ambiance, they would lose it. It’s something they live — they don’t just perform it; they live it. It’s everyday life.”
The group had performed music since 1951 but broadened to dance when Cruz officially entered the group in 1967. At the time, it was an all-male effort and Cruz danced alone, but that quickly changed.
“Back then, people would ask ‘What is this? This has always been danced with a woman,’ so we found our first woman to join us and participate as a dancer in the group,” Cruz said
His involvement with the group started much earlier than his first dance with it, however, when he was a child, his grandmother lived with quinto player and founding member Esteban “Chachá” Vega Bacallao. Cruz had constant contact with the group, including a role in intimate performances around his grandmother’s house.
“Even though the Muñequitos is a group based in Matanzas, it was from Matanzas but had moved to Havana, so my grandmother and the house I lived in was in Havana,” Cruz said. “Every time the Muñequitos came to Havana to perform, they would end up at my house playing rumba, and anywhere they went to play, Chacha would carry me as a child on his shoulders, so I, too, was raised in the middle of this music and this group.”
Cruz later began boxing — he was following in the footsteps of his uncle, a world champion — but began doubling up as dancer while still performing as a fighter in the ring.
“The way I became a dancer with the Muñequitos is they were all performing in Matanzas in Carnival and I started dancing,” he said. “From there, the next day, they asked me, ‘Please join the group. We want you as our dancer,’ and so I became the first dancer of the company. At some point, I left the boxing world and became strictly a dancer with the group.”
Cruz began to bring the next generation in after the passing of founding member Ernesto Torriente.
“It is a custom that when a great musician passes, you play for them at their funeral all of the music that this person might have played themselves,” Cruz said. “I took with kids with me, and they went out and they danced together and they were sensations. The director of the group at that time said, ‘Hey let’s bring that little couple into the group. I like how they dance.’ And that’s history since then.”
That was the debut Cruz’s son Barbaro and his daughter Vivian, now in their 40s and still performing with the troupe. Vivian’s son Luis, who started at age 5 and is now 21, is also with the troupe. All of them started around age 5. Three generations of one family inhabit the group, and it’s not just limited to Cruz’s line.
“For instance, in the percussion part right now, three of the members of the percussion ensemble are actually third generation,” Quiroga said. “They are sons of founders and second generation drummers who have passed on. Our quinto player Jesus Alphonso, passed away two years ago, His son Freddy — when I see him on-stage I feel like I’m looking at Jesus, even in his facial gestures — he’s taken over the quinto and plays it just as well as his dad did. His father played that drum for approximately 40 years of his life.”
As with Cruz and his kids, joining the group was the result of a familiarity developed in childhood.
“All these performances are done in their homes, so that’s why the kids have been hearing it from the time of their birth,” Quiroga said. “Now they have a rehearsal space, but this music is secular music that gets played in the home. That’s where it comes from.”
It’s the heritage — and the respect paid to their ancestors within the group — that keeps them going with energy. The troupe itself is the result of both professional and family dynamics — the two strands can not be separated. They are entwined, and the performances are the result of that necessary tangle.
“It functions as a family because of the group and the discipline and also because of the ancestral ties of those who played before us,” Cruz said. “That in itself is almost a law. You don’t break that law. What the ancestors who started the group founded is what we all base this group on — and maintaining that discipline.”
Cruz likens the group to a cabildo, essentially a house of religion created by African slaves in Cuba, although also roughly equivalent to ethnic clubs as they exist in the United States. More than just a performance group, Cruz sees the Muñequitos as the caretakers of history, ancestry and culture. Their main focus is to see that all parts of the music are also ingrained in their own lives and available to the world.
“These musicians, to me, are all folklorists,” Cruz said. “They practice the religions and the music. They don’t just perform it; they actually practice it in everyday life.
“We’re not like another folklore group that today they play folklore and the next day they might form a modern dance company or play popular music. We are there to cultivate and continue what was given to us as a legacy from the ancestors who started this group. I’ve been in this group 45 years, and it’s almost like a swearing in. I began the Muñequitos and I will die with the Muñequitos.”
March 6, 2010 § Leave a Comment
It certainly qualifies as an irony — and a pretty amusing one — that yesterday’s commie revolutionary sex symbol Che Guevara has been consigned in the popular imagination to some striking T-shirts worn by kids who probably only vaguely know who he was.
These kids are more concerned with buying into a fashion revolution than participating in a political one, that’s for sure. And it’s cute that Che’s face can still be utilized to offend somebody — like calling Obama a socialist comes off as a quaint, old-fashioned insult.
One further irony — or perhaps it’s more of a misfortune — is that Che really doesn’t inspire much more than that years later. In the 21st century, it’s his image that captures the imagination more than his ideals, fueled by his own Jack Kerouac phase. With buddy, motorcycle and memoir, Che isn’t so much inspiring progressive politics for Latin America as he is film adaptations of his book.
Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon take a dispassionate and reasoned approach in their “Che: A Graphic Biography” — one of the latest in exemplary Hill and Wang non-fiction graphic novel line — and this “just the facts, ma’am” motif is perfectly suited for younger reader.
It’s actually hard to explain in any kind of simple terms what exactly Che was. A revolutionary — what in the world does that mean to a kid in 2010? In terms of Jacobson and Colon — who have previously done fine work in their adaptation of the 9-11 Report and their self-penned follow-up, a history of the United States following that dark day — it means acknowledging the sex appeal without letting it obscure the meat on the bones in the career of a radical whose specifics are fuzzy in the memory.
Che — born Ernesto Guevara de la Serna — is a classic example of what Elvis Costello phrased as “a fine idea at the time, but now he’s a brilliant mistake.” An Argentinean rich kid with sharp intelligence, Che blamed many of the problems of Latin America — probably correctly — on the United States. For him, U.S. corporations lurked behind every corner, deep in the shadows, owning all opportunity in Central and South American countries and bleeding the inhabitants dry. No argument there.
Che’s passion for the people — and his embrace of communism as the solution — catapulted him into history, mostly thanks to the associations these led him to have. Many of these connections were made through his rich girlfriend — a woman he also took money from and begrudgingly married, even though she wasn’t quite up to his exacting standards of attraction.
No worries — even as Che winds his way into Fidel Castro’s embrace, he manages to callously betray two wives. He fights for the common man, but the women — they are another story.
The narrative cascades through Che’s career as a right-hand man to Castro onto his wind-down as a captain of his own revolution in the Congo — a disaster — and Bolivia. This last effort was where he met his fate in a naive attempt to replicate the situation in Vietnam as a way of drawing in the United States and creating a nightmare that Bolivia could climb out from somehow.
It’s the candor with which Colon and Jacobson deliver Che’s story that makes the book. They are obviously interested in presenting a complicated situation — one involving legitimate views presented through a sometimes stumbling messenger. They capture both the rightness and the wrongness of Che and the revolutions — including Cuba’s — that he stood at the center of.
Half a century later, communist revolution did not move like a fury through the world, freeing ordinary workers from tyranny — quite the opposite. With this in mind, it is perhaps best that Che is relegated to the flimsy adoration brought from T-shirt design, effectively placing him somewhere between Winnie the Pooh and Spongebob Squarepants in importance.
April 3, 2009 § Leave a Comment
Saul Landau’s 1969 documentary “Fidel!” takes the viewer into a world that is not only lost but quite unknown. It’s a largely uncritical portrait of Cuban revolutionary leader Castro as he goes about his day, allowing him to rattle off the Gospel According to Fidel and the cameras to take in the reality of Cuba 10 years after the revolution.
Americans older than me can probably conjure up memories of Castro as a scary, unknown quantity — a forest guerilla attacking the solid forces of big business and American interests — but for many my age, he was a hat, a beard and a cigar that added up to something frightening.
Or, at least, we were told it added up to something frightening, and it seemed so, since Americans weren’t allowed to go to Cuba. It was that bad — we couldn’t even step on its soil. Or buy its cigars. In the 1970s, this put Cuba on the same level as scary East Germany — the epitome of the mysterious bleakness that communism caused on a society.
Decades later, it’s a far more complicated picture — Cuba is a place populated by real people and has its good and bad. After years of representation by the expatriates in Florida, a more measured view of the country has come into play for many Americans.
Landau’s film certainly doesn’t examine any of the larger questions. Instead, it allows Castro to lead the crew around on a charming site visit that gives viewers the greatest hits of Cuba at the moment in time. It’s a struggling country, trying to tie its resources and keep its people on track as they forge to a future of education and progress that is part of a national collective.
The real importance of the film is its unusual access to Castro himself. Not only does Landau and his crew get to follow him as he checks in on collective farms, building projects and baseball games, they get to hang around for his breakfast, his strategy meetings and indulge in picking his brain for some extended monologues in regard to his philosophy of rule. With a twinkle in his eye, the revolutionary often reveals himself as intelligent and charming, if fairly intense.
And if the film threatens to drift toward one-sided celebration, Landau includes scores of scenes with a dissatisfied citizenry complaining about conditions and services to Castro’s face. He also gets to talk to some political prisoners who gripe about their sentences. There’s plenty of surprise dissent in here, which makes this a valuable timepiece, capturing what became of the legend after the revolution and the Russian missiles.
It’s an unapologetic and extremely unique window into a person and life cut off from so many Americans — mandatory viewing for anyone seeking out a ring-side seat to history, or just a clear-headed examination of the realities of a collective society.
October 24, 2007 § Leave a Comment
For Jorge Navarro, having a band has been a way to exorcise old demons and connect with his Cuban heritage, all the while being able to make some loud noise. The Cuban Cowboys — including Navarro, Luca Benedetti on guitar, Madelyn Burgess on bass, and Kid Chocolat on drums — bill themselves as the “the world’s greatest Cuban surf rock” and build their sound from various bits and pieces that include the Pixies and traditional Cuban sounds like mambo or montuno.
What binds diverse musical styles together is Navarro’s stage persona, the Cuban Cowboy himself, a leering, over-the-top manifestation of ultra Latin manhood insinuating itself on anyone it can grope.
“He has the bluster, the machismo, the Latin lover and those stereotypes of the swarthy, octopus-y, kind of hands on, sexual harassing kind of guy,” said Navarro. “But I mess with it a little bit and I throw in a little sexual ambiguity. The character, you don’t know what he is — is he straight, is he gay, is he a swinger? He’s just wild, he’s an equal opportunity sexual beast.”
Just like dear old Dad
The character began as a way for Navarro to communicate his observations on the stereotypes of Latin manhood, but the manners and attitude are very much rooted in the behavior of his father, from whose life the band gets their name. Prior to the Bay of Pigs, CIA agents were training Cuban ex-patriates in the Everglades and their nickname for the gun-runners in training were “Cuban Cowboys.” Navarro’s father, a Havana-born sea captain, was one of these men.
“He was running guns up to two and a half years prior to the Bay of Pigs invasion,” said Navarro. “He was shot in the ass with a big giant piece of shrapnel by a heavily-armed bunch of Castro’s men that were waiting for them on the beach.”
Navarro and his father were mildly estranged for much of Navarro’s life — they rarely spoke at all. Much of his father’s movements after his time as an arms smuggler, when he joined the merchant marines, were of use to Navarro in his creative outlet, a way of turning the negatives into a great possible.
“He went off and became a storied philanderer and I ended up writing a lot of songs about him,” said Navarro. “He was a ship captain and cheated on my mom left and right, so a lot of the songs’ subject matter I take from my family experience – or just my dad’s insane Cuban man ways.”
Navarro never had the chance to approach his father with the songs he had written — he died five years ago — but that doesn’t mean his memories and impressions haven’t been reconnected somehow with his past. Whenever the band has the opportunity to move outside of the indie rock circle with which it is associated in the United States and play for a Cuban audience, they find a deep connection, even with an older audience, as they found out being part of a Havana Harlem Music Festival at Aaron Davis Hall in New York City.
“The audience was made up of 60- to 70-somethings, Cubans that had had been in the States for many years but were very steeped in the Cuban diasporic traditions,” said Navarro. “and the whole festival was about Cuban music then and now, Cuban music in a contemporary setting in this country. We were the only rock band. We played the first song and two people walked out, but by the third song they got into it and by the end people were coming up and little old ladies in tears saying how sweet it was to hear songs about your family and how you feel about Cuba. And you take your parents memories and you build them up into these productions. It was really heartening.”
Navarro has been a musician since the late 1980s, but had a much different trajectory prior to the Cuban Cowboys. After a five-year stint with a band that signed a record deal and then was dropped before anything was ever released, Navarro found himself back in Miami, concentrating on a doctorate in bilingual education and trying to find a way to do what he wanted to do.
“I was trying to find a way to have my cake and eat it, too,” said Navarro. “I was this band/musician guy, and had been, one way or another, involved in classrooms; I taught high school English. I went from teaching to getting a doctoral fellowship — basically getting paid to go to school. I was like ‘Cool! I’ll live as boho a life as I can and find a way to use music and still get to rock out in the preparation of teachers who are getting ready to work with Spanish speaking students.’”
It was during this phase that he came up with the character of the Cuban Cowboy as a way of training the teachers for their bilingual work in a fun way, but taking on the persona and writing the songs that accompanied him began to take hold over anything else.
“Three chapters into my dissertation I was like ‘F it, I’m putting my money on pop culture!” said Navarro. “I sold everything, told my committee I was going to do research in New York City and took off.”
Navarro started playing coffee shops and open mikes constantly. Eventually, other people wanted to join in and he is now on his fourth configuration of the Cuban Cowboys. It’s this version that has seen the biggest changes for Navarro. He moved to San Francisco with his wife following a contractual dispute with a label the band had originally signed to. Now Navarro juggles a newborn and the distance between band members — the others are in New York City — and shopping around their recordings for release.
“It’s basically me getting flown in and the bass player getting flown in,” said Navarro. “We’ll rehearse, if we have four or five rehearsals, that’s great, if not, we’ll rehearse in hotel rooms, and then we’ll do the shows. Because of the geographical separations, we’ve had just a handful of shows this year. It’s just really difficult keeping it together, but we’re hoping that something will come around with one of the labels we are talking to now.”
The United States isn’t the only market for the band, though — they have found a lot of success in Europe and Central and South America, where there are robust audiences for Cuban sounds. Cuba is open for tourism from Europe and this has lead to a direct connection between the locations that the U.S. just doesn’t have. The band tries to spend about a month each summer playing in Europe.
And if this music thing doesn’t quite work out, he’s still got some time to fall back on the academics.
“My committee chair died,” said Navarro, “so my university gave me an additional five years to finish my dissertation. I got the ultimate procrastinator’s wish. I’ve got one and a half years left.”