Mention Cuba in conversation and somebody is likely to reply with a stupid comment about Castro. That’s about all most Americans know (or think they know) about Cuba. Somebody might bring up the Buena Vista Social Club, either the film or the Ry Cooder album, which is a little closer to the proverbial heart of this Caribbean island that cranks out one dance craze after another. Cuba’s gifts to the world—and I’m not talking about sugar, cigars or rum—include Rumba, Mambo, Danzon, Habanera, Chachacha, and Son (the forerunner of Salsa).
It’s generally acknowledged that unless you’re talking about some sort of obscure Indian music or a few other exceptions, Cuban music traces its roots to Africa. Virtually every aspect of Cuban life is still strongly influenced by the West African cultures that were introduced through slavery, mainly Yoruban and Dahomean. This is also evidenced in the link between Afro-Cuban rituals and music. The wellspring of most Afro-Cuban music is the Santeria religion, the worship of the African Orishas or gods brought by African slaves. These deities are part of the Yoruban culture and are the same Orishas worshipped in Brazil and other areas where slaves were brought predominantly from the west coast of Africa.
In addition to the rhythms of Santeria, there is the Rumba, a whole family of rhythms that range from slow, sensuous and provocative dances to faster paced, all-out displays of musical and acrobatic prowess. All are a healthy dose of rhythmic decoration wrapped in mind-bending ways around the central clave pattern. Clave translates to “key” or “code” and is the rhythmic underpinning of Rumba, the base upon which everything else is built. This is music with a sturdy foundation, born out of religion and traditions that define a whole cosmology—“Roots” music if you will, in the truest sense of the word. These are not commercial songs written for a new music video or inspired by a breakup. Nobody can just sit down and write these arrangements. This music was developed by generations and entire cultures of virtuoso musicians. Trying to understand the intricate interplay of the chants and rhythms and dances and strategic spaces in this music is like trying to assemble a 5,000-piece puzzle of the night sky, like defining slavery in terms of clave, love in terms of upbeats, sweat in terms of polyrhythm.
Lucky for us there is a thriving Afro-Cuban scene in Missoula, led by Los Rumberos. This group of students and musicians are Montana’s ambassadors of Cuban Rhythm. Maybe you’ve seen some of them playing outside the Black Dog Café or have been to one of the several Cuban music workshops that they have hosted in the last few years. Los Rumberos consists of Josh Hargesheimer, Jesse Weber, Damon Bruno, Douglas Murray, Jason Murdy, Leslie Hannay and Hohanna Rose, all of whom have been to Cuba to study music at least once. Their teacher, master drummer Miguel Bernal Nodal, recently came to Missoula to found the performance group “Omo Addara,” (Yoruban for “The Good Sons”) and launch a national tour. In addition to Los Rumberos and Miguel Bernal, the group also includes dancers Susana Arenas and Jose Fransisco Barroso, both of whom are highly sought-after performers and teachers in Cuba and abroad.
If you were lucky enough to see the way the Motet reverently cleared the stage for Miguel at their recent show at the Blue Heron, you have some idea of the treat Missoula is in for. We’re talking about a tropical storm that originated in the humid cane fields of Cuba and traveled thousands of miles across ocean, plains and mountains to Montana. The Missoula show will be followed by an all-you-can-drink Salsa party downstairs, and both drum and dance classes will be offered in Missoula Sept. 8.
Missoula’s Cuban invasion begins at the Union Hall on Friday, Sept. 7 and wraps up Sunday, Sept. 9 in Hamilton. For a complete listing of events call Josh at 544-4677.