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Music Scene Illustration: Nelson Ponce. Illustration: Nelson Ponce.

The DNA of the rumba in 20 names

Despite being one of the most authentic components of our culture, the rumba, born and raised in the marginal neighborhoods and ports of the west of the Island, has had to settle for a long time with the largely informal nature of its practices. It is a fact that most of its performers were not recognized as artists in their own right during their lifetime, neither by the music or dance industry nor by the non-specialized consumer. 

If we think of the individual names of rumberos known by the general public, the fingers of one hand are enough to count Chano Pozo, Celeste Mendoza, Tata Güines, Merceditas Valdés or the Abreu brothers —members of Los Papines, which unfairly leaves in oblivion a host of singers, dancers and teachers of this genre whose voices, hands, shoulders and legs are an inseparable part of the collective identity of Cuba as a nation.

It is impossible to mention them all in a list, but in the names that appear here undoubtedly big we want to honor hundreds of artists in several generations of rumberas and rumberos from Cuba. I hope this rapprochement beyond the well-deserved designation of the rumba as Cultural Heritage of Humanity serve to bring our youngest readers closer to delving into a genre that, often against the grain of the vital suffering of its creators, has given us so much joy.

 Joseph Rosario Oviedo Malanga 

Famous rumbero from Matanzas, born in the area of Unión de Reyes, of a slave mother. He was a virtuoso dancer from Columbia (a variant of the rumba that had its genesis precisely in the suburbs of the towns of Matanzas, in the hamlets around the sugar mills), which he adorned with incidents and filigree such as dancing with bottles, sharp knives and quick steps on tiptoes. He was part of the first traditional group of Afro-Cuban roots that was known in Cuba as Los Rumberos, a group that initially conquered the local stages through a very striking show of dance and music between cajons, cowbells, handkerchiefs and all kinds of capers. In Havana, he left his fame as a dancer well established among the rumberos of the Jesús María and Los Sitios neighborhoods. According to testimonies of those who were lucky enough to see dance Malanga, the corridors and adventures that he carried out were surprising. His death is surrounded by legends that include the murder at the hands of rumberos competitors, using ground glass mixed with their food. Many rumbas remember his skill as a dancer and the loss suffered by the genre with his death: “…I feel a voice calling me /Malanga died”… “Unión de Reyes cries / the eldest timbero died”. In 2020, his intense and mysterious life gave rise to a biographical novel that Radio Progreso broadcast.

Andrea Baro 

There are many outstanding women in Matanzas singing and dancing. The book by the young musicologist Roxana Coz tells wonders of that rumbera strain. Together with those of Estanislá Luna, the stories of Andrea Baró are among the oldest and meager, but also among those that cannot be missed, even though there is hardly any evidence. As little as has been found of his life, his name is a must because the last name Baró is part of the genetics of Matanzas folklore. Many were the slaves and descendants of the central Santa Rita Baro, from Jovellanos, who with the surname of their "owner" spread throughout Matanzas, Camagüey and in eastern areas of the Island, bearing a heritage full of songs, taps, ritual ceremonies and rumba. They say that Andrea was devoted to Oggun and that in her house the holy parties and the rumbas lasted for days. The Baró dance was immortalized in montunos that many rumberos still sing, because not only did it know the secrets of the African spiritual tradition, it also crossed the borders of time and prejudice, and was the first to be launched as “Columbian”, snatching rumba steps only thought for men. Many others, years later, would follow his path.

Snow Fresneda 

A dancer and singer, this petite woman performed for many years only for her family, friends, or neighbors in the neighborhood. But so much art could not be for so few. He was part of several groups of keys and guaguancó choirs and the group Los Roncos, led by Ignacio Piñeiro. He was a star figure in the comparsa Las Bolleras, where he began in 1937 and also appeared in the societies Los Cocheros, Minerva and Jovenes del Cayo. In the 1960s he worked with the musicologist Argeliers León in the show songs and legends at the National Theater, singing to Oshún and dancing to Yemayá, orisha who is said to have been the most complete interpreter. Later it passed to the National Folkloric Ensemble. Nieves Fresneda was a faithful collaborator of the dancer, choreographer, teacher, researcher and founder of modern dance in Cuba, Ramiro Guerra.

Florencio Street Catalino  

Also know as Mulense, was a founding conductor and main composer (in addition to a maruga, guagua or catá dressing table) of the rumba ensemble Guaguancó Matancero (1952), which emerged from spontaneous sociocultural interactions in the La Marina and Simpson neighborhoods It is the genesis of Los Muñequitos de Matanzas. He led the establishment of a way of singing that revolutionized Cuban rumba, with the duet voices of Esteban Lantrí Saldiguera, raw voice; Hortensio Alfonso smallpox, third voice; and Juan Bosco, in the inspirations. He is also one of those responsible for a peculiar rhythm that still marks the identity of the Matanzas rumba, with percussionists such as Ángel Pelladito, Daddy Mesa, Chacha and Gregorio Diaz goyito.

 Alberto Zayas The Melodious 

He is considered one of the most important guaguancó vocalists/composers in the history of rumba. At the age of 14, he already lived in the Havana neighborhood of El Cerro and sang in key choirs, the precursor ensembles of guaguancó, where he earned his nickname. In 1925 he moved to Guanabacoa. According to various accounts, Zayas played with various son ensembles such as the Sexteto Habanero and the Sexteto Boloña, before focusing on rumba and other Afro-Cuban genres. He was an informant and collaborator of the ethnomusicologist Fernando Ortiz who in 1941 invited the North American anthropologist Harold Courlander to an Abakuá ceremony in Guanabacoa. Part of the 10 hours of recorded material preserved in the Archives of Traditional Music (Indiana University) emerged from this meeting, some of which were released by Folkways Records in 1951 under the title of Cult Music of Cuba. Alberto Zayas is the author of the first rumba that became famous in Cuba through radio and jukeboxes, he lives well, which was popularized by the singer Roberto Maza together with the Lulú Yonkori Group, also known as the Folkloric Group. 

Manuela Alonso Valdes 

He reigned in Cayo Hueso singing and dancing in rumbas of heated lots, and was the main figure in comparsas such as Las Bolleras and Los Componedores de Batea. They say that he danced with Chano Pozo on several occasions and that he appeared on the RHC radio station, Cadena Azul, as well as in Gilberto Valdés shows. Her prestige accredited her before fans and scholars, and, when the National Folkloric Ensemble was founded, she was one of the essentials, along with other greats, such as Nieves Fresneda. From there he sowed another path full of successes. They say that while dancing yambú, her feet went to the leisurely rhythm of her very wide skirt, revealing a deep knowledge of ancestral dances. That unique art was recorded in films like Romance of Palmar and It happened in Havana (1938), Yambao (1957) and The Beauty of the Alhambra (1989). 

Gonzalo Ascencio Uncle Tom  

His devotion to the rumba began very early, on the lot where he was born in the Cayo Hueso neighborhood. As a child, he worked as a shoe shiner, newsboy, bricklayer's helper, and day laborer while in elementary school. In the 1920s, the family frequently moved from one neighborhood to the next, settling in Guanabacoa. According to researcher Leonardo Acosta, there was no guaguancó composer like Uncle Tom, to whose inspiration hundreds of pieces are due, so many that not even the author kept count and, because of this, he was often unfairly stripped of authorship, due to malice or carelessness. His is the one that resonates in our memory as a popular expression of racism, Chocolates cannot go to the candy party or comfort yourself like me, who has been part of the repertoire of multiple performers, including Miguelito Valdés and Celeste Mendoza. He was a showman, they say; the same danced, sang that played the fifth (the main drum used in the rumba).

Mongo Santamaria  

Immersed since he was a child in the world of African and Cuban rhythms, in his native Jesús María, he soon stood out as one of the great specialists of congas and bongos. He collaborated with the great Chano Pozo and his Conjunto Azul, with the second orchestra of Arsenio Rodríguez and with Matamoros. Since the late 1940s, he has been working in the United States and Mexico as a percussionist for various bands, including Pérez Prado's and a decade later Tito Puente's, at the height of the birth of Afro-Cuban jazz, a phenomenon of which he is an unavoidable part. . Already in the 1960s, he worked with Willie Bobo and Cal Tjader, in California, where he discovered and adopted bossa nova, led by Elis Regina. Then he began to lead his own orchestras incorporating musicians such as Joao Donato or Chick Corea and achieving sales successes such as Watermelon Man, version of the play by Herbie Hancock. Late in his career, he played with Dizzy Gillespie and Jack McDuff. He acted in several Cuban and Mexican films, and has a vast discography as a soloist and as a performer. Was the first Cuban to win a Grammy Award, for his album Down, in 1977.

Carlos Embale

It is better known as a sonero, but according to scholar Rosa Marquetti, in the guaguancó he was melodious and in tune like few others, with a “fighty” tone, of attack, an incomparable rhythm and great improvisational capacity. He was born in Jesús María and sang with various rumba groups, including Los Roncos and Pello El Afrokán. During the second half of the 1950s, he participated in a series of important recordings with Alberto Zayas's Grupo Lulú Yonkori, some of them in duet with Roberto Maza. Embale hardly left Cuba. It is said that he did it for the first time in 1979, when Odilio Urfé took him to New York with Pello El Afrokán, to participate in a folk music event that culminated in a performance at Carnegie Hall. Participated in the documentary The party by Oscar Valdés (1978) and on multiple albums. In the notes on one of them Senior Rumbero, edited by Egrem in 1992, the respected North American scholar John Storm Roberts referred: “One of the great voices of Cuban music (…). But its roots were in the street rumba, in the cajon rumba. He has preserved this legacy and amplified it with material from other traditions, as shown in this superlative CD where Embale sings with four different guaguancó groups, brilliant documents of this music”. 

Evaristo Aparicio Fresneda the rogue 

Percussionist and singer born in the Jesús María neighborhood. Perhaps one of the most performed rumbero authors by important Cuban and foreign groups. True older timba player both in the lots and neighborhoods as well as with the professional orchestras, since he mastered the touches of Yoruba and Bantu origins. He was a composer of well-known rumbas such as Xiomara, famous in its jazz version by the group Irakere o the smoke ball, key in Los Van Van's repertoire. 

mario dreke chavalonga 

He was born in Atarés, a neighborhood where he founded a rumbero empire. His relationship with Chano Pozo contributed a lot to his knowledge of percussion. According to reports, he came to sing and play with up to seven congas. He appeared in cabarets like Montmartre and in every rumba he appeared. He danced, played and composed for the comparsa Los Marqueses de Atarés created in 1940, of which he was the founder. He lived for a while in Mexico and met Benny Moré. He dedicated his life to the rumba and was a great connoisseur and performer of religious music of African origin. He founded the group Ensila Mundo and is credited with creating the tahona rhythm in the West. He was a member of the National Folkloric Ensemble and participated in several Cuban films such as It happened in Havana Abakua Rhapsody and  The Last Supper.

 Francis Aguabella 

 It is said that he started in Afro-Cuban ritual music as a way to overcome a succession of tragedies that marked his childhood. The truth is that from a very young age he showed a special aptitude for percussion, and began in several Afro-Cuban percussion traditions, such as the batá, the iyesá, the arará, the olokún and the abakuá, so it can be said that he grew up within of the rumba Already in Havana, he was the fifth drummer of the comparsa Los Dandys de Belén. By the early 1950s, working at the Cabaret Sans Souci, he was recruited by Katherine Dunham's dance company with which he toured much of Europe and Latin America from 1954 to 1957. He developed a unique style of funky Chicano rock, where the congas have the same melodic importance as the electric guitar, becoming the first musician to play five congas at the same time. He was a member of numerous orchestras such as those of Dámaso Pérez Prado, René Touzet, Peggy Lee, Jorge Santana Bad and the famous Weather Report, and left several relevant rumba compositions. 

Carlos potato Valdes 

He was born in the Havana neighborhood of Los Sitios, where his father, a longshoreman and guitarist, taught him to play the tres very young, to which he added marímbula, botija, shekere, tambourine, box drum and double bass. known as potato Due to his short stature, he was widely regarded as one of the most innovative and imaginative conga players Latin jazz has seen. During his Cuban stage he was part of La Gloria Matancera, the Conjunto Kubavana and the Conjunto Casino. In the 1950s, bored with the traditional method of tuning congas (heating the leather over a fire) and with the idea of giving it greater precision, he installed a metal ring and some keys to tighten it. This model, built in series by the latin-percussion, would become the instrument standard. In 1954, he emigrated from Havana to New York, where he continued his prolific career as a backing musician working with such greats as Herbie Mann, Kenny Dorham, Art Blakey, Tito Puente, Cachao and Mongo Santamaría. He accompanied Dizzy Gillespie and Quincy Jones on long tours of Europe. He acted and composed the title song of The Bill Cosby Show. He was the leader of his own band, Afrojazzia. In 1995 he recorded the album rhythm and candela with his fellow percussionists Changuito and Orestes Vilató. Likewise, together with Giovanni Hidalgo and Cándido Camero, he published an album in 2000 entitled The Conga Kings. That year he appeared in the documentary film Calle 54 by Fernando Trueba. 

 Miguel Angel Mesa Aspirin 

The son of a Cuban and a Jamaican, he was the eldest of the prestigious family from the Cruz Verde neighborhood in Guanabacoa, known as Los Aspirina, among whom are also the famous Luis Chacón and Mario Jáuregui. He showed off his slender stature as a Columbian dancer, and in the fifth he also expressed himself as a tall rumbero. But his voice was, until his last days, the most virtuous gift granted by his Caribbean ancestors. He was known as The Knight of the Rumba. In a party show in Atarés, it is seen that Juan de Dios Ramos (another great), kisses his hand when he finishes improvising, and The Goyor puts his hand on her forehead. Such was the respect accorded to this gentleman. He founded a rumba rock in Guanabacoa and participated in various albums such as Rumba Rhapsody, The Rumba is Cuban and Where were you, acerekó? One of his last testimonies was the multi-awarded audiovisual Arango Brothers and the Stars of Folklore', from the Bis Music label in 2011, material required to learn about the cultural transcendence of Miguel Ángel Mesa and the Los Aspirina clan.

Calixto Callava 

Inspired composer of rumbas, sones and boleros, he grew up in the neighborhood of Belén, cradle of great rumberos. To escape the heartbreaking poverty that surrounded him, he decided one day to stowaway into the hold of a ship bound for Mexico and try his luck in the unknown. Chance brought him together with the rumberos Pancho Quinto and El Chori who worked with him as porters in the Havana port, to create the group Guaguancó Marítimo Portuario Zona 5, which became Yoruba Andabo. Author of numerous topics such as i miss it, the brave tomb, the congo, tasty guaguanco, my puchunga of love, useless waiting, Earth trembles, Tumbayaya, My guaguancó does give the time, was performed and recorded by Vicentico Valdés, Pello El Afrokán, Los Van Van, Los Papines, among others.

Francis Hernandez Mora Pancho Fifth 

He was the founder of Yoruba Andabo and one of the "godfathers" of guarapachangueo, a style of Cuban rumba. Born in the neighborhood of Belén, still a teenager he joined the troupe Los Dandys, where he adopted the nickname that would accompany him in his artistic life. During the first 50, he played in the comparsas Los Componedores de Batea and Los Guaracheros de Regla. He then briefly joined La Sonora Matancera, which at the time had Celia Cruz as lead singer. He was also one of the founding members of Guaguancó Marítimo Portuario Zona 5. He began a solo career in the 1990s after gaining international attention through his collaborations with Jane Bunnett and Spirit of Havana. He was a true master of the batá drums (Yoruba ceremonial drums), as well as the fifth. 

Ricardo Gomez Rivero Santa Cruz  

He lived in the neighborhood of Atarés, where he met the also important rumberos chavalonga and Uncle Tom. He began his artistic career in the comparsas Los Marqueses, La Jardinera and Los Dandys de Belén. In 1962, as a professor of folklore  as a singer and musician He was part of the faculty at the newly founded National School of Art in Cuba. He was the founder of the National Folkloric Ensemble and was also a member of the Rumberos de Cuba groups and the Cuban Contemporary Dance percussion group. His participation in the latter, together with the teacher and choreographer Ramiro Guerra, is vital in shows such as Panorama of Cuban music and dances, queens and kings, Splendor, yoruba suite, Sulkary and golden bird, which took our musical and dance traditions to many stages around the world. The work is yours Compa Galletano what do they interpret Lace, potato and other relevant Cuban rumberos in the documentary 54th street.

 Gregorio Hernandez Rios The Goyo  

He stood out as a rumba dancer, singer and composer, as well as a promoter and researcher, helping to train several generations of musicians. He was a full professor at the Higher Institute of Art and served as manager, stage director and folk adviser. Founder and teacher for 25 years of the National Folkloric Ensemble. He participated in numerous documentaries, films, commercials and plays. He produced the album La Rumba for the Unicorn label. His story. His last and careful work towards Cuban percussion from the direction of the Obba-Ilú group covered the practical and theoretical spheres, making evident his artistic potentialities and his ability to promote and preserve Afro-Cuban cultural heritage. For 15 years he was a member of the National Board of Directors of the now-defunct PERCUBA Society. He was awarded the Cubadisco Honor Award for his outstanding contributions to Cuban music.

Orlando Lace Rivers 

Puntilla, who in the 1970s was already developing as a percussion teacher at the National School of Art (Ena), arrived in the United States in 1981 with the Mariel boatlift. Very soon he brought new dimensions of Afro-Cuban percussion to the burgeoning Latin music scene in the United States, teaching and mentoring many. After his first album as a leading man (From Havana To New York, 1983) recorded a live album with his group Nueva Generación, Spirit Rhythms (Latitudes LAT50603) in 1987, and two others (This Night Becomes A Rumba and A Calm In The Fire Of Dances) with Deep Rumba, a kind of Latin Jazz All-Stars, in which relevant figures of jazz and Cuban music participate, such as Horacio The black Hernandez, Giovanni Hidalgo, Ruben Blades, and Jerry Gonzalez. At the beginning of the 2000s, Puntilla resumed contact with the rumberos of Havana with whom he also recorded a couple of records, in which Rumberos de Cuba, Yoruba Andabo, Conjunto Clave y Guaguancó and Conjunto Estrellas Cubanas appear, among others. His last phonogram, directing the Conjunto Todo Rumbero, was a fabulous tribute to the work of another great: Gonzalo Ascencio Uncle Tom

Teresa Polledo 

Many women deserve a special place in the history of the rumba, because they have jumped the barriers of prejudice. The Villamil family has many, one of which is Teresita Polledo. He was born in La Marina, just one month after the creation of Guaguancó Matancero. Florencio Calle, its founder, took her in as a daughter and taught her how to sing with that spectacular “leave” that only the voices of the yumurino valley have. He joined the group Emi Keke, directed by Felipe García Villamil, later he sang with Afrocuba de Matanzas and in Havana with Clave and Guaguancó, until he joined the payroll of the National Folkloric Ensemble, where he left deep traces along with other outstanding voices such as the distinguished Zenaida Armenteros and Amelia Pedroso. He worked in plastic actions by master Manuel Mendive and, more recently, in the English film the day of flowers, with the dancer Carlos Acosta.

Cary Ten. Photo: Courtesy of the musicologist. cary ten Musicologist, music producer and cultural manager. Manager of the Cuban group Los Muñequitos de Matanzas for more than 20 years. She is the deputy director of Cubadisco, the largest music event in Cuba. More posts
Avatar photo Darsi Fernández Hyperlink with human figure. He has a bad memory only for what suits him. He dreams of retiring to read. More posts

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  1. Irais Huerta says:

    Darsi, your articles are very interesting, fundamentally because of the directness of the writing and the high level of information. Hopefully they reach many artists, on-site researchers and music students, especially those related to publishers. Whenever they come to my articles like these I will share them with pleasure. Congratulations and greetings!

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