For 65 years now, Cuba's most important rumba group, Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, has earned admiration with their drums, singing, and dance, in an all-encompassing art form.
They are celebrating these six decades as one of the most recognized groups cultivating rumba, a musical genre which last year was declared World Intangible Heritage by the United Nations Organization for Education, Science, and Culture (UNESCO).
The group, founded in 1952 as the Guaguancó Matancero in the Marina neighborhood of Matanzas (some 100 kilometers east of Havana), have since performed on stages in the United States, Britain, Spain, Costa Rica, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Canada, where they have garnered praise from audiences and critics alike.
The year following their founding, the group recorded a first 78 rpm record with the Cuban Puchito label, including the tracks "Los Beodos" and "Los Muñequitos," with the latter becoming a hit, and leading to a name change: Los Muñequitos de Matanzas.
Recognized as innovators within the genre, they have continued to produce successful recordings over the years, including titles like Guaguancó, Rumba Abierta, Cantar Maravilloso, Rumba Caliente, Rumberos de Corazón (on their 50th anniversary), Tambor De Fuego and De Palo Pa' Rumba.
Another stellar moment in their career came in 2001, when the group recorded three numbers ("Lengua De Obbara," "Cuba–España," and "El Jardín") on the album La rumba Soy Yo, bringing together the best rumberos in Cuba for the anthological disc, winning a Latin Grammy in the category of Best Folk Album.
Produced by musicologist Cary Diez, with compositor/director Joaquín Betancourt, the album includes different styles of rumba, featuring singers Aramís Galindo, Issac Delgado, Sixto Llorente, Haila, and Mayito Rivera. To be heard are solos by Tata Güines and Lázaro Dagoberto González ("Un violín Pa´ Chano") as well as the groups Yoruba Andabo, Clave y Guaguancó, and Los Papines.
The Muñequitos were on tour in the U.S. that year, winning over the public and the press, which described them as "the essence of Cuba's musical soul" (San Diego Union Tribune); "reigning regents of rumba" (San Francisco Chronicle); "truly keepers of a sacred flame" (Latin Beat Magazine); and "living lessons in 500 years of Afro-Cuban history" (Arborweb).
Although the founders were genuine traditional rumberos, trained on the streets, their percussion was high quality, and coexisting within their numbers were a variety of themes: religious syncretism, the orishas, and everyday secular topics.
It was not until the end of the 1960s that Los Muñequitos incorporated dance, which has contributed to a more complete presentation on stage.
Rumba includes a great variety of formats, all linked to African culture, although three principal styles have been identified: Yambú and Columbia (originating in and typical of Matanzas), and Guaguancó (originating in and typical of La Habana).
In terms of repertory, almost all of their numbers were created by members of the group, which no doubt favored the development of a unique sound that distinguished the Muñequitos' style. They now have to their credit more than 100 rumbas, and traditional call and response pieces.
Musicologist María Teresa Linares has emphasized that Los Muñequitos "have preserved the impeccable style of their teachers, their founders; they also preserve their repertory, with current topics about their own experiences, and numbers based on ancient rumbas and clave chants," (La Jiribilla).
An eminent Cuban academic, Dr. Linares affirmed, "Nothing is foreign to today's rumba. Technology allows its approach to contemporary sounds, without losing the essence of the tradition. With this, we have incorporated the electric bass on the percussion plane, the violin in spiritual chants, also the electric keyboard and the modern sonority of a jazz band, which has been included since the 20s, when Cuban musicians - Rita Montaner, Xavier Cugat, first, and later, Frank Grillo, Mario Bauzá and Chano Pozo - took the rumba and son to the Latino barrio in New York. The rumba and afro reached Paris and Spain with Rita, the Sexteto Nacional, and Antonio Machín."
The anniversary celebrations began, of course, in the same neighborhood where on October 9, 1952, the group was founded, La Marina, followed by a national tour. The first stop on October 10 (Independence Day) was the city of Bayamo, as part of Cuban Culture Day festivities.
The legendary rumberos of Los Muñequitos de Matanzas remain true to their origins, their tradition - adding contemporary sound, but with the drums still beating as they did 65 years ago.