The Heartbeat Of Cuba

If Cuba is alive with music, its heartbeat is just 60 miles east of Havana in the city of Matanzas. CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Alison Stewart went there to hear real Cuban rumba and interview a legendary group of drummers, dancers and singers who use their music to tell the story of Afro Cubans.

Matanzas is home to one of Cuba's most celebrated rumba groups, Los Muñequitos de Matanzas. Their director, 65-year-old Diosdado Ramos, says, "Rumba is about what's happening, about history, about everyday."

A bar called The Rooster, now in ruins, is where Los Muñequitos formed one night in 1952, says Ramos, when a group of dock workers decided they, too, could be rumberos.

Cha Cha Baccalao is one of the last living founders.

ChaCha Bacalao.
"In the beginning we did it for fun," says Bacalao. "It was a pleasure to get together and play because we were born rumberos, we made rumbas since we were kids, so we went to this party, the rum appeared and a case of beer, and we began playing."

Record producer Ned Sublette heard Los Muñequitos eight years ago while in Cuba. Since then, he has helped produce six CDs for the group. Sublette wants the world to know that the cocktail dance craze of the '30s spelled r-h-u-m-b-a bears no resemblance to the authentic form, spelled r-u-m-b-a.

Real rumba is a mix of African drumming and flamenco rhythms with lyrics sung in both Spanish and African languages.

Record producer Ned Sublette.
"You get a real uncut flavor, just the flavor of what Cuba is and how it's always been," says Sublette. "It's both contemporary and it carries the memory of all the way back, as long as there have been black people in Cuba. You can hear echoes of that in the lyrics."

Rumba is firmly rooted in the history of Matanzas. Two hundred years ago this city was a major port in the African slave trade. Their descendants are still here, carrying on the traditions through religion and music. Slaves in Cuba, unlike those in the United States, were allowed to keep their drums.

Using the heel of his hand, sometimes the palm or maybe the fingertips, drummer and musical director Jesus Alfonso adds complex rhyhms to the rumba mix. "Percussion is one of the elements of our folklore," says Alfonso. "It's a combination of dance, song and percussion. It's that whole combination that makes a rumba," he explains.

And so does family, at least for Los Muñequitos, who owe their survival to keeping the group a family affair.

You don't join Los Muñequitos. You are born into it. Ivan is a drummer like his father, Jesus. Several generations of the Peres family sing. Diosdado Ramos'son Barbaro is a dancer, as is his daughter Vivian and his 10-year-old grandson Luis, making him the youngest Muñequito.

"There are times when we perform that we have to stop for some people who have gone into a trance and, for example, my son has cut himself with the machete during a dance and not even know it. Because you play with your heart, you get your heart into it," says Diosdado.

Religion plays as important a role as music in the lives of Los Muñequitos. Ramos is not only their director, he is a babalao, a priest in the Santeria religion.

So far, the performances of Los Muñequitos have remained pure, due in part to the relative isolation of Cuba and Matanzas. However, that's beginning to change.

The group has toured Europe and the United States four times and will return this summer. The performance in New York City in 1998 was part of a non-profit cultural and educational exchange program, which is the only way a Cuban group can play in the States.

"If I give a Cuban musician a hundred dollars, put it in the man's hands and say, 'play a track for me,' that's not kosher under U.S. law," says Ned Sublette.

In fact, it's a felony under the current U.S. embargo and U.S. Treasury Department guidelines. However, with European countries willing to foot the bill for recording and distribution, music from Los Muñequitos has crossed the border.

"We for too long failed to pay attention to the people of Cuba because we've been so focused on their government. And the music is the most wonderful vehicle for facilitating human to human contact," Sublette says.

Much has changed in the 47 years Los Muñequitos have been together. Buthe rumba has remained constant and always will, as long as what happens on stage is what happens in a living room after a family party. And, of course, as long as there is a new generation that's ready to rumba.

For tour information, see the AfroCuba Web site.

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