Rumba is an expression of Cubanity: Yoruba Andabo
On November 30, Cuba's Yoruba Andabo performs ecstatic percussion-driven dances in Zankel Hall that reveal the ongoing influence of African religion and traditions in contemporary Cuba. Music writer and critic Fernando González speaks with Matías Geovani del Pino, director, founder, and one of the group's performers.
Translating popular dance and music traditions to the stage is an art in itself. Yoruba Andabo—the 15-piece company from Cuba that comprises singers, musicians, and dancers—has a long and distinguished practice of turning theaters into a Havana backyard and then filling them with the sounds of a rumba, a conga, or a bembé (a party dedicated to the Orishas, the deities of the syncretic, West-African-rooted religion known in the New World as Santería or La Regla de Ocha).
"It's a show that has the feel of a great party, a celebration of Cuban culture and African roots," explains Matías Geovani del Pino, director, founder, and one of the group's performers. The program by Yoruba Andabo (the name loosely translates to mean "friends of the Yoruba") includes musical invocations from ancient Yoruba and Abakuá religious traditions, corresponding to different African nations and passed on from generation to generation over centuries, as well as traditional rumba and a closing conga habanera.
The performance "includes music from those liturgies. However, it's not religious music, but artistic representations of that music," explained del Pino. As for the rumba, an Afro-Cuban style with African and Spanish roots, it's featured in three traditional styles—yambú, guaguancó and columbia—each with its own distinct sound, pace, and choreography.
"We have our own way of playing [rumba]," explains del Pino. "We call it guarapachangueo. We utilize the same principles, but with different sonorities. And within that framework, the improvisation is constant. The drummers "speak" to one another, but also the dancers "dialogue" with the quinto [the highest pitched and most improvising drum in the ensemble]. The dancers cue the quinto, but the quinto paces the steps—they follow each other."
Both main musical sources of the performance—religious Afro-Cuban music and rumba—are not cultural artifacts, but very much living traditions in Cuba. In fact, some instruments, such as the hourglass-shaped, double-headed batá drum, and many of their rhythms have been long incorporated into many popular styles, from rock and salsa to hip-hop and jazz. Conversely, rumba groups have created fusions that draw elements from popular music.
In Yoruba Andabo's work, the aim is to "always stay close to the tradition while showing its evolution," says del Pino. "After all, a genre like the rumba is a living thing. Rumba is not the absolute root of all Cuban dance music, but it is implicit in all of it. And because of it, it lives within every Cuban. Rumba is an expression of Cubanía—Cubanity."
—Fernando González is an independent music writer and critic whose work appears regularly in The Miami Herald, JazzTimes, and The International Review of Music.