Los Muñequitos and the African Heart of Rumba

Written By ArtBurst Team
October 26, 2016 at 7:09 PM

This weekend, the legendary performers known collectively as Los Muñequitos de Matanzas return to Miami for their first appearance in almost 10 years. Sixteen drummers and dancers will bring world-class rumba, along with Afro-Cuban folklore, to the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts for one night only. In Havana, the vibrant traditions inherited from the slaves have been run through the filter of urban culture, but Matanzas is the country’s African heart, the place where the traditions have been most faithfully maintained. Los Muñequitos are considered some of the region’s foremost cultural ambassadors. When I caught up with them, they were traveling together by bus to a performance in Atlanta. Their production manager, Scott Wardinsky, an American performing artist and cultural scholar who has lived and worked with the company for over 20 years, spoke to Artburst on their behalf. Can you give us a little background on Los Muñequitos? When was the group formed and how has it changed over time? The group was formed in 1952 by dockworkers and others from the neighborhoods of La Marina and Simpson in Matanzas. In its first two or three years the group was known as Gauguanco Matancera, but due to the huge success of its first recording, a song called “Los Muñequitos” which was a commentary on a popular comic strip, everyone referred to the group as Los Muñequitos and the group formally changed it’s name. Early on, the group consisted of just singing and drumming. In 1967 Diosdado Ramos (the current director) proposed adding dance. Since that point the group has always included dance as a part of its presentation. Until the late ‘80s, their repertoire consisted of the different variants of rumba. Before their first tour to the United States the group added dances, songs, and rhythms from the other Afro-Cuban folkloric traditions. How is the group structured in terms of creative leadership? We have an artistic director, a choreographer, and a musical director. All are members of the performing ensemble. Yet, we still work in a very collective fashion. Anybody who has a creative idea is free to bring it to rehearsal or work on it with one of the directors. What is your rehearsal schedule like? We rehearse four to five hours a day, four to five days a week. From your perspective, what is the role of dance? What does it create? For us dance is a fundamental expression of our identity. It is an integral part of our spiritual practices as well as a vital social outlet. What does it mean to bring sacred movement and music to the stage? The sacred forms seem to have a universality that communicates to people on a very profound level. Only aspects of these sacred forms that are open for anyone to see or hear are allowed in performance. There are many songs and gestures that are only to be experienced by those who have undergone or are undergoing different levels of initiation. We would never betray those elements that are considered to be secrets. How does your work reflect the history and culture of Matanzas specifically? Our work reflects the common history and culture of most Afro-Cubans. It is informed by our experience as the descendants of slaves who struggled to maintain their African identity, and who continue to practice the customs and traditions brought here by the first slaves from various parts of West Africa. Are there any challenges for you in presenting to an American audience? We would consider them more as opportunities than challenges. Photo credit: Miguel Moldonado

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