This Year, GroundUp Music Festival Digs An Island Beat
On opening night of the GroundUp Festival on Friday, Feb. 2, the legendary folkloric ensembles Los Muñequitos de Matanzas and Grupo AfroCuba will perform together for the first time outside of Cuba. (Photo courtesy of GroundUp Music Festival)
“It’s gonna be a party,” says jazz saxophonist Marcus Strickland of GroundUP, the eclectic festival that has lured like-minded music seekers from around the globe to the Miami Beach Bandshell since 2017. Its three days of performances, workshops and late-night jam sessions from Friday, Feb. 2 to Sunday, Feb. 4, are a chance to disconnect from the everyday and get fully plugged into the spirit of music.
This year, the festivities move to a decidedly Caribbean beat, showcasing various artists with deep roots in the tropics. And with the legendary Muñequitos de Matanzas and the Grupo AfroCuba Allstars flying in from Cuba to headline the event, concertgoers should be moving their bodies like it’s 1959.
Last January, festival mastermind Michael League of the jazz ensemble Snarky Puppy was in Matanzas, Cuba recording an album with the two groups when the idea of bringing the bands to the festival took root. They are the keepers of the flame of traditional, percussion-rich Afro-Cuban rumba in Cuba, but it has been ten years since the Muñequitos last played in Miami and AfroCuba has never been to South Florida.
“We thought it would be great to bring them to the festival to play together for the first time ever in public,” League says. “It’s a momentous weekend, without a doubt.”
“Cubans,” explains Muñequitos musical director Diosdado Enier Ramos Aldazabal, “have adapted to rumbear, to party, to enjoy, even in the most difficult moments.” With the two groups together onstage Friday, audiences will have a unique opportunity to hear rumba matancera as interpreted by some of the world’s greatest living players of that infectious and raucous rhythm.
Los Muñequitos, like AfroCuba, is a historic band. With claves, congas, cowbells, and all other manner of percussion instruments of West African descent, the percussion ensemble has preserved the devilishly complex, religiously rooted and imminently danceable Cuban rumba for generations, proving that great rhythmic legacy brought to the island by their enslaved ancestors is as powerful today as it was over seventy years ago, when Los Muñequitos was first formed by the grandparents of some of its current members.
Polyrhythmic drums keep the connection to the earth while their lyrics rise up in praise of the orishas, the deities of the Yoruba pantheon. By cloaking their gods in the guise of Catholic saints, the enslaved in Cuba could continue to worship as their forebearers in Benin and Congo had done. Then, as now, music was memory.
“You get goosebumps,” says Ramos Aldazabal. “We do this with such love for the ancestors who left us this culture to defend it, to care for it and to love it. Audiences receive that energy, that vibration that we give through our prayers, our songs, our choruses.”
Music, explains Idalberto Verrier Pérez, percussionist and musical director for the Grupo Afrocuba, was key to survival for those enslaved ancestors, and the drums, the traditional songs, the community were their greatest source of strength and connection. To play those songs now, he says, has great meaning for their descendants:
“It means melting our spirit directly into that rebellion—of having left a past, living a present, and trying to change from that very instant their way of life, and make the moment of their stay on this earth joyful,” says Verrier Pérez.
Keeping this legacy alive for future generations and spreading it throughout the world, the players of Afrocuba “try to remove the darkness for the moment so that there is a light in which the person can find the pleasure in feeling that there is something new appearing, that there is something that remains and something that will prevail.”
A different taste of the African diaspora in the Caribbean comes from other performers at the festival: Trinidadian trumpeter Etienne Charles, whose family roots in music, like those of the players from Cuba, also stretch back across generations. Growing up on the island and steeped in its folklore, the sounds of his forebearers imbue his own lush and trancelike melodies with ritual and rhythm. Charles and his group Creole Soul play on Saturday. Steelpan virtuoso Joy Lapps, who is of Antiguan and Barbudan descent, brings her own brand of Creole soul to Sunday’s lineup. With invited guest Larnell Lewis, she coaxes sweet lyricism from an instrument originally fashioned from abandoned oil drums.
The festival also features a wide diversity of jazz artists from all around the globe. If GroundUP’s predominant flavor can be hard to pin down from one year to the next, it’s because League only has one simple criterion in mind when planning the lineup:
“For us, there’s no rules,” he says. “The festival will book any artist from any part of the world playing any kind of music that is genuine and heartfelt and amazing . . . The only thing that matters is like, when you’re onstage, are you really delivering something powerful?”
That power can come as much from emerging artists as it does from well-known headliners. In fact, it’s the lesser-known musicians that make GroundUP such a place of discovery for habitués who have learned to trust League’s free-ranging tastes. On Saturday, upright bass player and vocalist Fuensanta, who played the prestigious North Sea Jazz Festival when she was only 22, will perform. And as artist-at-large, flutist and vocalist Elena Ayodele Pinderhughes will get to play with many artists throughout the weekend.
In addition to the packed lineup of performances, there are also workshops and interactive events with working artists throughout the weekend. Strickland, for example, who teaches at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, will give a masterclass on the therapeutic powers of music.
“I consider music medicine,” he says. Traditional communities throughout the world have always relied upon its healing properties and now modern science is working to catch up with those ancient practices. “I feel that music expands our understanding,” says Strickland. “It expands us and it is also literally absorbed by us . . .you vibrate to it.” And you can also vibrate to his experimental brand of jazz on Sunday, when his group Twi-Life will be playing music from its latest record, “The Universe’s Wildest Dream.”
Anchoring the weekend, as always, is the upbeat instrumental jazz of Snarky Puppy. With Snarky Puppy’s infectious goodwill and the panoply of talent that surrounds you at every turn, the GroundUP experience will set you among a tribe of true believers in music as one of the strongest forces connecting us to one another and to what’s good in the world.
And as Aldazabal reminds us, “There isn’t time to be mistaken in this life. What there is is time to have a good time.”
Let the party begin.
WHAT: GroundUP Music Festival
WHERE: North Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave., Miami Beach, FL 33141
WHEN: February 2-4, Friday 6-11 PM; Saturday 2-11 PM; Sunday 1-10 PM
COST: $109, single-day Friday pass; $189, Saturday or Sunday pass; $489 for three-day pass; $845 for three-day, all-in premium pass
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