Staging, and selling, ethnic dance and music: a Cuban success story

Los Munequitos de Matanzas, which just performed in Seattle, brings nearly six decades of tradition to its shows, translating rich cultural history for a ticket-buying public without becoming 'Rumbapalooza.'

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Los Munequitos de Matanzas

Los Munequitos de Matanzas, which just performed in Seattle, brings nearly six decades of tradition to its shows, translating rich cultural history for a ticket-buying public without becoming 'Rumbapalooza.'

There is special skill and sensitivity needed in taking dances that are done for ritual or social purposes within a specific cultural context, and putting them on a stage for a ticket-buying public. Taken out of their original environment these dances, and the music that is invariably associated with them, can easily lose all original intent and become just one more entertainment commodity.

There is a long and checkered history of staging ethnic dance and music for public performance, and often much has been lost in the transition to the theater from the village green, wedding hall, forest clearing, or social club. In the second half of the last century there were a number of state-sponsored troupes from Eastern Europe and newly independent countries of Africa that toured internationally, performing material that was based on original sources, but in their spectacle they took on a life of their own. These troupes were not only a source of pride for these countries, but also often a source of badly needed income.

Such groups, now including non-state troupes, still tour the world, and in the United States we have also had many groups that stage performances from their own mother cultures. There has over the years, most fortunately, been an increase in the number of producers and cultural brokers more sensitive to the needs of these performers, their material, and modes of presentation. They have brought to this country artists who have not been seen before, or they've presented those who have but with added dimension.

The last two decades have also seen the rise of the mass spectacle, with “Riverdance” being the most popular — events that merge, “update,” and reformulate ethnic performance. Individual societies have always mixed their cultures with those of others, but with mass travel, mass entertainment, and new technologies, all the world’s even more a stage.

It was with these thoughts in mind that I attended the program offered by Cuba’s “Los Munequitos de Matanzas” at Meany Hall Sunday (April 3), in their first visit to the U.S. in nine years.

Formed in 1952, the venerable troupe of 16 has toured internationally and is steeped in the dance and music traditions of its native Matanzas, on Cuba’s north coast. The city’s culture is rich in African retentions (as is the rest of Cuba and much of the New World), as it had an unusually large population of slaves from west and central Africa. Over time their performance traditions blended with Spanish and some Native American influences to form what we now know as Afro-Cuban music and dance.

These forms are expressed within the syncretistic religious practices of Cuba, of which Santeria is the most well-known, and with some crossover into the island’s many social dances and their accompanying music. One of these is rumba, for which Los Munequitos is most famed.

The program was divided into two parts. The first emphasized the past and the sacred through “Ritual rhythms, songs and dances from the Afro-Cuban Folkloric heritage,” in which the troupe performed a suite of music and dance that paid tribute to the African sources of their culture. On stage, in front of the musicians who were on risers, was an altar to the gods and spirits.

For those who watched “I Love Lucy” in its original form or its endless reruns, one might remember Ricky Ricardo, Lucy’s Cuban band-leader TV husband, (played by real-life husband Desi Arnaz) playing a song called “Babalu.” Babalu is one of the “orishas”, or spirits, that play a central role in Afro-Cuban religions, whose origins are from the Yoruba people of Nigeria cross-identified with Catholic saints. Arnaz, in his signature song, was paying watered-down homage to his own culture, though I’m sure few of us watching had a clue of the deeper meaning of his music.

In this first act Los Munequitos performed dances inspired by or originally from Nigeria, Dahomey, and the Congo, done in partnership with four fine percussionists and several singers led by Israel Berriel Gonzalez in a call-and-response pattern. The songs and rhythms changed for each dance segment, with the lead drummer, Luis Cancino, also taking a brief and nifty dance turn.

With a few exceptions the dancers were not really on top of the demands of the material. The transitions were rather clunky, and there were probably a few too many segments. At one point, though, there was a long, uninterrupted sequence offering viewers enough time to settle in, conveying in a very small way the hypnotic atmosphere that permeates the real rituals.

After intermission, the second act was given over to rumba with music set by the beat of the claves (wood sticks) playing the 2/4 time basic to rumba, with singing led by the excellent Rafael Navarro Pujada ("El Nino").

The absolute highlight for me was a couples dance by the director of Los Munequitos, Diosdado Ramos (father, grandfather or relative to at least four of the company’s dancers) and Ana Perez, who also sang in the program. These two older performers, with pant legs or dress decorously lifted to reveal footwork, charmingly gave us a witty and flirtatious example of the soulfulness that is rumba.

Three male dancers performed a nifty tap number of rumba rhythms with expressive percussion and lots of ruffles and flourishes in the torso and upper arms. It had some elements of the “challenges” that Black tap dancers in the U.S. hold, seeing who could outdo the others in speed and complexity.

The star of the second act, dressed in sparkling yellow fedora and matching shirt, was Diosdado Enier Ramos, son of the director, who strutted around stage throwing rumba riffs here and there, all hips and fast feet, tossing off movement at some times like a machine gun, at others teasing us and suspending the beat almost mid-air and then quickly catching up to it. More than a bit of Michael Jackson influence seemed to be present in costume and performance.

There were women dancers on-stage but used mostly as eye-candy, and none did much dancing. I wondered why, since the program suggested that two of the three forms of rumba the company is known for, “guaguanco” and “yambu,” were for male-female partner dances. The third, “columbia,” is a more rural form primarily for men.

This act also could have stood some cropping in content and length, and suffered from a lack of continuity with things bumping along inconsistently. This timing is often typical of folk dancing put on stage without overproducing it, but the company looked like it could have used an outside eye to help with some of the rough spots.

There was a group of young women from the Dominican Republic sitting in front of my wife and me, and we chatted with them at intermission. They were very disappointed in the show, feeling that it needed more dancers and more spectacle. They were bored, and left before the second half began. So, I noticed, did a number of other people.

Whatever their inconsistencies, I was delighted to have seen the troupe. They’ve been doing their thing for almost 60 years, and it will be interesting, when the younger Ramoses and others take over from the current director, to see what new directions they might take. I’m just hoping that no one in Matanzas comes up with the idea of a touring extravaganza called “Rumbapalooza.” But things change quickly in this world, and who knows?  

A final note: The longtime director of the UW World Series, Matt Krashan, is retiring at the end of this season after over two decades as one of this country’s most distinguished performing-arts presenters. He has been responsible for bringing to Seattle many of the finest Western classical pianists and chamber groups, contemporary dance troupes, and extraordinary performers in dance and music from world cultural traditions. Our city would have been far less interesting and cosmopolitan were it not for Matt’s and his staff’s fine work over the years. All those at the university benefited greatly from his tenure at Meany, as did the community at large. We wish him well in the future as a man of some newly found leisure. Thanks Matt! 


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