Originally published in SunPost on April 21, 2011
Here’s the scoop. Very few things in this world are cooler than Cuban rumba, and no one does it better than Los Munequitos de Matanzas. Last Friday at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, the ancestors were called and in perfect African tradition – they responded. The Munequitos (literal translation: little dolls) are named after their first hit single from the 1950s referring to cartoons, which in Cuba are called “munequitos.” But there is nothing cute or diminutive about this group; they are giants in the universe called rumba.
Proud, majestic figures dressed in white entered the stage. They opened the show with a call and response song that is sung in spiritual ceremonies where one is contacting the spirit world. It is a way to invite the benevolent spirits to protect, guide, and speak; and for the living, to offer up light and consciousness for the departed. The audience chimed in.
The performance was called “Drum of Fire: In Tribute to the Ancestors”. In the Lukumi tradition, part of the Yoruba cosmology that came to the Americas from Nigeria, and which is central in the Munequitos work, ancestor worship is essential. For the group that has recently lost several of its founding members, the tradition is even more poignant. A small shrine at the center of the stage crystallizes the notion. Then a fiery storm of dancers hit the stage.
The first number was an homage to Elegua, which in the Yoruba pantheon is always the first Orisha to be performed. Elegua is the god that opens or closes your path, is the ying and yang of life and is depicted as either a very old man or young child. Elegua is a warrior and a trickster, and the stage was flooded with different aspects of the god, fully embodied by the six dancers. While one dancer steals the hat from a member of the audience, another dancer tumbles and rolls, playing like a child, while yet another takes his walking stick and clears the path of destiny.
The most outstanding moment of the first half of the show was the Ogun duet by the brothers Barbaro and “Figurin” Ramos, sons of the Artistic Director Diosdado Ramos. Figurin has a remarkable contraction of the spine and release of the head that makes his body look elastic. Barbaro has a fierce agility and stage presence that keeps your eyes glued to the stage. The Ogun duet was an unusual format to present the deity. Ogun is the god of the forest, the blacksmith. There are many popular tales, known as patakins, about this Orisha, and it is commonplace to see them performed more literally. What was refreshing about the number was the sheer mastery of the movement and embodiment of the energy of the god.
The second half of the show was dedicated to the rumba. A surprise element was the “rumba tap” number, choreographed by Barbaro. It was truly an African Diaspora moment where the African-American tradition of hoofing came together with the Cuban rumba. The three male dancers took the stage in shiny, silky outfits reminiscent of Harlem with a Cuban swagger. The men really dominated the performance and choreographer Barbaro Ramos stole the show with his show stopping “Columbia” at the close. To see a Munequitos show is to be in the presence of masters, and the rumba was just sheer….. perfection.