Los Muñequitos de Matanzas will perform at Meany Hall at 8 p.m. Sunday, April 3. Returning to Seattle for the first time in a decade, the group is composed of famed Afro-Cuban music and dance masters who are renowned for their fiery rumbas, dynamic drumming, and sacred rituals.
Founded in 1952 and spanning three generations of the same family, Cuba’s premier folkloric ensemble is recognized throughout the world for sustaining and popularizing the African roots of Cuban culture. The New York Times hails their work as “spectacular sensual dancing and some of the most complex drumming to be heard in this hemisphere.”
Tickets are $30 ($20 for students) and may be purchased by phone at 206-543-4880, online or in person at the UW Arts Ticket Office.
In the 1950s, a group of Afro-Cuban youth who loved the rumba would meet after work and during the weekends. Most of them were port workers, plumbers and masons, and as they listened to son and bolero music on the Victrola, the hot taste of a good rum between them, they would entertain each other with the sounds of percussing the tables, glasses, spoons and bottles from “El Gallo,” a bar on the corner of Matanzas and Daoiz in the city of Matanzas, Cuba.
First the applause came from their friends and family, then people passing by discovered that this was more than just an impromptu jam session. Invitations to parties around the neighborhood followed, until one day they decided to form a stable group. Thus, 59 years ago, the band called themselves Guaguancó Matancero, and it marked the birth of the most famous rumba group from Cuba.
Guaguancó Matancero was initially devoted only to making guaguancó. The guaguancó, one of the most popular forms of Cuban rumba, was created in the port areas of Matanzas and Havana. It is danced in pairs, in an erotic game where women flirt with and tease the man as he tries to “possess” her. She seduces him and craftily covers herself to prevent “el vacunao,” the name for the gesture the male dancer makes to try to violate the female dancer’s intimate privacy. The music has a faster rhythm than the yambú (also danced in pairs, but slower and more majestic). Its tempo is closest to the columbia, but the latter is mostly a dance for men from rural areas with musical roots much closer to bantú expressions.
In 1956 they group released its first album, on 78 rpm, published by the Cuban label Puchito. One side had the song “Los Beodos” by Lorenzo Matinez. On the other was “Los Muñequitos” by Esteban Lantri, a guaguancó about the comic strips popular in newspapers and magazines of the time. (In Cuba these are called “muñequitos.”) Public affection for the group soared, especially for the Muñequitos’ guaguancó, which even today remains in their repertory and is still requested frequently. The group soon changed their name to Los Muñequitos de Matanzas.
The music of Los Muñequitos de Matanzas was heard throughout Cuba, and became a landmark for people who wanted to dance. The percussion and harmony of their presentations were revered by all Cuban rumberos who followed them.
The international career of Los Muñequitos began in 1989 with performances in England. They first performed in the United States in 1992, when Dance Theater Workshop’s Suitcase Fund organized a 10-week tour to 14 cities. The overwhelming enthusiasm that greeted them from New York to San Francisco prompted several producers, festivals, universities, and theaters to invite them back repeatedly from 1994 to 2002.
The history of the Cuban rumba can be told alongside Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, not only because they are one of the oldest groups or because they have enjoyed great popularity since their first album, but because they have lived with their fame without losing the essence of their work. They have fused the most treasured elements of the rumba with contemporary forms of expression. They have become the standard for how to dance, dress, and act rumba for people both inside and outside of Cuba.