DEEP RUMBA / “Si! No!”

I have a theory about black music (i.e. music forms that originated in the African diaspora and on the continent), the strongest and most influential black music comes from regions and social contexts where there is a strong resistance to oppression and exploitation, whether we speak of historic chattel slavery or more modern gobal capitalism.

Think about reggae. You think rasta no think about social conditions? What about Brazil where today they still celebrate Zumbi and the Quilombo independence movements from the colonial period? And if you knew the maroon history of New Orleans then the freedom element of jazz would be self-explanatory. Don’t get me started on Fela’s afrobeat or all the stuff, from township jazz and gospel to kwaito, streaming out of South Africa. Do you think negroes riding out of the hills, naked on horseback to fight for their freedom has something to do with why afro-rhythms remain so strong in Cuba? Huh? What do you think?

Most people have not thought about these contexts and connections precisely because it is subversive to do so and the dominant culture has done everything it could to mis-direct our attention and investigations. But fear not, the music is stronger than both our ignorance and our miseducation.
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Which all brings me to this Kip Hanrahan produced mélange. All praises due, this man has the extraordinary insight to see possibilities and the spine to surmount whatever obstacles to bring to fruition a vision of musical culture that is subversive from note one. Deep Rumba is only one of a plethora of projects he has organized, most of which focus on a form, extension, or essence of black music, sometimes exclusive, sometimes collaborative.

This is not about racial essentialism—the work is not important simply because most of the major creators and innovators are racially black (or mixed, mulatto, creole, or whatever nomenclature you might choose). No. It’s not because of race but rather because of resistance, because of creating alternatives to the dominant culture.

Sure, there are some environmental issues. Ask Taj Mahal about reggae rhythms generated by riding burros up and down mountain sides. Or how the ocean and tropical weather affects one’s aesthetic sensibilities—it’s kind of hard to value the naked body in Nordic climes; snow is not conducive to bare skin. Nevertheless, those environmental elements are near negligible when compared to the weight of self-determination and resistance to oppression. That’s from where and when real human beauty comes forth by day and by night.
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So brother Hanrahan circles the gang—mainly, but not exclusively, Cuban musicians and loosely organizes them into an extension of Cuba drumming circles. The emphasis is on rhythm and voice, drumming and chanting (and unavoidably dancing).

From the opening track you can hear these beautiful “negroes” offering something way beyond the mundane, i.e. music distilled from the ups and downs of their lives. There have been many, many attempts to record the deep profundity of afro drum circles. Deep Rumba is perhaps the most successful of these efforts.

There have been two albums: 1998’s This Night Becomes A Rumba (Una Noche Se Vuel Va Una Rumba) and 2000’s A Calm In The Fire Of Dances (Alto En La Fiebre De La Rumba), both on the American Clave label. I have selected tracks from both albums as an introductory set for BoL consideration.

The gatherings center on the percussionists but there is a twist, there are two trap drummers, which is a decidedly modern addition. Most of the drum circles are dominated by hand percussion, generally they exclude the drum kit. Most of the circles take place out of doors: parks, yards, beaches, patios, etc., places where it is not always convenient nor easy to set up a full drum kit. Additionally, most drum circles are not concerts, there is no major planning, certainly to premeditated set list of songs or rhythms. Hell, half the time you’re not even sure who all is going to show up.

I have no idea how the recording process went and I won’t even attempt to guess but I do know that between the two recording sessions you have some of the best of contemporary Afro-Cuban music. The two trap drummers are Robby Ameen and Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez. The congueros include Richie Flores, Giovanni Hildalgo, “Puntilla” Orlando Rios and Paoli Mejias on A Calm In The Fire Of Dances and Milton Cardona, Amadito Valdes, and “Puntilla” Orlando Rios on This Night Becomes A Rumba.
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“Puntilla” Orlando Rios (transitioned: 12 August 2008) was not only a major percussionists, he was also a reservoir of spiritual enlightenment and a sacred Santeria initiate. His chants were prayers and incantations to the saints. His percussion, a groundation ceremony to make space for the spirits. Puntilla is also credited as one of the producers and undoubtedly helped give focus to the sessions.

Let your own ears be your guide as to what you dig. As for me, I’m enraptured by how the vocalists work with, across, in synch, behind, and without the percussion. While I do dig the male vocalists, it’s the two sisters that seal the circle: Xiomara Laugart and Haila Monpie.
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Xiomara Laugart is on both recordings, including our feature selection “Si! No!,” which sets new standards for lyric interpretation. Like we used to say, she’s got twenty-seven different ways to say “no” and each one of them makes you want to ask the question again, whatever the question is, just so you can hear one of her wonderful ways of saying “yes.” And that laugh—man, Yemaya lives in Xiomara’s throat. Her brief a capella interpretation  of “Besame Mucho” eclipses every other version as she implies more with her strategic pauses and silences than most singers achieve with orchestral accompaniment.

When Xiomara duets with Haila it’s hard to choose which stove is hotter: the gas or the electric—I leave it to you to decide which is which.

The occasional tenor saxophone is by Charles Neville of The Neville Brothers and the occasional violin is by Alfredo Triff, bass from Andy Gonzalez and trumpet from Jerry Gonzalez, along with a handful of other musicians who made brief but significant contributions to the overall project.

My reference for this these two albums is Congo Square in New Orleans. Musicians gathering to celebrate life, a gathering offering mutual insight despite and in spite of the meanness that surrounds them. Don’t sleep through this astonishingly and astoundingly beautiful noise of holy drum and voice—the primordial sound of human musical culture.

—Kalamu ya Salaam

This entry was posted on Monday, January 26th, 2009 at 1:00 am and is filed under Contemporary. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

2 Responses to “DEEP RUMBA / “Si! No!””

Mark Desmet Says:
January 28th, 2009 at 10:30 am

These are both fabulous records. A great entryway into postmodern approach(es) to music steeped in tradition.

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