Close this window

Notes by Lisa Maya Knauer

Omí Iná

This recording is testament to the longevity and continued vitality of the music/dance complex known as rumba, which has been a part of the Cuban soundscape for over a hundred years–just how much more than a hundred years is hard to say, since no one can say exactly when and where rumba started. And not only rumba, but the several distinct types of music–both secular and sacred–that are commonly grouped together in Cuban parlance as "folklore," or "Afrocuban folklore." During the past century or so, Afrocuban folklore has had its ups and downs; it’s been in and out of official favor (more about that in a minute); but it has never become simply a museum piece and today is as vibrant as ever. And, as this DVD makes abundantly clear, one of the reasons it flourishes is that it is not stuck in a time-warp. Rumba and the other folkloric musics are at once saturated with history–they are in a very real sense repositories of collective memory–and amazingly up-to-the-minute. Both performers and audiences stretch across several generations, and at religious ceremonies or peñas, you are likely to see teenagers, 40-somethings, and septuagenarians trading drum licks, or playfully trying to outdo each other at the microphone or on the dance floor.

Rumba, race and marginality

Rumba–with its fluid melodies, improvised choruses, tightly interlocked layers of percussion, often accompanied by dances that are alternately coquettish, playful and acrobatic–as a recognizable complex of song and dance took shape in the late nineteenth century, principally in the barrios marginales (marginal neighborhoods) of Cuba's major port cities, Havana and Matanzas, and in the centrales (sugar plantations) of Matanzas province–areas that housed large numbers of enslaved and free Africans and their descendants, along with their poor white neighbors. These same communities also provided fertile soil for the consolidation and transmission of a range of African religious practices–the Congo-based traditions known popularly as palo monte or simply palo, the regla de ocha (also referred to as santeria or Yoruba religion) and espiritismo (spiritualism)–along with the music and dance that play a critical role in ceremonial life. Cayo Hueso, the neighborhood where the members of Omí Iná were born and raised, and where this recording took place, is widely recognized as one of the "birthplaces" of these religious and musical forms.

The histories of rumba and Afrocuban religions have been documented by numerous scholars, but a few points are worth noting here. These cultural forms have had a checkered career. At various moments in Cuban history, they were seen as belonging to the "urban underclass" and therefore somewhat suspect. Rumba in particular was associated with rowdy behavior (drinking, womanizing and fighting). Government officials and upright citizens decried African-based and black-identified cultural forms barbaric, lewd and fairly dangerous. Others, including criminologist-turned-ethnographer Fernando Ortiz, defended and promoted these genres as authentic representations of national culture. This ambivalence has not been erased by 40-plus years of revolution, but rumba and Afrocuban religions have persisted. The current folkloric "boom" dates back to the mid-1990s, and there has been a veritable explosion of groups, recordings and new performance venues. It is now possible to become a professional folkloric musician–a career option that hardly existed in pre-revolutionary Cuba. But there are still hundreds, if not thousands, of Cubans who have other full-time occupations–who are laborers, or professionals of one sort or another–and yet play music whenever they get a chance. The line between professional and amateur is very fluid, and has more to do with chance and choice than it does with talent or training. Today, it is possible to receive training in folkloric music and dance in a formal setting–in the Escuela Nacional de Arte ("La ENA", as it is known colloquially), or at the Conjunto Folklórico Nacional–or to take classes at a community cultural center (Casa de Cultura). These are options that did not exist prior to 1959, and virtually all the musicians and dancers who reached maturity before the revolution learned the old-fashioned way–by hanging out at rumbas or religious ceremonies, watching the drummers, dancers and singers closely and then trying to imitate what they'd seen. There were no classes; occasionally one of the musicians or dancers might demonstrate a drum pattern or dance step, or explain the meaning of a song, but it was up to the aspiring performer to be observant and diligent. And, if you were lucky and persistent, you would eventually get called up to strut your stuff. Cubans refer to this as "empirical" training. Most of the members of Omí Iná learned folkloric music and dance in this way–by growing up in a neighborhood where rumba was still played, where every weekend (and sometimes during the week) there were misa espirituales (spritual masses), toques de santo (drum ceremonies for the orishas) and cajones.

It is altogether appropriate that Omí Iná chose to record their session in the patio of a private home, because for much of its history, rumba was only heard and played in settings like this. Prior to the Cuban revolution, there was strict racial segregation in most areas of life, and in the nineteenth and early twentieth century there were few recreational or entertainment facilities for people of color (and fewer still that were affordable), although blacks and mulattos were able to enter through the stage door as performers. Therefore people continued to gather to play and sing rumba in private homes, or in the open patios of apartment buildings in lower-class neighborhoods, called solares (Havana's version of the cramped tenement buildings of the urban U.S.), or sometimes in parks or on street corners in barrios populares–popular neighborhoods, that is, areas where "the popular classes" lived. Although stylized and theatrical versions of rumba–which played upon racial and gender stereotypes (the sensuous mulatta, the buffoonish but oversexed negrito) found their way into the teatro bufo–a kind of Cuban vaudeville–the music in its original setting was viewed as vulgar, depraved, and potentially dangerous–and it was not uncommon for the police to break up informal gatherings or open-air rumbas.

The spiritual music that comprises the bulk of this recording has also, for most of its history, been musica casera (home-style music). African cosmology does not segregate sacred and secular into distinct spheres but rather sees all areas of life as imbued with divine energy (or aché, in the Lucumi/Yoruba tradition). African-based religions in Cuba were able to survive the Middle Passage, slavery, discrimination, and repression in part because of their decentralized, non-institutional character. There are no cathedrals, but every believer’s home is a house-temple; to this day, most ceremonies are held in private homes.

So viewers of this DVD are seeing and hearing this music in something very much like its original setting (and in fact the house where the recording took place is frequently used by members of the Insua family and their neighbors for religious ceremonies).

Family and community are thus important conduits for the transmission of popular (as in "of the people") cultural forms like rumba. And so a few words about the families of these musicians. Armando Pinillo is the nephew of Juan Bencomo, one of the most respected instrument-makers in Cuba today. Pinillo originally trained as a dancer and taught folkloric dance for many years, but since the mid-1990s he has worked at the Cabaret Parisien at the landmark Hotel Nacional. Stanley Insua Hernández' father, Felix Insua Brindis (better known by his nickname, "Pupy"), was one of the original members of Yoruba Andabo, founded by the legendary percussionist Pancho Quinto in the 1980s, and from an early age Stanley tagged along to rehearsals and performances and religious ceremonies where members of Yoruba Andabo played. He also worked at the Cabaret Parisien for several years. Dorian and Tony (Antonio) live nearby, and also grew up surrounded by musical and religious traditions. All four members of Omí Iná have known each other since childhood and literally grew up playing music together – in both performance settings and in religious rituals. So many of the songs on this DVD are drawn from the ritual repertoires because these young men are committed to maintaining those traditions, not as fossilized "folklore" (as the term is used in the U.S.), but as part of their everyday, vernacular world, as common (and as vital) as bread and water.

Yoruba Andabo, Pancho Quinto and the Cajon

Enslaved Africans who survived the Middle Passage arrived in Cuba with little more than their bodies and memories. At first lacking the tools or the leisure time to recreate the drums they had known in Africa, they made music with what they found at hand. In the port cities of Matanzas and Havana, many Black folks (free and enslaved) worked on the docks and nearby warehouses. In those days, most goods were shipped wooden crates or barrels; and someone (or ones) discovered that once the cargo was unpacked, the empty boxes, when struck with hands or wooden sticks, produced a variety of tones and resonances. Workers took the boxes home, cleaned them and turned them into instruments. By using boxes of varying sizes, or made with wood of varying thicknesses, it was possible to approximate the multiple tonalities found in the drum ensembles of much West African music. Cajones were relatively easy to acquire, and they proved remarkably adaptable. They were used to accompany rumba at informal parties, but were also used extensively in religious ceremonies. In some cases they can substitute for drums, but they have also given rise to rituals that are only played with cajones: ceremonies to honor deceased ancestors and guardian spirits (called cajón para Egun or cajón de muertos). The popularity of the cajon may also result from the fact that it was easy to camouflage as an instrument, so it was less likely to be seized in police raids. In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century cajones were widely used for both secular and sacred purposes.

But the use of the cajón in Afrocuban music does not solely represent a creative substitute for African drums. Wooden boxes were also used as percussion instruments in parts of Spain, particularly Andalusia, to accompany flamenco and other song forms. Thus, the rumba de cajon represents both Spanish and African heritages.

As Armando Pinillo articulates in the interview that follows the songs, by the mid-20th century, cajones were no longer used much to play rumba. However, in the 1970s, Francisco Hernández Moya, known as Pancho Quinto, a veteran dockworker and musician, decided to revive this tradition, and started to craft his own boxes (since wooden packing boxes were less frequently used), experimenting with plywood and cedar to find the right combination. Pancho Quinto began to introduce the cajón into Havana's rumba ensembles, and in the mid-1980s he founded Yoruba Andabo, one of the first groups to achieve national and international prominence with a revitalized rumba based on cajón rhythms.

But even without cajones or drums, Cubans of modest means have always been able to provide rhythmic accompaniment for singing by clapping their hands (as many drummers note, the human body was the first musical instrument), or beating out drum rhythms on any wooden materials that might be found around the house: table tops, drawers, a door frame. Utensils, jugs, or metal tools could also be turned into instruments. Some of these inventions and improvisations can be seen in musical ensembles today; when the orishas are honored with a güiro (a musical ceremony featuring beaded gourds -- called güiros or chekeres), the rhythmic backbone is provided by a hoe blade (or other flat piece of metal), which is struck with a wooden stick or a metal tool (in this DVD, a piston from a car engine!). Even today, when funds are scarce, and there are musicians but no instruments, household items are readily adapted. In 1993, I witnessed a midnight palo toque in the Havana neighborhood of "La Timba" in which the musicians used the seats of wooden chairs and bottles to bring down the spirits. A few years later, a group of young drummers used upturned plastic buckets to play the traditional oro (drum ceremony honoring the orishas, the multiple deities of la regla de ocha) for a yawo–a person who had just been initiated. In both cases, while the instruments were improvised, the musicians knew exactly what they were doing, and simply transposed the complicated drum rhythms to a different surface.

This spirit of improvisation, of what French theorist Michel de Certeau calls bricolage, is found when Cubans play rumba for their own enjoyment at home–and one of the signs that rumba remains a vital and vibrant musical genre (and not a museum-piece that is dusted off for official occasions or didactic purposes, like the Virginia Reel for many U.S. schoolchildren) is the fact that people play, sing and dance rumba just for fun, in private parties when there is no audience aside from their friends, families and other musicians. Sometimes people will break into rumba more or less spontaneously. One Sunday afternoon a few summers ago, I was with some of the members of Omí Iná preparing to head out to the weekly rumba performance at Havana's Callejon de Hamel, when Gaspar, a security guard at a state-owned garage on our block, came up our stairs to take a break from his work. We passed around a bottle of chispa (home-made rum), and without much warning, Gaspar began to sing. The lyrics were a patchwork of Cuban and American popular songs, and even though he started out a capella, there was an unmistakable rumba clave in his cadence. We had no instruments, but people improvised the percussion parts using table-tops, chairs and utensils. We never made it to the rumba, but we didn’t need to.


The selection of songs on this CD/DVD demonstrates the richness of Afrocuban musical and religious traditions in contemporary Cuba. What is called Afrocuban traditional or folkloric music does not spring from a single African source, and Omí Iná offers an appropriately diverse sample. Most of the music on these tracks is drawn from the varied religious/spiritual systems practiced in Cuba–a common feature of all Afrocuban religious practices is the vital role played by music, understood as one of the most powerful ways humans can communicate with the spiritual world.

Track 1: Canto a Azojano

This is not a single song but a tratado (or treatment) of several short songs from the Arará religious tradition honoring Isogone (or Azoji), a powerful deity who governs sickness and health. Linguistic, ethnic and religious "culture groups" do not follow strict geographic boundaries, but the Arará culture originated in the part of West Africa straddling Benin, Dahomey and Nigeria. There was a lot of intermingling and interchange between Arará and Yoruba-speaking peoples, both in Africa and in the New World; one of the most venerated and popular orishas in the Regla de Ocha (or "santeria") pantheon, Babalu Aiye, was adopted from Dahomey. The santeria liturgy contains stories (called patakines) that describe how Babalu Aiye traveled from his native territory to Yorubaland. Azojano/Babalu Aiye is one of the most important religious symbols in Cuba, and corresponds to the popular Catholic saint, San Lazaro. There are many deities like Azojano/Babalu Aiye, who are worshiped in both Regla de Arará and Regla de Ocha, but by different names (and in the course of a ritual, a singer may pull from both traditions). There are several communities in current-day Cuba, primarily in Havana and Matanzas provinces, which maintain intact Arará musical and religious traditions.

Track 2: Potpourit de boleros

While each of the many genres of Cuban popular music has distinctive features that can be analyzed almost endlessly by musicologists, musicians and fans, in actual practice there are few fixed boundaries, and one finds a great deal of interplay and borrowing–of instrumentation, rhythms, and verses or entire songs. Rumba can be thought of as providing a pattern or framework into which skillful performers can work lyrical and melodic material that originated elsewhere. Although rumba is thought of as a "traditional" or a "traditional/popular" musical complex, it is hardly static. Like other Afro-diasporic musical forms, one of the ways that rumba has stayed fresh and expanded is by "sampling" songs and rhythms from other genres (and this practice started many decades before DJs in the South Bronx set up their turntables and began to create beats out of their record collections). Everything is fair game–but not all songs work equally well. It's not simply a question of matching the cadence and verse of a song to a rumba rhythm. The melody has to be strong enough to stand up against an all-percussion accompaniment, and the temperament and sensibility of the song have to be compatible. Many classic boleros work well–with their lilting melodies and poignant lyrics, full of bittersweet memories, distant or broken dreams.

This medley begins with a well-known bolero, "La Media Vuelta" (The Half-Turn). This song was first recorded as a rumba by Pancho Quinto on his 1996 CD, En El Solar de La Cueva del Humo. Omí Iná have reworked the arrangement, changing it from a solo to a duet with close harmony. The medley also includes a few verses from another Cuban standard, "Lagrimas Negras" (Black Tears).

La Media Vuelta

Te vas porque yo quiero que te vayas
A la hora que yo quiero yo te tengo
Yo sé que mi carino te hace falta
Aunque quiera son no, yo soy tu dueno
Yo quiero que te vayas por el mundo
Y quiero que conozcas mucha gente
Yo quiero que te besen otros labios
Para tu lo compares
Hoy como siempre
Y si encuentras un amor que te comprendas
Y es cierto que te quiere mas que a nadie
Entonces yo dare la media vuelta
Y me ire con el sol cuando muera la tarde
You leave because I want you to go
At the hour of my choosing I have you
I know that you need my affection
Although you wish it weren't so, I'm your master
I want you to travel around the world
And I want you to know a lot of people
And I want other lips to kiss you
So that you can compare it
Today as always
And if you find a love who understands you
And its certain that he loves you more than anyone
Then I’ll turn around
And I’ll go with the sun when the afternoon dies

Track 3: Canto congo

These songs take us into the world of a palo ceremony. It starts with a set of ritual salutations that allow the practitioners to identify themselves to each other–and if you listen carefully, you can hear a mixture of Spanish, Arabic and Congo words: the adoption of the phrase "Salam malekum/malekum salam" as a ritual greeting in the palo tradition shows some early influences of Islam in West and Central Africa. The subsequent songs are meant to honor the palo deities but more importantly, to invite their collaboration in the religious "work" at hand.

Yo mambe! (Yo)
Yo mambe! (Yo)
Salam malekum (malekum salam)
Santo Tomas (ver para creer)
Lube, lube lube, lube la cueva nganga
Si Sarabanda ta sire sire, palo kindiamo nsesuawey

Track 4: Canto makuta

Makuta is another musical genre of Congo origin, with a distinct set of rhythms that are usually played on tall, cylindrical drums whose skins are fastened with pegs (called tambores makuta), and the accompanying songs and dances. The word "makuta" comes from two Bantu words: ma (something) and kuta (medicine or sorcery), and it has a wide range of meanings in the Cuban context (it usually refers to some kind of gathering–either festive or religious). Unlike the previous track, this song is sung mostly in Spanish, since not all African languages survived to the same extent.

Track 5: Cantos Espirituales

Spiritualism, and the honoring of ancestors, are perhaps the most pervasive forms of popular religiosity in Cuba. Much of the liturgy of espiritismo draws upon a kind of folk or popular Christianity, in which the figure of Mary occupies a prominent role (and if you listen closely, you can hear numerous references to her). The songs on this track would be sung at a misa espiritual (spiritual mass), or other ceremonies to propitiate the spirits of deceased ancestors (in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been to a misa where the first song, "Sea Santissimo", was not sung).

Sea santisima (sea)
Sea santissima (sea)
Madre mía de la Caridad)
Ayúdanos, ampáranos
En el nombre de Dios, ay Dios
Most holy may she be
Most holy may she be
My mother of Charity (i.e. the Virgin of Charity)
Help us, save us
In the name of God, oh God

At the end of the short interview, the members of Omí Iná break into an impromptu chorus, in which you can hear the unmistakable influence of doo-wop singing. Four decades of Cold War politics have not erased the longstanding cultural ties between Cuba and the U.S., and this style of close harmonies is now seen as authentically Cuban–just like the national pastime, beisbol.

Liner notes by Lisa Maya Knauer
Assistant Professor of Anthropology and African/African-American Studies
University of Massachusetts Dartmouth

Some of the information about the cajón and the "Canto Makuta" were drawn from the excellent reference work, Instrumentos de la Música Folclórico-Popular de Cuba, published the Centro de Investigacion y Desarrollo de la Música Cubana (Habana: Ciencias Sociales, 1997). I also benefitted from conversations with Felix "Pupy" Insua.

Close this window