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Review of Omí Iná & Obbara

Both “Omí Iná” and “Obbara” feature talented home-grown rumba groups from Havana. “Omí Iná,” approximately 37 minutes long, documents the musical stylings of four musicians from the “Cayo Hueso” neighborhood in Central Havana. “Obbara,” approximately 14 minutes long, features the considerable musical talents of the Veitía-Alfonso family of Luyanó (a nearby suburb of Havana). Together, the two brief performance videos offer rich audio-visual proof that a wide variety of Afro-Cuban folkloric music is alive and well in Havana.

The four members of the group Omí Iná - Antonio Wilson Pellicier (cajón), Dorian Friol Ramírez (clave and hierro), Stanley Insua Hernandez (cajón and lead singer), and Armando Pinillo Bencomo (lead singer and cajón) - perform an assortment of both sacred and secular Afro-Cuban songs, including Makuta, Yuka, Arará, and Congo, as well as songs from the espiritista (spiritist) and bolero traditions. All the pieces are accompanied by cajón (hollow wooden box played with the hands), clave (two wooden sticks) or hierro (metal hoeblade or similar metal implement struck with wooden or metal stick), and occasionally palmas (rhythmic clapping). The group’s choice of the cajón as the main percussive instrument (rather than conga or batá drums, for example) speaks of their dedication to the traditions of their forefathers. All members of the group were students of Francisco Hernndez Moya, better known as famed Afro-Cuban percussionist Pancho Quinto, and each musician also grew up hearing and playing Afro-Cuban folkoric music. The cajón - literally, “big box” - is a percussion instrument fashioned from wooden cargo crates, originally used in the port cities of Havana and Matanzas during the nineteenth century.

In a conversation with lead singer Armando Pinillo Bencomo at the end of the DVD, the singer notes that the cajón remained popular until the 1940s, when this performance tradition began to disappear. The fading away of the cajón may have been as result of the gradual acceptance of Afro-Cuban religious and folkloric performance traditions, catalyzed by the now famous ethnographic conference of 1936, sponsored by Cuban ethnographer Fernando Ortíz, which featured the first public performance of the sacred batá drums. In the 1970s, Pancho Quinto began to create his own cajones from plywood and cedar, and reintroduced the cajón into the rumba tradition with his group Yoruba Andabo.

Omí Iná (from the Yoruba words for “water” and “fire”) opens with a wide-angle shot of the group in a solar (narrow open patio) in Central Havana. Three different camera angles show whitewashed walls, a narrow alleyway, and the close proximity of neighbors, who occasionally approach the doorway to watch the goings-on. The musicians are dressed in cool, comfortable clothes (it is hot in Havana); they sweat as they concentrate on blending their voices and percussion. Rarely does the camera stay focused on a single musician; usually, we see the three instrumentalists sitting on folding chairs against the wall, and the lead singer standing alongside them, at the far end of the solar. Dorian Friol Ramírez bounces up and down in his chair as he plays the clave, while Antonio Wilson Pellicier and Stanley Insua Hernandez, seated close together, stare into each other’s faces as they create their close-knit harmonies in response to Armando Pinillo Bencomo’s fluid verses.

The first piece, which features palmas, is “Canto a Azojano,” a series of Arará chants evoking the deity Azoji (also spelled Asoyí), more commonly known as Babalú Ayé, the powerful deity of sickness and infirmity. The next song, “Popourit de Boleros,” includes snippets of “La Media Vuelta” and “Lágrimas Negras.” The close minor thirds of the chorus rivet the careful listener, as does the mixture of lyrics from various boleros. “Pregón” is a fruit vendor’s call, beginning with the characteristic “Bele bele bele bele bele belele, a la la la,” and incorporating a symbolic conversation between the vendor and his grandmother about what to buy (i.e., how to live one’s life).

The fourth song, “Canto Congo,” uses the uniquely Cuban mixture of Spanish, Arabic, and Congo languages in its introduction: “Yo Mambe! Yo.” [Mambe is the one all-powerful God of the initiates of Palo Monte, which is a Congo-based Afro-Cuban religion.] “Salam Aleikum. Aleikum Salam.” [The Arabic prayer of peace.] “Santo Tomás! Ver para creer.” [“Doubting Thomas”; seeing is believing.] Like many Congo songs performed in Cuba, it is accompanied by a hoe blade hit with a metal stick, which plays the “Palo” rhythm (a direct descendant of the West African agbekor bell pattern). In “Canto Macuta,” lead singer Armando Pinillo Bencomo switches musical places with cajón player Antonio Wilson Pellicier, and Dorian Friol Ramírez replaces the hoe blade with a piston from a car engine, giving the hierro pattern a slightly higher pitch. At this point, the camera zooms in on Stanley Insua Hernandez muting the cajón with a silver-taped finger, showing the subtlety of his technique. The last piece, “Cantos Espirituales,” is a collection of songs from the Cuban spiritist tradition (espiritismo). Beginning a cappella with the familiar words “Sea Santísima, Madre mía de la Caridad…” [Most blessed be, my Mother of Charity (La Caridad, patron saint of Cuba)], the song segues into a Lucumí (Yoruba) song with palmas, in which the singer and chorus imitate a conversation between a person possessed by a spirit and the participants at a spiritual mass (misa espiritual). “Ayumi, ayumi, ayumi. Hay un congo lucumí.” “Pa’ qué tú me llamas congo? Tú no me conoces…” (“There’s a congo lucumí spirit in the house.” “Why you calling me congo? You don’t know me…”)

The video ends with Armando Pinillo Bencomo, supported by his band mates, explaining that the group made a tratamiento (pact) with their teachers and family to continue teaching the cajón to their children and grandchildren. The extensive liner notes by Lisa Maya Knauer provide useful and accessible information. Because Knauer knows the musicians in the group, her notes offer important insights about their family lineages and musical education.

“Obbara” opens with lead drummer Eduardo Veitía Carrillo playing a combination of cajón and conga as he sings, “Simade, Congo na ma, Simade.” His young son, Eduardo Veitía Alfonso, plays cajón and bell, and mother Georgina Alfonso Díaz plays a katá rhythm (elaboration of a rumba rhythm) while singing a choral response. An unidentified man in white clothing plays the hierro (hoe blade). The second piece is a slightly different rendition of the spiritist song, “Sea Santísima, Madre mía de la Caridad,” this time sung plaintively and powerfully by Georgina Alfonso Díaz. The group then sings a well-known rumba about the “marinero de Altamar,” the sailor from Altamar, often sung as people depart from Cuba on dinghies or rafts. The performance ends with a Congo song, and as the camera angle moves from Eduardo Veitía Carrillo to his wife and son, the lighting shifts suddenly and the texture becomes grainy, due to one of Havana’s many power outages. After this all-too-brief introduction to the Veitía-Alfonso family, we read that the father is a sought-after percussionist and teacher, the mother is a leading singer on the Afro-Cuban folkloric scene, and the son is a “budding star” at the age of 13.

This excellent DVD was made on a miniscule budget provided by the team themselves, and the audio quality is exceptional (the drums and vocals were recorded separately, to provide a “better-than-live” balance), especially when heard on stereo speakers. I would make the following observations: although both recordings were made in June 2003, the exact date of the “Omí Iná” recording is does not appear on the DVD; the mysterious white-clad hierro player of “Obbara” is never identified; and although the liner notes are available on-line and from the DVD itself, I would have appreciated a small already printed booklet of liner notes (not possible due to budget concerns).

But these criticisms are small in the context of the very good work represented by “Cajón Espíritual: The Music Box of Cuba.” Both “Omí Iná” and “Obbara” are important additions to the growing collection of recordings of Afro-Cuban folkloric traditions, and I eagerly anticipate future work from the Brown-Wassermann-Randall team.

Katherine Hagedorn---Pomona College

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