(Versión en español aquí.)
My very first post when I started this blog was a link to some recordings by Yoruba Andabo I call "Cajones Bullangueros." A friend gave me a cassette copy of the recordings a few years earlier and it quickly became one of my favorite rumba records.
I digitized the tape, put the tracks on a CD and designed a little cover, calling the whole thing "Cajones Bullangueros," which I thought was an apt title, considering the instrumentation used and the inclusion of a standout track by that name. (Most of the other songs were later released (in different versions) on their classic "El callejón de los rumberos.")
There were only a couple of clues to go on: I noticed that parts of some of the tracks had been used in the films "Quién Baila Aquí" and "En El País de Los Orichas," and the fact that the engineer's voice could be heard announcing the track names suggested that these were tapes for a recording that had never been released.
Then a few years ago I was introduced to Elio Ruiz, the director of "Quién Baila Aquí" and "En El País de Los Orichas," who had just moved to New York. I learned that it was he who had made these recordings, specifically to use on the soundtracks of those films. He was surprised to find that the recordings had somehow made their way out of Cuba and were now circulating around the world.
So the mystery was solved but as time passes these recordings just keep getting better. They offer an all-too-rare glimpse of a moment, a group, and a style that have passed into history but remain as a touchstone for current and future generations.
Compared to many of the latest rumba releases, so obsessed with percussion pyrotechnics and "guarapachangueo" (which in my opinion has now come to mean "a license to overplay" more often than not) the playing here is more straightforward.
Although the performances are all strong, energetic and confident, and the cajones are indeed "bullangueros," there is a feeling of relaxed understatement throughout. Truly this is "rumba sin alarde" — no showing off from anyone.
The production quality is refreshingly natural, with none of the over-produced, cast-of-thousands coros like in recent recordings, which lose in "sentimiento" whatever they may gain in harmonic perfection.
Another thing it has going for it is a great repetoire. There are no weak songs here, all of them are first-rate, and in a variety of styles: besides guaguancó and columbia, there is Protesta Carabalí with its Abakuá section, and the first recording as a guaguancó of Pedro Flores' bolero "Perdón," a true stroke of genius, presumably on the part of Malanga, the group's vocal director.
And finally, to me it's important for remaining the most complete documentation we have of the voice of Calixto Callava, one of the great rumberos of all time.
I recently spoke with Elio. I was happy to hear that he is planning a 20th anniversary DVD edition of "Quién Baila Aquí," and plans to release a remastered edition of these historic recordings as a bonus CD. I asked him to tell me the story behind "Cajones Bullangueros," and here is his reply:
I wanted to reply briefly to your request to tell the history of the recording you've called "Cajones Bullanqueros." Here's how it happened.
In the summer of 1989 we were involved in the production of a documentary (later to be known as "Quién Baila Aquí: La rumba sin lentejuelas") with the Cuban "rumba de cajón" group Yoruba Andabo.
This effort, being without a budget and against the tide, without a doubt demanded all the love and altruistic willpower possible from the visual and musical production team.
Only one civil servant aware of the cultural importance of the topic, Mr. R. D., helped us with the teams that were under his administration, over the objections of the others who followed orders only reluctantly.
"rumba de solar" sequence in "Quien baila aquí"
Solar "La Madama." Cayo Hueso, Havana, 1989.
Foto: Courtesy Elio Ruiz
One of my difficulties as producer of this project was to find a free studio where we could adequately record Yoruba Andabo.
Suddenly, the solution arrived thanks to one of our friends at the Escuela Internacional de Cine y Televisión de San Antonio de los Baños, in Havana Province. A Mexican named Samuel Larson Guerra, at the time a student and now a distinguished professional of sound design and cinema post-production in Mexico.
We feared that if we followed the more correct route of making a formal request, we would be rejected, the project dealing as it did with the "rowdy" rumba, made by "marginals."
In those days, national folklore was not so politically palatable as it was later, when the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union unleashed a real frenzy of afrocuban mysticism in the supposedly atheo-communist island.
Consuequently, the voice we hear identifying the tracks of this historic first musical production of Yoruba Andabo (which, by the way, will turn 20 this year) is that of "Sammy" Larson, as he was known by his friends in San Tranquilino, home of the EICTV.
The members of Yoruba Andabo called him "El Azteca." They had faith that he would make them famous. In a certain way this happened, but it was because they insisted in perfecting their work.
"When I arrived in Cuba in December of 1986, as part of the first generation of students of the Escuela Internacional de Cine y Televisión, I had a pretty vague idea of what was Cuban.
Back then, as a "chilango" (Mexico City native), my favorite popular music was rock. From Cuba I heard mostly Nueva Trova and as a classical guitar student I was a big admirer of Leo Brouwer.
On the other hand, it was common back then at parties in Mexico to dance to Los Van Van's "Ven y Muévete." But outside of that, I must confess I was mostly ignorant of the richness and variety of cuban popular music.
I didn't know for sure what a guaguancó was, much less a "rumba de cajón." In those times, for me, the Caribbean was still something to be discovered, because although I liked reggae a lot and Bob Marley was one of my idols, the notion of the importance of Africa in Caribbean music and culture was not yet substantiated by direct, daily knowledge.
Towards the end of my first year in Cuba, I had the pleasure to meet Elio Ruíz, and after finding we had many common interests we quickly became close friends.
And so it was that we began our incursions of the streets and solares of Centro Habana and Cayo Hueso, places of ill repute, which some warned us to stay away from as places infested with anti-social and marginal types.
Nevertheless, for a group of students of EICTV, our stay in Cuba was spent in good measure between the school (an hour from Havana) and those Habanero neighborhoods where on any corner or in the patio of any solar one could run into a rumba de cajón, a vital and powerful expression of Cuban music in it's most African form.
In those solares and rumbas, I learned to appreciate and understand the clave and the tumbao, the vitality of the cultural sincretism of African tradition, the love of dance and the party, anyway, what ended up being for me, the heart of "cuban-ness."
It was in this context that I met Yoruba Andabo. When Elio suggested we record them in the sound studios of EICTV, where I was taking my first steps as a soundman, I immediately agreed.
The original recording was made onto 1" tape using a Studer 8-track machine.
Microphones were mostly Beyer M80, and probably some other lapel or tie-clip mics were used as well. As best I can remember no effects of any sort were used in the recording nor in the mixing. We sought to record the group in the most natural manner possible, which fortunately we were able to do. Nevertheless there was no mastering of the mix.
The original 1" tape was lost in the shuffle of school life and I have to say that when I looked for it and couldn't find it, I was very sorry not to have taken better care of it. The recording that remains is the stereo mix.
Given my limited experience, I think the result was surprisingly good, largely due to the high musical quality of all the members of the group, since everything was accomplished in a single session in single takes. And later, in the mixdown, thanks to the strict supervision of Giovanni and Malanga.
Back then I didn't give to much importance to the subject, I was just happily helping out my friend Elio, since the music was for "Quién baila aquí," the documentary he was making at the time, and also helping Yoruba Andabo, a group which for me represented all the wonderful things I had discovered in the streets and solares of Centro Habana."
Today many people know this recording—there are even those who have taken economic advantage of it, exerting no more effort than making pirated copies—without knowing the whole story, and what this friend Sammy risked to make it happen. When the directors of the school found out, they threatened to take disciplinary action against him.
Luckily these were no more than threats. As for me, I was prohibited from returning to the facilities of the school. Being able to put a name on the "black" list would be sufficient to soothe their "white" bureaucratic consciences.
The original group Yoruba Andado was formed by workers from the port of Havana, many now passed away.
Chan [Juan Campos Cárdenas]
Giovanni [del Pino]
[Pedro Celestino] Fariñas
†"El Chori" [Jacinto Scull Castillo]
†Callabas [Calixto Callava]
†Marino [Justo Marino Garcia]
"El Chiqui" [Ricardo Campos Lastra]
"Palito" [Orlando Lage Bouza]
and the musical director at the time was †"Malanga" [Rolando Rodriguez Oliva] (the other one, that is, the percussionist of the Orquesta Jorrín, and not the legendary rumbero from Matanzas [José Rosário Oviedo]).
The session at San Tranquilino was pure jazz, pure swing, that smooth "sentimiento manana," although still showing a few "defects" of a group which was not quite professional.
Listening to it today, I can evoke those times...
I can see Pancho Kinto with the only tooth left in his depopulated jaws, striking the cajón, the floor, and a bell, all with a spoon, a utensil I had never seen or heard used before in such a magical way.
I can see "El Chori," with his eyes closed, deep into the fabric of the rhythm, searching for the exact spot to place the drum stroke which, followed by more, make the quinto an instrument similar to the drumset in jazz, when performing a solo in the tiny space of 15 square centimeters. (After all, the rumba is the authentic Cuban Jazz, and it wasn't in vain that a Cuban rumbero like Chano Pozo made that relationship obvious.)
Giovanni, the leader of the group, I can see him too, raising the voices and playing the claves with impeccable time.
Chan, putting the flavor of aguardiente on his floreos, at times even surrealistic.
The smiling Fariñas, always smiling the same if he was singing a solo or in the coro.
And the unforgettable Calixto Callava, himself a classic, for his elegance and his composition of boleros and rumbas, with an unmistakable voice, yet in which one can hear the weakness form the lung cancer with which he was suffering. [Calixto Callava died a year and a half later, on December 19, 1990. — Ed.]
The real beauty of this tape perhaps is that it represents a style of rumba very close to that which these rumberos played themselves almost daily after getting off work at the docks, either on the counter of the bar at "Two Brothers," or with the drawers of a piece of furniture found in a solar where one of them lived.
Due to the clandestine circumstances of production, there was no opportunity to repeat takes. All the tracks are "Take one." The unrivaled distinctive characteristic of rumba de cajón is that it can be started up with anything that makes a sound when it is struck. The hood of a car will do, as will an empty pot. The cajón was, in its time, a substitute for the drum—when the drum was banned but the spanish authorities—and ended up being a unique form of its own.
So, in honor of the departed (Ibaé) who are present on this tape, I think it's very good that you make it available to all those lovers of rumba who want to download it from your page. It is the least we can do to avert the unscrupulous pirating of whoever thinks they have more rights than the others. Let it be for the enjoyment and benefit for all.
Thanks for your effort in spreading the rumba and helping rumberos cubanos on the island. They need it. It's encouraging to me to see the love that you have for this genre of cuban music.
Elio Ruiz is a Cuban filmmaker living in the United States. He has written for theater, television, movies and the print media. He has participated in productions in Cuba, Germany, Mexico and United States. In addition, he has taught drama, screenwriting workshops, and has been an acting coach for several institutions, including Cuba’s International School of Cinema and Television, the Universidad Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM), Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica (known as C.C.C.), the Lumière Institute, the Cuauhtémoc University of Puebla, and Cinecipac, Mexico.
As screenwriter, filmmaker, and producer, he was recognized with several national and international awards and honorable mentions in the categories of Documentary and Documentary Mini Series, including the “Caracol” Award from Cuba’s Writer and Artist Union (UNEAC). In 1989 and 1990, he received the “Coral” Award at Havana’s International Film Festival for Miniseries Documentary and Documentary, respectively. Besides, he has received the “Pitirre” Award from Cine San Juan, Puerto Rico Film Festival, for best producer and documentary director for “Quien Baila Aquí (la rumba sin lentejuelas)”, “Who Dances Here (rumba without spangles)”.
His creative and journalistic writing has been published in Cuba, Mexico, Spain, Argentina and United States. Currently, he is working on several new projects. He is preparing a documentary movie about the Diaspora of Cuba’s professional boxers and former World Boxing Champion Sugar Ramos (member of the International Boxing Hall of the Fame in Canastota, New York State).
The 20th Anniversary bilingual version of "Quién Baila Aquí" will be available soon. The soundtrack will be included as a bonus CD.
Samuel Larson Guerra was born in Mexico City in 1963. In 1982 he enrolled in the Escuela Nacional de Música. From 1984 to 1986 he worked in the Cineteca Nacional in the Departamento de Documentación e Investigación. From 1987 to 1990 he studied cinematography at the Escuela Internacional de Cine y Televisión (EICTV) in Cuba.
Since 1991 he has worked professionally in film as Sound Designer and Editor, and also scored original music for films.
He worked as an Editor on the television documentary series "Mujeres y Poder" which won a National Journalism Award in 2000 for best television documentary series. Since 1991 up to the present he has taught classes and workshops in sound and editing for filmboth in Mexico and abroad. He is an active member of the Academia Mexicana de Artes y Ciencias Cinematográficas since August 2008.