Last night I found myself in a packed ICA cinema soaking up the UK premier of the ‘HAVANA CLUB RUMBA SESSIONS… LA CLAVE’ – an invigorating and enlightening investigation into the heart and soul of Cuban culture – RUMBA! – by globetrotting DJ/broadcaster Gilles Peterson and filmmakers Charlie Inman and Ben Holman.
Gilles is no stranger to Cuban culture. Over the past six years, through his Brownswood set up, he’s been working with Havana Cultura on an array of experimental projects with mostly new generation artists like mesmerising young vocalist Dayme Arocena. This film project is no less radical and over 6 parts – which will go on-line separately – we encounter the singers, the dancers, the drummers and get to meet the masters of the tradition alongside the youth who are shaping that tradition to new times.
Gilles defines rumba as a combination of “…music, mind, rhythm, party, thought and comedy…”. Inevitably he is drawn to fiery, spontaneous, streetwise energy of rumba and along with Dayme Arocena and London based Omo Ana and Babalawo, Ade Egun (Crispin Robinson), he sets off on a mission to explore the rhythms of guaguancó, yambú and columbia and their connection to the Africa religions that survived the Middle Passage – Abakuà, Palo and Santería.
Rumba is at the crossroads between African and European musical traditions. Hearing the vocals of Ruben Bulnes, which have a strong Moorish/flamenco flavour, connect with the African polyrhythms of the the congas and cajons – all connected by the ever-present clave – sends chills up the spine. Most people agree that raw, undiluted rumba doesn’t translate well in the recording studio and it’s fascinating to watch, in the documentary, Dayme combining her own version of ‘Close To You’ with rumba ensemble Osain del Monte.
For me, the global impact of rumba has been largely subliminal. We’ve had various experimental and deep offerings from the inimitable Kip Hanrahan. On the house music tip it’s been DJ/producers like Joe Claussell, Osunlade and Louis Vega who have combined their Latin roots and their Santero beliefs with club music to produce something fresh and unique. The world of salsa and timba aside, the long standing impact of rumba on jazz continues to evolve beyond the collaborations of musicians like David Amram, Herbie Mann or Dizzy Gillespie with master drummers like Los Papines, Potato Valdes, Mongo Santamaria, Daniel Ponce and Chano Pozo.
While we are on Chano Pozo there’s a classic moment in the film when Gilles and the crew arrive in Matanzas in search of the nephew of the legendary Esteban ‘Chacha’Vega Baccalao and his original set of consecrated Batá drums only to discover that Chano had also visited the house to pay his respects to the drums.
“What we found in there was like the equivalent of finding the holy grail in a little side street in Matanzas,” reflects Gilles. “That was quite an incredible moment for us to be able to experience the first set of Bata drums made in Cuba, that was a really deep moment.”
Another deep and rare moment in ‘La Clave’ was the filming of the Abakua elders testing each other in song and stories over some heavy rhythms and a few rums on the rooftop of a Havana building.
‘…La Clave’ clearly connects the dances to the music and shows the dance moves are not random individual interpretations of what the the drummers are playing. It is a physical conversation between men and women. It is an art passed down through generations and kept alive within the community. It exists in the conservatoire and thrives and evolves on the street. Maybe it’s because the implicit language of rumba as a dance which continues to thrive in Havana’s working class neighbourhoods is not understood outside Cuba that rumba remains too complex for a global generation of clubbers schooled on 4 to the floor or ballroom people devoted to “Strictly…”
Dayme’s role is interesting in the film. In the Q&A after the film she raised the painful issue of the lost film-card which had the takes of a new generation of young women challenging the machismo that continues to dominate rumba. It was hinted that another chapter was indeed warranted and may happen. Her involvement in the film also highlighted for her, as a 22 year old Cuban artist, her own relationship to the deep traditions of rumba.
“Knowing that people outside of my country are receiving what is going on in Cuba from my perspective is a great responsibility but at the same time a beautiful task,” she explains. “I feel bad because after this investigation I realised that I didn’t know even half of the things that being a Cuban one should know. The song [on the album] that says get to know Cuba first and abroad later on is very valid. I’ve been travelling around the world and didn’t even know what is truly my rumba, my Cuban music.”
Cuba’s music industry, which lacks the necessary resources to develop and support a new generation artists, has historically been damaged by the US embargo but the announcements by presidents Raul Castro and Barack Obama to move toward normalising relations potentially signals the wind of change. However, as films like ‘HAVANA CLUB RUMBA SESSIONS… LA CLAVE’ find a global following on the social networks we have to hope that a whole range of brand new possibilities arise.
Watch out for each chapter arriving on the web. If it comes to a cinema near you don’t hesitate… just check it. And then start seeking out the music of those rumba dons who appear in the film.