The Story of Los Muñequitos de Matanzas
In the 1950s, on a corner with four bars in the neighborhood of Marina, humble black youth who loved the rumba would meet after work and during the weekends. Most of them were port workers, plumbers and masons, and as they listened to son and bolero music on the Victrola, the hot taste of a good rum between them, they would entertain each other with the sounds of percussing the tables, glasses, spoons and bottles from “El Gallo,” a bar on the corner of Matanzas and Daoiz in the city of Matanzas, Cuba.
First the applause came from those among them, then people passing by discovered that this was more than just an “unburdening.” Invitations to parties around the neighborhood followed, until one day they decided to form a stable group. Thus, 59 years ago, Guaguancó Matancero was born, the beginnings of the most famous rumba group from Cuba. Guaguancó Matancero was initially devoted only to making guaguancó. The guaguancó, one of the most popular forms of Cuban rumba, was created in the port areas of Matanzas and Havana. It is danced in pairs, in an erotic game where women flirt with and tease the man as he tries to “possess” her. She seduces him and craftily covers herself to prevent “el vacunao,” the name for the gesture the male dancer makes to try to violate the female dancer’s intimate privacy. The music has a faster rhythm than the yambú (also danced in pairs, but slower and more majestic). Its tempo is closest to the columbia, but the latter is mostly a dance for men from rural areas with musical roots much closer to bantú expressions.
Guaguancó Matancero’s flavorful subjects delighted audiences, and the group was invited to travel to Havana to record. In 1956, it released its first album, on 78rpm, published by the Cuban label Puchito. One side contained the song “Los Beodos” by Lorenzo Matinez. On the other was “Los Muñequitos” by Esteban Lantri, a guaguancó about the comic strips popular in newspapers and magazines of the time (in Cuba these are called “muñequitos”). Public affection for the group soared, especially for the Muñequitos guaguancó, which even today remains in its repertory and is still requested frequently. Because of this, the group changed its name to Los Muñequitos de Matanzas.
The music of Los Muñequitos de Matanzas was heard throughout Cuba, and became a landmark for people who wanted to dance. The percussion and harmony of its presentations were revered by all of the Cuban rumberos who followed the group. The founders had been in soneras groups, sang the traditional Cuban trova and bolero well, and were very knowledgeable about the African cultural heritage of Cuba. This, along with their experience as devoutly religious men, made them unique portrayers of the expression of the rumba.
The group’s founders were: Florencio Calle “Catalino,” director, guagua and maracas; Esteban Lantrí “Saldiguera,” first voice; Hortensio Alfonso “Virulilla,” second voice and chorus; Esteban Vega Bacallao “Chachá,” conga; Pablo Mesa “Juan Bosco,” tumba 6x8 (salidor); Angel Pellado “Chácata,” cajón, quinto; Gregorio Díaz “Goyito,” conga; and Juan Mesa, claves, second voice and improviser. At the time, the group was made up of all male percussionists and singers.
One day they decided to incorporate a young dancer from the Marianao neighborhood in Havana who soon became a true adopted son of Matanzas. His name was Diosdado Ramos, a rumba dancer who absorbed the purest lessons of his teachers. He dedicated his life to the group, and 40 years ago, Diosdado Ramos became the general director of Los Muñequitos de Matanzas. To this day he is a faithful defender of the group’s roots. He has grown into adulthood with the group and has given it a family feel.
Other members of the group from the ‘60s to the ‘80s included: Lazara Smith Fernández, lead dancer for seven years; Leonel Torriente, percussionist for 20 years; Ernesto Torriente “Chambelona”; Frank Osamendi, singer for 20 years; and singers Pedro Fariñas, Pedrito Currubia, Ricardo Yorca “Chacho,” Israel Berriel Jimenez “Toto,” and Ronald González; and drummers Victoriano Espinosa “Titi” and Iván Alfonso. Gregorio Díaz (Goyito) served as a director during the 1970s and Armando Valladares was the group’s first agent. Marino Márquez made the instruments used by the Muñequitos for many years. Since 1988, Los Muñequitos has also incorporated Yoruba, Bricamo and Abakua music with original instruments into its repertory. In 1988, Caridad Diéz joined the management team, and later became the producer and artistic director, producing several of its albums and traveling with the group in its national and international tours.
Currently the group consists of six singers: Rafael Navarro Pujada “El Niño,” lead singer of the rumba; Israel Berriel González, akpwon; Ana Pérez, also a dancer; Luis Cancino, who also dominates the percussion and dance with complete ease; and José Andro Mella Bosch and Reyniel López González, of the younger generation, previously of the group Rumba Timba.
As percussionists, the group is already well known to the American public: Agustín Díaz Cano, son of founder “Goyito”; Freddy Jesús Alfonso Borges, son of Jesús Alfonso; Eddy Espinosa Alfonso, son of “Titi,” and Facundo Pelladito Hernandez, also dancer and son of Angel Pellado, a founder of the group.
The current dancers are almost all members of the Ramos family: Bárbaro Ramos, Yogilda Vivian, Esther Yamilet, Diosdado Enier “Figurín,” and Luis Deyvis, who started with Los Muñequitos at the age of three and who, together with Jaime Ona and Yuniscleivis Ramos, as adolescents and grandchildren of Diosdado confirm the historical status of this group as an institution based on family and religious fellowship.
The international career of Los Muñequitos de Matanzas began in 1989 with performances in England. The group first performed in the United States in 1992, when Dance Theater Workshop’s Suitcase Fund organized a 10-week tour to 14 cities. The overwhelming enthusiasm that greeted Los Muñequitos from New York to San Francisco prompted several producers, festivals, universities, and theaters to invite the group back repeatedly from 1994 to 2002. During this time, the U.S. tours were produced by MAPP International Productions. Los Muñequitos has also performed in Puerto Rico, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Costa Rica, Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Germany, France, and Poland.
Its discography is extensive and has been released primarily by Puchito, EGREM, ARtex, Qbadisc and in recent years by the Cuban label Bis Music. The group’s three most recent albums, Rumba de Corazón, Tambor de Fuego and De Palo Pa ́rumba, have been nominated both for the Cubadisco Prize and for the Latin Grammy. The album La Rumba Soy Yo, won a Latin Grammy in the category Best Folk Music Album of 2001. Cuban Odyssey, an album with Canadian flautist Jane Bunnett and a host of Cuban artists, won the award for Best Latin Jazz Album of 2003. The group also participated in the production Con sentimiento manana and is on the DVD, A Tribute to the Ancestors, also under the Cuba Bis label.
Los Muñequitos has shared the stage with various prominent figures from Cuba and elsewhere, such as Celeste Mendoza, Tata Guines, Celia Cruz, Carlos Embale, Tito Puente, Omara Portuondo, Chucho Valdés and Irakere, Pablo Milanés, Juan Formell y Los Van Van, José Luis Cortés and NG La Banda, Orquesta Aragón, Herbie Hancock, Orlando Valle “Maraca,” Stephan Kurmann, Mayito Rivera, Paulito FG, Haila Mompié, Isaac Delgado, Changuito, Ned Sublette, Nelson González, Max Pollack, Síntesis, Septeto Nacional de Cuba, Cucú Diamante, Egberto Gismonti, La Familia Cepeda, Andy Montañéz, Danny Rivera, Rubén Blades, Gilberto Gil, Los Pleneros de la 21, Conjunto Folklórico Nacional de Cuba, Cutumba, Pedro Lugo “El Nene,” Papo Luca, Cheo Feliciano, Jhonny Ventura, Tito Nieves, Los Papines, Clave y Guaguancó, Zenaida y
la Camerata Romeu, Gilberto Santarosa, Oscar D’León, Ismael Miranda, Jerry Rivera, El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, Willy Colón, almost all Cuban rumba groups and rappers, and many more. Los Muñequitos has also recorded with many of these artists. Several of the group’s songs have been incorporated into the repertoire of musicians including Eddy Palmieri and Vocal Sampling.
The history of the Cuban rumba can be told alongside Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, not only because it is one of the oldest groups or because it has enjoyed great popularity since its first album, but because it has lived with its fame without losing the essence of its work. It has fused the most treasured elements of the rumba with contemporary forms of expression. Los Muñequitos has become the standard for how to dance, dress, and act rumba for people both inside and outside Cuba.
In 2003, the group suffered a severe blow with the loss of Ricardo
Cané after a sudden illness. He had been a singer with the group for more than 25 years. Alberto Romero also passed away after singing
for the group for many years. More recently, music director and songwriter Jesus Alfonso Miró left this earth. All of these men were great architects of the Cuban rumba. To them—and all who bequeathed to Los Muñequitos and the people of Cuba the magical, spiritual and artistic tradition brought to this island by the earliest African slaves—we dedicate this TRIBUTE TO THE ANCESTORS.
—Caridad Diéz / Havana, Cuba. February 2011