Cuban music has always been a major influence on mine and Mouna's playing. For a percussionist, it is an essential knowledge base to study: from the traditional Afro-Cuban styles to the modern "son" and "salsa" styles. Cuban drumming for a Western drummer/percussionist, opens the ears to a totally different way of approaching drumming and rhythm in general.
Our room in Havana was in an area called "Cayo Hueso", a lively, popular quarter. Not only was this home to a world famous "rumba" every Sunday afternoon but was also just down the road from Chinatown and central Havana was within easy walking distance. So, once settled in we set off to find our first musical contact in Cuba and our first teacher Santiago "Chaguito" Garzon Ruiz ex-director of both "Rumberos de Cuba" and the legendary "Clave y Guaguanco". Chaguito was an excellent teacher and he taught me for two hours a day, for two weeks. Although he taught me lots of different beats and ways of playing parts, the most important thing he taught me was how to hit the congas properly. As far as hand positions and general posture were concerned, we took everything right back to the beginning. Very methodically, we built up the new technique and I've also applied his teaching to all the drums I play and it really has made a huge difference.
We spent the "St Lazarus" evening with Chaguito and his family and as he is a "Santos" we were treated to an evening of "Bembe" traditional 6/8 rhythms and singing with roots right back in Africa and the "Yoruba" tradition.
In the hotels and bars in Havana, the "son" style was predominant. We did see one or two salsa bands but it was mostly son and other more traditional styles such as "Habanera" or "Changui". We saw some great musicians and were inspired by the energy they created with small, fully acoustic set-ups. The rhythm sections consisted of a bongocero (no conguero), double bass and maybe rhythm acoustic guitar. The "tres" and/or a flute and a singer complete the line-up, along with backing vocals and choreographed dance steps. The Sunday "rumba" session at "Cayo Hueso" where we were staying was fantastic. The venue was outdoors and surrounded by the colourfully decorated walls of the blocks of flats. It was always full and had a very urban, tense feel in contrast to the music that is traditional and has a very fluid feel to it. Although a traditional style, "rumba" is always developing and moving forward. We saw this both in Havana and Santiago de Cuba. "Guaguanco" is now very fast with both the Tres Golpe and Tumba parts (the medium and bass) often played with three congas and a "cahon" for each part compared to one drum per part in the traditional context.
Santiago de Cuba is the centre of traditional and folkloric Cuban music and is where all the "son" styles started. It is also where the carnival music "conga" was invented and developed and Santiago's carnival is famous in the world and is acknowledged as being the best in Cuba. The state of the buildings and architecture in general is much better than in Havana. Apparently, Santiago had really pulled itself up in the last ten years and had invested time and resources in the city itself. Tourism had arrived a few years back and there was more money in the town and the Cubans quality of life had improved greatly.
I'd been given an address of a percussion teacher called Manuel Semanat Bell, or "Manolo". Manolo was a very well known Santiago musician who'd travelled all over the world as a representative of the folkloric styles of the area. He was the opposite to Chaguito in Havana in both personality and playing style. While Chaguito is very laid back, Manolo is a large man with a large personality and an exuberant, physical playing style.
Again, I was put through my paces every day and studied the local comparsa, conga and son styles. Manalo was also a very good teacher although with my limited Spanish and his abounding enthusiasm I didn't always know exactly what was going on. His whole family lived in the same group of houses so there was always someone coming in or out or something going on. Everyone plays at least the clave pattern but almost all of the family could play the drum parts as well. Often the lessons would finish as a jam session.
Manolo, when he knew we were both musicians immediately invited us to come and see his "son" band at the world-famous "Casa de la Trova" that night and also asked us if we'd like to do a gig there. A couple of nights later we opened for his band with some traditional Moroccan music. The Cubans loved the African connection and Mouna's singing and drumming. We were then asked to play twice more in Santiago for cultural and social events. The Cubans were very open and interested in what we played and where we came from and how we ended up in Cuba. Mouna also had singing lessons and learnt three or four new "guaguanco"s (the main style of rumba).
Music was everywhere in Santiago. As well as all the bands playing at places like the Casa de la Trova, we also saw several rumba and folkloric shows, including the "Los Oyos" conga band and their rumba band run by the younger generation of players. Music that was much more present in Santiago than in Havana.
By the time we'd got settled back in our casa in Havana only a few days were left. We started another intensive course with "Chaguito". The last sessions with him were very useful and re-enforced everything I'd done with him before. Mouna also revised the songs she'd learned with him before and added a couple more. They looked at some songs in the "Yambu" style of rumba that is the much slower style as well as some guaguanco songs.
Musically, the whole experience was better than we could have hoped for and we will be forever grateful to Chaguito, Manolo, their families and to the Cubans who made us so welcome in their country.
Please feel free to contact Simon directly for more information on teaching or workshops.