Feel It Again: Cuba's Los Muñequitos de Matanzas Return to S.F.

Music is a multisensual experience. Putting aside synesthesia — a rare condition in which what a person experiences in one sensory realm (like seeing) activates a second sensory realm (like hearing) — musical performances are most fully experienced when they are heard, seen, felt, and moved to in a communal space. Recorded music is great — how else could you listen to metal or a symphony while driving your car? — but you shouldn't forget that the multisensual experience of live music is something special. For some styles of music, it is essential. This digression is by way of encouraging you to see the legendary Cuban ensemble Los Muñequitos de Matanzas when they perform this week at Mission High School.

Previewing Los Muñequitos de Matanzas' 2007 Grammy-nominated album Tambor de Fuego during a car trip last week, I realized the necessity of hearing this music live. Deprived of the visual elements and unable to move freely, I was struck by the seeming sameness of the tracks. An archetypal rumba pattern on claves (a pair of wooden sticks) sets the beat. A male vocalist then establishes the primary melody of the piece, supported by the pattern of interlocking rhythms set by the drummers on the quinto (a high-pitched conga — the lead drum), and two or more tumbadores (low-pitched congas). Other instruments may be added, but this is the basic template Los Muñequitos de Matanzas work with. After the melody, lyrics, and rhythmic groove of the piece are established, the chorus joins in and the montuno (call-and-response section) begins, freeing the lead singer to improvise lyrics (inspiraciones). The montuno is where the fire happens: Heightened emotions are expressed and the dancing begins. But relying only on auditory stimulation, the fire doesn't ignite.

Back home, I put on my headphones and gave Tambor de Fuego another listen. Enveloped in the sound, each part became distinct without losing the overall rhythmic gestalt. The music seemed almost tactile. Firing up the computer, I checked out performance videos on the band's website and YouTube. The production values were a bit cheesy, but I got a hint of the sensual elements I was still missing: the visual, kinetic, and communal components that are front and center when Los Muñequitos de Matanzas performs.

Formed in the town of Matanzas in 1952, Los Muñequitos de Matanzas (“little dolls of Matanzas”) are a Cuban institution, and one of the few musical groups still in existence that pre-date Fidel Castro's rise to power. (The dictator's picture, or at least his head pasted on another body, is prominently featured on the band's official website, www.munequitosdematanzas.com). Los Muñequitos de Matanzas' mission is to help preserve Afro-Cuban musical culture; its members are masters of the rumba and the ritual practices that spawned it. Today, the group is made up of three generations of an extended family of instrumentalists, singers, and dancers. They have toured the world many times and are among the world's most highly regarded percussion ensembles. Between 1992 and 2002, they toured the U.S. frequently, hitting more than 50 cities. Playing in concert halls, nightclubs, and community centers, the group developed a devoted following. It also received critical acclaim: The San Francisco Chronicle dubbed its members the “reigning regents of rumba,” and Latin Beat called them the “keepers of a sacred flame.”

The band's Tambor de Fuego show reportedly will feature music from the latest album, tributes to legendary band members from the last half-century, and new pieces created especially for this tour, its first in the U.S. since 2002. Their nine-year absence was due to heightened restrictions on travel to and from Cuba stemming from the Cuban Democracy Act of 2002. The show at Mission High School is their first performance in San Francisco in 19 years. With all the sensual elements in place, it should be an experience only slightly short of synesthesia.

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