Jazz Plaza 2020: Speaking in Tongues

Los Muñequitos de Matanzas bringing down the house at El Tablao

Los Muñequitos de Matanzas began life in 1952 as Conjunto Guaguancó Matancero in El Marina, in the city of Matanzas. As the story goes, a few young rumberos were in a bar when the manager popped in a 45 rpm of Arsenio Rodríguez. The drummers, already in the mood for music started accompanying the recording with whatever they could find – bottles, glasses and cutlery, singing the song’s iconic words – no doubt – as they heard it and improvised on it. As the story goes, song took on another life, it seems, because by the time it was done, the entire bar burst into applause and the manager realised he had found a new form of entertainment to draw in the crowds. Just how much of this is a fiction and how much is an actual fact is what we found out when we paid a visit to Callejón de Hamel – to what was once a slum, but is now art gallery to a people of a myriad tongues.

Los Muñequitos de Matanzas at El Tablao. Jazz Plaza 2020. Photo credit: Danilo Navas
Los Muñequitos de Matanzas at El Tablao. Jazz Plaza 2020. Photo credit: Danilo Navas, Raul Da Gama

“As the drums spoke and sang, we too found ourselves speaking and singing as if in our own private Caribbean Babel”

There we became a part of the throb and thunder of sweating bodies inebriated with rum, voices raise in praise and supplication to Yoruba Orishas. We shed urban modesty and allowed the rhythmic rattle and rumble of the bàtá and the roaring tumbadora to loose our voices too. The rum did its work, but so did the vibrations of the music. Our ears and minds opened like Alejo Carpentier’s unnamed protagonist in The Lost Steps, surrounded by a thousand women, each a Bohemian “Mouche” and a carnal “Rosario”, tumbling into viscerally exciting musical adventures. As the drums spoke and sang, we too found ourselves speaking and singing as if in our own private Caribbean Babel. It seemed not to matter what we sang or said; anything – everything – had meaning; life itself had a new meaning.

Los Muñequitos de Matanzas at El Tablao. Photo credit: Danilo Navas
Los Muñequitos de Matanzas at El Tablao. Photo credit: Danilo Navas

Back in the basement that was El Tablao, on the evening of January 17th Los Muñequitos de Matanzas tuned up under the neon warmth and hypnosis of the multi-coloured lights. Somehow the lights changed from blood red to vivid and electric blue sometimes divided by a kind of nuclear white light that bathed the darkness. “La Bandera de mi tierra”… the drums began to speak and sing again and it all altered and increased the volume and pressure of our beating hearts. Then they began to sing and chant. Prayers and supplications… Arará invocations to the Lucumí saints in a language that was both unintelligible and yet seemingly understood, not only by those gods, but by us as well. The rhythmic beat of glossolalia went up to the heavens as if with a chorus of voices rustling like raw silk they began to speak in the tongues of angels…

For two hours, or so, amid the fumes of rum and the odour of sweat our consciousness were subsumed; dancing in a Bacchanalian rhythm. Our bodies had danced uncontrollably at Callejón de Hamel but a few days ago. Here, at El Tablao, guided by the hypnotic and incessant pulsations of the drums of Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, our minds were held captive and – in short order – offered in willing sacrifice to the Muses of music, the saints; to the gods. But who or what were these gods or who was this God of gods? He was certainly not conceived as the God of rational thought or reasoned faith. Rather the music seemed to be calling upon a God of direct knowledge, intense personal vision and inward, ecstatic experience. Not a Being among other Beings, even if a supreme Being.

This music of Los Muñequitos de Matanzas put us in a realm of an ancient God; a God who participated in this music and blessed it with the rhythm of unutterable laughter. The hands of the drummers moved faster; beat the skins of the drums harder and with invisible angularity this way and that. Lips were pressed against the microphones and with words that no one could fathom we experienced the primordial; an experience that rend from top to bottom the curtain upon which is painted the picture of an ordered world. Thus we were allowed a glimpse into the unfathomed abyss of other worlds; of the obscuration of the spirit, of the beginning of things before the age of man. With mesmeric thunder and fiery chants Los Muñequitos allowed us to catch a glimpse of both an ancient past as well as gave us a glimpse of what might easily be the unborn language of a truly numinous future.

Los Muñequitos de Matanzas at El Tablao. Jazz Plaza 2020. Photo credit: Danilo Navas, Raul Da Gama
Los Muñequitos de Matanzas at El Tablao. Jazz Plaza 2020. Photo credit: Danilo Navas, Raul Da Gama
Raul Da Gama
Based in Milton, Ontario, Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and an accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

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