Master Musicians Michael Spiro, José Luis Gómez and Jesús Díaz Honor their Afro-Cuban Elders on their new album “Mabagwe”
“Rumba is like el ajiaco, like Cuban gumbo: a blending of rhythms, songs, and dances that delights the heart and takes away your pain.” – José Luis Gómez
Rumba can be played anywhere—at the kitchen table, on some buckets in the patio, on a desktop—whenever and wherever rumberos decide to start playing clave and want to sing about what’s going on with their lives.
That’s the way it’s long been in Cuba, and that approach was transplanted fairly seamlessly to the US as Cubans came to places like New York, Miami, and the San Francisco Bay Area. The rumberos would coalesce around a few notable Cuban elders and create a new community for a style rich in possibility, but with a legacy that goes back decades.
These American rumba moments, entwining Afro-Cuban religious ceremonies with secular celebrations, brought together Michael Spiro and José Luis Gómez in San Francisco in the early 1980s. Michael was a young professional musician working his way into the Bay Area Latin music scene, and José Luis was a newly arrived Cuban emigre and former basketball coach obsessed with the rumba of his native country.
They played together for years, and later came to “share” a Cuban elder who instructed and inspired them, Regino Jiménez Sáez. Regino was one of the few Cubans who was able to obtain a visa to come to the US to perform and teach, and he soon became one of Michael and José Luis’ mentors. When he passed in 2004, Michael and José Luis vowed they would record an album to honor him.
Then life happened and a decade passed. But the two friends, along with producer, percussionist, vocalist Jesús Díaz (who’s played with everyone from Carlos Santana to Sheila E) finally came together to pay tribute to “los mayores,” the elders who sustained and guided them. With the release of Mabagwe (“Remembrance” in Yoruba; released: January 29, 2018), they provide us with a wide-ranging exposition of the power of rumba and the gifts of the elders to our musical community.
“The album was recorded by rumberos from three different locations: Cuba, the US, and rumberos who recently emigrated to the US from the island,” notes Spiro. “There are all these different sounds and arrangements and influences, the way there are supposed to be in rumba. I think our core trio had enough expertise and energy, you could take the record to Cuba and people would say, yes, this is how it should sound!”
“I’ve been friends with Michael Spiro and Jesús Díaz since I came to the US 35 years ago, and we continue to share the stage professionally and participate together in rumbas and Afro-Cuban religious ceremonies,” Gómez explains. “The level of respect we have for each other, and the professionalism we have in our work always exceeds my expectations. Any time these two guys want to jump into some project, I’ll be there.”
The rumba runs far deeper than the party music and social dancing most people outside of Cuba associate with the style. Its breadth can embrace all the diverse spiritual traditions and rhythms of Afro-diasporic Cuba. It’s where Cuban music began, where Spanish décimas intersect with Yoruba-inspired call and response choruses to yield something radically new yet grounded in everyday life.
“Rumba for me is arguably the most important form of Afro-Cuban music, the first form of Cuban music that led to everything else, like son and salsa,” Spiro reflects. “It’s not African, not Spanish, it’s Cuban music, and not from a single African origin like some of the traditions. It’s where all the Cubans can give their cultural input.”
The balm for emotional and spiritual loss is remembrance and celebration, and Gómez, Spiro, and Díaz have gathered some of the strongest rumberos in the US and Cuba. The songs they selected for the elders range from classics (“Oye mi omelé” made famous by Los Muñequitos de Matanzas) to new rumbas composed for Sáez (“Elegía a Regino”). They encompass the many rhythms that often make their ways into rumbas, giving voice in pieces like “Lo que me dijo Changó” to the different orisha (spirits) who make themselves known throughout Afro-Cuban music and culture.
Spiro comments, “Cubans tell the stories of the day via rumbas. It might be something as simple as “shake your booty” to something as nuanced as triple entendre political commentary. Some are very poetic and metaphorical and tied to religious practices, and some are just “check my drums out, they’re kicking ass.’” Intersecting secular and spiritual topics are found throughout this recording, just like the style’s frequent mélanges of rhythms and medleys in “Potpourri de boleros.”
Spiro and Gómez wanted to capture this variety and depth as they put together their homage. They purposefully chose diverse kinds of rumbas and a wide range of rhythms and sentiments. “Rumba is as varied and different in its forms as any other music. If you don’t know any better, you wouldn’t necessarily know all the subgenres of say, rock or jazz. Rumba is the same,” Spiro remarks. “If we were going to have 10 tunes on the record, we decided we needed a certain number from this form of rumba, and a few of that form, and so forth. We wanted a fair amount of original stuff, but then also a couple of pieces that were standards or classics but with our take on it. The connecting thread was that they all had to pay tribute to our masters and mentors.”
The result does more than honor the elders; it gives an earthy, beautifully recorded window into a Cuban style worth getting to know in depth. It is performed here by musicians who have spent a lifetime exploring its subtleties and power.