Rumba in Matanzas

'Without rumba there is no Cuba, and without Cuba there is no rumba,' runs a Cuban saying. Matanzas certainly gave birth to one of Cuba's defining musical forms and occupies a pivotal place both in the history and in the future development of music in the country.

Rumba originated here in the city's African cabildos, secret brotherhood councils formed among slaves brought over from West Central Africa during the 19th century to work Cuba's plantations. These brotherhoods came together in the port backstreets to worship their orishas (deities) and keep their traditions alive. So rumba in Matanzas began, and rapidly spread: the music of a repressed and displaced people remembering their roots through music. It was the outlet through which initially Afro-Cubans, but later other subjugated groups from deprived backgrounds, expressed fears and hopes about their position in society.

Matanzas is responsible for most of the main forms of rumba. The most ancient variety, Rumba Yambú, stems from the Versalles district in the late 19th century, and has a slower, smoother pace. Rumba Guaguancó is more modern and sensual, emulating the mating ritual between a rooster and a hen, and uses conga drums. Then there is Rumba Columbia, named after an old bus stop outside Matanzas, performed only by men because of its dangerous moves. Only recently recognized as a sub-genre, there is also Batá-rumba, invented and best exemplified by contemporary group AfroCuba de Matanzas. Percussion here is provided by hourglass-shaped Batá drums, a ritual instrument of Nigeria's Yoruba people.

Masters of the first three of these forms are Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, formed almost 60 years ago, when an inspired impromptu jamming session on bottles in a bar in the city's Barrio Marina persuaded various locals they could gel as a group. And gel they did. Originally named Guaguancó Matancero, their first A-side 'Los Muñequitos' (little comics) was so popular that that was how the group became known.

Los Muñequitos de Matanzas and AfroCuba de Matanzas are descended from the early days of cabildos, with Lucumí and Kongo origins. But the music they are making now is as much about re-evaluating the roots of music as remembering the roots of their ancestors. A great example is AfroCuba's groundbreaking collection of songs, The Sign and the Seal, which uses a focus on traditional orishas to seemingly push the boundaries of music itself. Songs are dedicated to such deities as Agayú – in Yoruba culture, an uninhabited space or wilderness – while another explores Oshún, the source of rivers, water and life. In returning to the building blocks of a culture, the album revisits the building blocks of music; it reassembles sound as the universe (the relationship with which is the cornerstone of Yoruba beliefs) reassembles sound.

Better than reading about the city's rumba is listening to some and both of the groups mentioned here perform in Matanzas. An incredible ingredient to the city is that, in the home of rumba, its two most renowned exponents can still be found indulging in a spot of low-key jamming here. The best bet to catch rumba is the great alfresco performances that take place at 4pm on the third Friday of every month outside the Museo Histórico Provincial.

Abakuá

A secret all-male society, a language understood only by initiates, a close-knit network of masonic-like lodges, and the symbolic use of the African leopard to denote power: the mysterious rites of Abakuá read like a Cuban Da Vinci Code.

In a country not short on foggy religious practices, Abakuá is perhaps the least understood. It's a complicated mixture of initiations, dances, chants and ceremonial drumming that testifies to the remarkable survival of African culture in Cuba since the slave era.

Not to be confused with Santería or other syncretized African religions, Abakuá’s traditions were brought to Cuba by enslaved Efik people from the Calabar region of southeastern Nigeria in the 18th and 19th centuries. With practitioners organizing themselves into ‘lodges’ or juegos, the first of which was formed in the Havana suburb of Regla in 1836, Abakuá acted as a kind of African mutual aid society, originally made up primarily of black dock workers whose main goal was to help buy their tribal brethren out of slavery.

In the early days, Abakuá lodges were necessarily anti-slavery and anti-colonialist and were suppressed by the Spanish. Nonetheless, by the 1860s, the lodges were increasingly admitting white members and finding that their strength lay in their secretiveness and invisibility.

Today, there are thought to be over 100 Abakuá lodges in Cuba, some up to 600-strong, based primarily in Havana, Matanzas and Cárdenas (the practice never penetrated central or eastern Cuba). Initiates are known as ñáñigos and their intensely secret ceremonies take place in a temple known as a famba. Although detailed information about the brotherhood is scant, Abakuá is well-known to the outside world for its masked dancers called Ireme (devils) who showcase their skills in various annual carnivals and were instrumental in the development of the guaguancó style of rumba. Cuba’s great abstract artist, Wilfredo Lam, used Abakuá masks in his paintings, and composer, Amadeo Roldán, incorporated its rhythms into classical music.

While there is a strong spiritual and religious element to the brotherhood (forest deities and the leopard symbol are important), it differs from the more widespread Santería religion in that it is does not hide its deities behind Catholic saints. Cuban anthropologist, Fernando Ortíz Fernández, once referred to Abakuá societies as a form of ‘African masonry’ while other researchers have suggested it acts like a separate state within a nation with its owns laws and language. The casual Cuban word ‘asere’ (meaning ‘mate’) is actually derived from the Abakuá term for ‘ritual brother.'