Laughing voices and tapping shoes were heard as we entered a crammed and stifling rehearsal space in the middle of Havana. Drumming lessons were underway. Maestro Eduardo Córdova was instructing girls and young women in African beats that historically belonged to male musicians and tribal leaders.
Although the school is privately funded, it seemed to carry the spirit of the original Cuban revolutionary plan of providing access to all things for all people. A colorful set design back-dropped a well-worn dance floor where a dozen young women put their own stamp on contemporary dance. Ancient goddesses carved into the drums seemed to find spirit in the young women at the Habana Compas (“Rhythm Beat”) Dance School as they rambunctiously applied percussion sticks to the backs, sides, seats and legs of colorfully painted wooden chairs.
The company Habana Compás Dance was founded in 2004. It is directed by the dancer and choreographer Liliet Rivera Puentes who has performed in the renowned dancehalls of Cuba, the United States, Spain and Venezuela. HCD is currently composed of 12 female dancers and 4 musicians. The artistic style of the company merges the soul of the Spanish dances with the heart of Afro-Cuban rhythms and contemporary dance. The women not only dance, but also create sounds, using any element at hand: castanets, heels, wood slippers, claves, drumsticks, chequerés, and of course, the percussive chairs.
Even in hard times the one thing that remains consistent for Cubans is their attachment to and love of music. It seems that in Cuba anything can become a musical instrument. With a tire rim, a gourd, a rickety old wooden chair, or the skeletal jawbone of a horse any one can beat out the songs attuned to the heart of the people. Ancient drums and bongos, claves and guiros, guitars and bass, the human voice or a whole orchestra are important links to the psyche and history of Cuba. At home, music is inseparable from Cuba’s daily life and history.
I experienced this myself in restaurants and on street corners. From the driver seats of old Chevys and in the doorways of practically every household comes the “son and the salsa.” These are the combinations of Spanish melodies and African rhythm on which Cuban music and its accompanying dance have taken root. One can hardly keep from clapping or swaying even if, like me, you have two left feet!
The Rumba is the African-Cuban music which carried the voice of rebellion against slavery and segregation, and, today, it is the music to which modern day folks dance and let loose! Rumba developed in the Cuban provinces of Havana and Matanzas (one hour east of Havana) in the late 19th century, as a blending of Congolese-derived drumming styles and Spanish flamenco-singing influences. Rumba was often suppressed and restricted because it was viewed as sexually charged and therefore dangerous and lewd. But the Rumba is still danced in Havana. The island has produced dance music that has traveled all over the world.
Shall we keep the song going, singing and dancing and drumming from the depth of our beings? GRACIAS, Cuba!