Rumba Concert Coincides with Obama’s Visit to Cuba

Photo by Pauline Park

The sound of Cuba filled Friends Hall Monday, as celebrated Cuban drummer Román Díaz and his band performed a lively set celebrating Ramapo’s Year of Latin America, which coincides with President Obama’s historic tour of the island nation.

Díaz, a stateside champion of traditional Cuban music who immigrated to America in 1999, is considered by many to be the preeminent performer of Rumba, the dominant genre of music in the land where he was born.

Wearing dark blue clothing, a beret and gold-accented sunglasses, Díaz held court onstage before the concert, describing his art form in deep, rich tones with his three-member band around him .

“Rumba is danceable and you can sing to it in Cuba. It’s folkloric music,” Díaz said through an interpreter. He continued, “It has a spiritual connection to jazz; it’s improvisational. As jazz has its own language, so does Rumba.”

“In the communities where they play Rumba, children learn in the womb, because they play all the time, in mostly urban settings,” Díaz said.

Singer Melvis Santa agreed: “There are lyrics that explain that also, because as you said, it’s part of the folkloric tradition.”

“‘I was a rumbero, even in my mother’s womb,’” Díaz laughed, quoting a traditional song.

Díaz also discussed his latest album, “L'ó Dá Fún Bàtá." His first solo release, “Bàtá” incorporates elements of the African American gospel tradition. Otherwise, said Díaz, the album is characterized by his signature drumming: “my sound is recognizable and unique.”

The musician declined to comment on Obama’s visit to Cuba.

“I’m a musician – I stay away from politics. I’m going to be quiet about his visit and see how it plays out,” he said.

Ethnic musicologist and Ramapo faculty member Marc Gidal introduced Díaz and his band – comprised of Santa and father/son duo Clemente Medina and Clemente Medina Jr. – to a packed audience. Before the show, Gidal explained how the Friends Hall performance would differ from one in Cuba:  

“They’re going to play music associated with the Afro-Cuban religion of Santeria and then music that is secular music, for communal events, dancing and celebration, called Rumba. In both of them, the drums and the singing accompany dancers. So what we’re missing here is interaction with dancers…that’s a very important thing that’s lost,” he said, concluding, “This is very different from how it would traditionally be played.”

But at Santa’s encouragement, the majority of the crowd gathered before the stage stood up and danced to the band’s music, clapping to the beat. Several students jumped on stage, picking up instruments handed to them by Santa. One such student, Tom Kiely – a music performance major and senior – had recently studied Rumba music and found the live renditions of songs to be of exponentially greater than the recorded versions he had previously heard.

“This is very authentic music – we’ve listened to audio examples, but this was the real thing,” he said. “The sound of the drum, that vibration hitting our ears, you can’t get unless you have people that know how to play the drums and know how to play the rhythms. It’s very valuable, to hear that in real time and in a real space, instead of sitting in a classroom and listening to an audio file.”

While onstage, Kiely described the music as “visceral.”

“Especially the dancing,” he said afterwards. “If you’re sitting down and listening, it just sounds like a mess of complicated rhythm, but when you dance it sounds more fluid.”

The concert went out with a bang, not a whimper, as Díaz, Santa and the Medinas finished their set with a fast-paced number that had students in attendance dancing, clapping and keeping time with instruments distributed by Gidal.

“I think more people should come out to events like this,” said Kiely. “They’re worth it.”