Matanzas and Havana, Cuba are the birthplaces of the Cuban
musical genre known as Rumba which was born out of the
necessity of the freed slaves in Cuba to continue their rich
tradition of drumming, dance and the celebration of life. Rumba
continues to be a celebration of culture in Cuba and throughout
“Keepers of the Flame” is a new documentary being made by well known percussionist
and teacher Chuck Silverman about the elder
statesmen of Rumba who live in Matanzas and Havana.
Francisco Zamorra Chirino, (“Menini”) and Pedro Aballi Torriente
(“Regalado”) are two of these elder statesmen and co-founders
of AfroCuba de Matanzas, one of Cuba’s preeminent folkloric
groups. Both Menini and Regalado are the keepers of the undying
and fervent flame of Rumba and the deep and profound folkloric
rhythms which were brought to Cuba from Africa.
Matanzas, Cuba is often referred to as the Athens of Cuba.
Art and culture thrive in this city of 150,000 and AfroCuba de
Matanzas is a reflection of the depth and profundity of the
African roots which still exists there. Walking the streets of
Matanzas, one can feel the rhythm of the city and can easily
hear the pulse of Rumba. The Museum of Atenas is where you
will often find AfroCuba de Matanzas rehearsing for upcoming
performances with their drums beating out chants to Changó,
the god of the drum, to Yemaya, the goddess of the oceans, to
Oshun, the goddess of the sweet waters. These “Orishas” (gods
and goddesses) came to Cuba with the Yoruba people of Nigeria.
The call of the “batá” (religious and consecrated drums used in
ceremonies which call forth the gods) can be heard as AfroCuba
de Matanzas rehearses. The vocals provided by Menini and the
chorus of AfroCuba de Matanzas ring out over the street and
beckon you nearer. The power of the drums and voice, strong and
redolent of the years, decades, centuries of music and culture,
is brought forth into this very instant. The rhythms sweet and
strong, mixing with the tropical heat, provide a rare glimpse into
the Cuba which few people see.
AfroCuba de Matanzas then begins to rehearse a new Rumba with
Menini singing the lead. As the story is told within the song, the
drums also tell a story of their own, conversing, questioning and
responding. The dancers soon emerge with one couple engaged in
a heated, exotic dance that also tells its own story. Regalado then
begins to converse with the dancers through the rhythmic beating
of his hands on the skin of his drum. He answers the movements
of the dancers, prodding them on with his unique and powerful
style of soloing. The rhythms grow stronger as chorus after chorus
is sung, the dancers responding to each other and to the intense
We sit and talk with Menini and Regalado after the rehearsal
in the shade of a small mango grove. Our conversation follows
several routes as we discuss each man’s personal story, the
history of each man’s family and of each man’s personal journey
through life as one who humbly yet boldly carries the weight of
tradition. We talk of the beginnings of AfroCuba de Matanzas
57 years ago and of its struggles and victories. We speak of the
Cuban revolution and how it affected each of their lives. The
conversation is deep and we penetrate down to the very roots
of drumming and music. As we talk, we are reminded of the
various areas in Matanzas which still “hold the key” to the African
traditions brought over from Nigeria, Dahomey (now known
as Benin), Togo, the Calabar region and other Western African
regions. We are invited to various “cabildos” (African ethnic
associations) in Matanzas where we discuss the roots of culture
found only in Matanzas deep into the night.
Walking the streets of the el Cerro neighborhood of Havana, the
street noise and action, the old cars plying their way through the
thoroughfares, many people on the street and my friend Raúl
Gonzalez Brito, “Lali”, and I are on our way to a rumba near Lali’s
house. As people say in Havana, “Cerro tiene la llave”, “Cerro has
the key”; the key to the rumba which Habaneros say was invented
there, by the freed slaves who came to live near the port. As we
walk the streets, Lali regales me with stories about rumbas of the
past, with legendary rumberos who have passed and whose likes
will not be seen again. Lali’s played with them all and continues
to perform not only with rumberos but also with his own folkoric/
religious ensemble. We stop at a street-side food stand to try and
grab a drink and something to take to the rumba, as is customary.
Walking away from a main street, we enter a neighborhood
whose homes and infrastructure has seen better days. People
are hanging outside their homes try to catch a breeze. The heat
and humidity are both high and the combination is intense. But
so is the sound we are beginning to hear! A home right ahead is
where the rumba has already begun. People are milling about
outside the residence, passing around some liquid refreshments.
The drums! The drums! You can hear them from a block away.
First is the clave and voice and, as we get closer, the ensemble can
be clearly heard. Lali is telling me who’s going to be there; many
of the elders of the barrio (neighborhood) are already gathered
to thrown down. As we enter the house, there are many people
already there. Lali is greeted with hugs and shouts of welcome.
The happiness, the energy, the music, the people, it’s a big rumba
in el Cerro!!
Lali, a great singer and songwriter, breaks into one of his newest
creations and is joined, on drums, by some of the finest drummers
in town. His lyrics tell of life in the barrio, about the natural way
of things. Basic stories that communicate a brotherhood between
all who are there. The drums beat out their grooves, the quinto
(solo drum) interspersing it’s unique and very rhythmic phrases,
between verses. When the chorus comes in, the dancers appear
and the whole party is energized! The rhythms accelerate, the
dancers respond, the crowd is singing, sweating, moving to the
music. The intensity is overwhelming.
Taking a break after an hour, Lali and I, accompanied by some of
his friends, respected rumberos in el Cerro all, discuss a theme
which is celebrated in song: “La Rumba no es Como Ayer”, “The
Rumba is Not Like Yesterday”. And indeed it isn’t. Unfortunately,
many of the elder statesmen of Rumba and of other important
folkloric styles of drumming have now either passed away or are
in their late 60’s, 70’s and even 80’s. We speak of these people
and one can feel the reverence for those who have passed. The
rumba which is heard in clubs and concerts in Havana is strong,
powerful and also is affected by not only the youth of its players
but also by outside influences. Rumba is being mixed with rock
rhythms and with those of the pervasive dance rhythms which
emanate from the Caribbean.
The time is now to capture the essence of rumba, of the history
of the drums in Cuba, which still exists within these great and
Here is a letter from Chuck:
“I am about to begin on an ambitious project, a documentary about the “old guard” in Cuba, the drummers there who carry the flame of rumba and Cuban folkloric drumming.
The focus of the documentary will be on Menini, Fransisco Zamora Chirino and Lali, Raul Gonzalez Brito.
Many of my teachers and great friends in Cuba are in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Some great drummers there have passed on in recent years and have taken with them their history and important “secrets” of the culture. My idea is to travel to Havana and Matanzas (legally) and create a high quality video documentary including in depth interviews and performances of the Keepers of the Flame, the old guard in Cuba.
I am applying for grants from National Geographic and other organizations and, soon, I will begin a crowdsourcing effort to raise funds for the project. I will post to the social media sites as well as my websites, mailing lists, etc. I am asking for assistance from friends worldwide to help with the campaign which is one reason why I am writing to you. My hope is that this project piques your interest and that you can assist the fundraising campaign in any way possible. (i.e. personal contribution, websites, mailing lists, email blasts, word of mouth, etc.)
I am partnering with a fiscal sponsor (501c3 organization) to make donations tax deductible.
If you are interested, I can send you my project’s treatment. Reading it will give you an excellent idea of the scope of the documentary.
Thank you for your time and for your friendship for all these years and for any ideas/feedback you may have. I look forward to hearing from you”.
For more information about this important and epic project please contact firstname.lastname@example.org please cc: email@example.com