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Pop Review : Cuba's Los Munequitos Delivers a Vibrant Debut

August 22, 1994|ENRIQUE LOPETEGUI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Can you hear it from there?," Rafael Navarro asked moments before the doors were opened Friday night for the group's Los Angeles debut by the Cuban-based rumba group Los Munequitos de Matanzas.

Navarro, a member of the acclaimed 14-piece ensemble, was speaking to a sound engineer at Pasadena City College's Sexson Auditorium, where the group also performed Saturday. When the engineer nodded approval, Navarro said, "That's it, then. We don't need no more tests."

He was right.

All that the outstanding group needed--on only its second U.S. tour ever--was some space, a few microphones and a willing audience. The Munequitos' magnetism and musical mastery did the rest.

As in the case of all Cuban-based artists, Los Munequitos are allowed to perform in the United States only as a cultural act and paid on an expenses-only basis. The show was sponsored by the Institute of Cuban Folkloric Studies of Pasadena.

Known as the most important representatives of rumba--the main root of the many branches of Afro-Cuban rhythms utilized in salsa and countless other styles of Latin dance music--Los Munequitos offered an intense but not solemn opening set consisting of religious santeria chants and ceremonial dancing.

In the second set, the focus was on the three types of rumba--ancient rural yambu (a mid-tempo approach in which a female dancer seduces a male); the urban, contemporary guaguanco (a faster beat during which the man pursues the woman) and the also rural columbia (an interaction between the dancers, drummers and vocalists).

Closing the second set, Los Munequitos offered a festive conga popular callejera that earned a standing ovation from the rumba-crazed crowd.

There was so much activity onstage during the two-hour event that it was hard to keep up with all the elements, even though the only sounds from the stage except the drums were from the fierce harmonies of six vocalists. The potent solos by the singers demonstrated where the great soneros, or top-notch salsa singers, learned their trade.

The entire evening was a rare and valuable examination of the spiritual and technical structure of Afro-Cuban music, all performed by dancers who sing, singers who dance and drummers who are among the most treasured exponents of their art.

Little on Friday night was conventional. The two male dancers didn't just dance in traditional ways, but added color and commentary to their moves by frequently injecting moments of delightful miming. Barbaro Ramos, one of the dancers, moved with the frantic gestures of a break-dancer, while the other dancer, Ramos' father Diosdado, added a flash of humor through shadowboxing and other visual punctuation.

Living up to its years of acclaim, Los Munequitos finally showed Los Angeles audiences that the group is today's rawest and most unadulterated personification of all the essentials that make us love Afro-Cuban music.

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