Cuban Drumming Master
By: Andrea Gourgy, Toronto, Canada
2006 Travel and Transitions travel story contest participant
Our Third Prize Winner
A Cuban musician is a bit like a fine Cuban cigar. While some
of the more popular ones are exported all over the world, the most
authentic ones- and arguably the best ones- can still be found on
the island itself.
That's what I had in mind when I made the arduous, 16-hour bus journey
from Cuba's capital of Havana to the heart of the country's Afro-Cuban
music scene, Santiago de Cuba. With a population of just less than
half a million, Santiago de Cuba is less hectic than Havana, but
arguably has an even richer musical culture. Often referred
to as the country's second capital, it is where a number of popular
Cuban rhythms originated, including son, the rhythm that preceded
I made the pilgrimage to "Manolito's" house for my first
drumming lesson on my second day in the city- the two-room home
where I would spend the better part of the next week. I was accompanied
by my fair-skinned traveling partner who insisted on walking indiscreetly
through the streets with an umbrella to shield us from the burning
midday sun, as we trudged to the top of a hill in search of the
renowned Cuban drumming master.
Manolito was expecting us. I don't know how long he had been standing
patiently outside his front door, wearing what I would later learn
was one of his better dress shirts and a purple beret decorated
with chips of reflective glass. He smiled as a group of neighborhood
boys ran past him up the hill, their naked feet moving quickly over
the scorching cement. He greeted us with a warm handshake
and led us through the house to the tiny kitchen where he had set
up three conga drums, carefully placed between the refrigerator,
the crib where Manolito's young grandson slept and the stove, over
which his wife was working on turning a questionable-looking piece
of meat into their family's lunch. I squeezed past a squawking chicken
to assume my position behind the congas as my friend did the same.
And so, with a crying baby in our midst and the all-encompassing
odors of the
family's lunch, the master taught us our first lesson: Cuban son.
Manolito, who would only admit to being cincuenta y pico [fifty-something]
and has been playing the drums since he was nine years old, is one
of Santiago de Cuba's most prominent percussionists. Though his
name is a diminutive version of his given name Manuel, the man is
anything but small. He has a huge, rounded belly and a deep, bellowing
"I am a miracle worker," was one of the first things Manolito
told us upon our arrival. "I once had a male student from Japan,
and he had absolutely no sense of rhythm. But after working with
me intensely for ten days, he was able to play in a local concert."
I first took this to be brashness on Manolito's part, but it soon
proved to be merited. By the end of our first two-hour session,
I was able to bang out the basic rhythms of son and bolero.
His entire family congregated in the kitchen to listen to
us play. Neighbors came and went when they heard us practicing
and sang to
our clumsy beats. Even the family's three chickens that roamed
out back chanted along with us.
From the start, Manolito tried to have us listen to the different
sounds that come out from hitting the drum in different ways, for
instance, with a slap of a hand or hitting it with your fingers
or palms. He developed his own unique language which we soon
caught on to. "Andrea, mi hija [my daughter]," he
said as he was trying to correct me while I played,"the sound
you are making is BAM-BAM-BAM-BOOM. The sound you want to
make is BAM-BOOM-BOOM-BAM." After two hours of intense concentration-
by which time the palms of our hands had become tender and bruised-
Manolito released us for the day. But not before he instructed us
to arrive back at his house at the exact same time the following
When we weren't in class with Manolito, or practicing on the set
of rusty bongo drums that I later bought from him, we spent our
time in downtown Santiago de Cuba, wandering the narrow streets.
As two foreign women in Cuba, you can barely walk a single city
block without someone approaching you-usually, but not always, by
"Hey lady. Where you from?" asked a young Rasta man as
he came up behind my friend. Luckily for me, my Swiss friend-blonde
and blue-eyed-almost always got approached first in Cuba.
His friend, also wearing his hair in dreadlocks and smiling, came
up beside me in turn.
"Do you happen to have any newspapers
with you?" he asked me. I looked over and was certain
that my friend was getting asked about more than just foreign newspapers.
I must have looked puzzled, because he continued to explain. "You
know, it's so that we can find out what's going on in the rest of
Indeed, as tourists in Cuba- perhaps not surprisingly- we had significantly
more freedom than many of the Cubans we encountered. We were able
to travel freely across the country, use the internet, beaches and
hotels that Cubans themselves are not permitted to do. Some
more freedom comes with a higher economic status on the island;
a status that usually comes with working with tourists-and the foreign
dollars that come with them.
But despite Manolito's success as a percussionist and teacher-and
his access to tourist dollars that goes along with it-his family
didn't seem to have much to spare. Three generations lived
in that small, dilapidated home, and since most of the house was
under construction, asphalt and dust permeated the place.
And just like his compatriots, he still had to worry about where
his family's next meal would be coming from. "We keep one hen
for the eggs," Manolito later told us, "and the other
chickens are here for the days that there isn't enough food."
I arrived to my second class with Manolito with the palms of my
hands raw, as well as a big bruise at the base of each thumb. So
before starting our lesson, Manolito gave me one of his [self-proclaimed]
legendary "vibrating" massages. He took hold of
an arm at a time and shook it vigorously in order to "to relieve
tension and loosen you up," according to him. He then
nursed my ailing hands with bandages and a 'secret' cream from his
refrigerator that he boasted was an African concoction. "Feel
my hands," he told me, probably to make me feel better, "It
took me years to get to this point." I felt his hands,
twice the size of my own, the skin thickened from years of pounding
on his congas.
Indeed, Manolito noticed early on that we were unaccustomed to the
ruggedness of Cuban life. If a chicken wandered into the kitchen
and startled us, he would hold his belly and break into a fit of
laughter. During one of our lessons, a cockroach crawled up my friend's
leg while she was playing and when she screamed, Manolito thought
it was so funny that he taught us to play La Cucaracha, a famous
Mexican melody about a cockroach: "La cucaracha, la cucaracha,
Ya no puede caminar...."
Manolito already seemed more comfortable with us. He had done
away with the formal dress shirt and wore an old t-shirt to our
lesson (later in the week, he would teach us in his pajamas or with
no shirt at all). By our third class, we had met all the members
of his family, including his two sons that also play drums in a
local band, his daughter who knew enough to correct us while we
played, and his one-year-old grandson who often slept soundly through
our very-noisy classes. When he fussed, Manolito would pick him
up, give him a chance to bang on a drum, and he'd go right back
Near the end of our time with him, Manolito invited us to the center
of town to hear his band play. His band usually participates in
Santiago de Cuba's world-famous music carnival that runs through
the month of July. The festival reflects a markedly African influence
that is evident in Santiago de Cuba and distinguishes the city from
other parts of the island.
Watching Manolito play in the festival was
always spectacular. Using just his body and a set of three
tumbadoras [congas], he could imitate the sound of a car motor starting
or a sewing machine, and he could karate chop the drums with remarkable
force. Because of his reputation, Manolito was nicknamed "El
Rapido" [the fast one] by friends and fellow percussionists.
On one of our last days in Santiago, my friend
and I went to see Manolito's band play in an outdoor concert near
the city center. Before he went on stage, he took us aside
and led us into the popular Casa de La Trova, where many Santiago
musicians have autographed the walls or have their pictures up.
He asked the bartender for a marker and instructed us that we were
ready to be officiated into the ranks of the musicians of Santiago
de Cuba. We wrote our names on the wall with the date, and
then as he told us to do, we wrote, Las Chicas del Tambor [The Drumming
Girls] next to our names.
That was the last time we saw Manolito. He later sent diplomas
for us to take home-stained, photocopied sheets of paper with our
names written in by hand- confirming that we completed a percussion
course in popular Cuban music. But my greatest sense of satisfaction
came from having my name up in the Casa de la Trova, and officially
leaving my mark on Santiago de Cuba.