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The 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 salsa.

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 voice.

"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 day.

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 local men.

"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 the world."

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 to sleep.

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.

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