For Gazette music writer Brian McElhiney's preview of this show, click here.
When it comes to Afro-Cuban music and dance, there is no ensemble more pure, more dedicated and more celebrated than Los Muñequitos de Matanzas. That was made clear on Sunday afternoon at MassMoCA when this ensemble of Cuban singers, percussionists and dancers performed its “Tribute to the Ancestors.”
This matinee of ritual and rumba was a stirring jubilee, one that reconnected Cuba with West Africa. These songs and dance, at least in the first half of the program, are West African, brought to Cuba in the hands, hearts and feet of the slaves. While much of their ceremonial music and dances have not survived in modern Africa, they still remain a vibrant and vital part of Cuban culture — thanks in large part to Los Muñequitos.
And if one didn’t know they were seeing Cubans on stage, one would have sworn they were watching a cast of Africans perform the sacred songs and dances such as Yoruba, Brikamo and Arara.
The program opened with the voice — the unimpeded silencing cry of the lead vocalist. In a call and response pattern, he drew out other singers, and then the drummers and the dancers to gather and honor life and those who lived it.
Each piece was a festival to behold. In the Yoruba, the dancers are dressed boldly in reds and blacks. The men and women perform low to the ground, reaching out to the earth and sky, and interlocking and hitting their canes against the ground as if rousing their ancestors from sleep.
Then all of the dancers recede, except one — a woman who leaps from the stage and runs through the aisles. Audience members wave and call to her. She joins the most eager who give her dollar bills that she stuffs into her head scarf. She dances around them, stabbing the air that surrounds their bodies as if bestowing a blessing. She then hugs the enrapt stranger and moves on to another.
Onstage, the drums and vocals urge her on. It’s euphoric frenzy all around.
Comparatively, the next piece is subdued. In Brikamo, a solo dancer, dressed like a queen in a crown, cleanses the atmosphere as she whips the floor, herself and the air. Long and repetitive, it appears like a trial of endurance for the dancer.
The mood was wildly convivial throughout in the second half, which was devoted to rumba. This is the soul of Afro-Cuban dance. And every member of Los Muñequitos drips in its rhythms. Starting with a side step and a swish of the hips, the dance rises up from the foot, then the knees through the body and ends with a ripple through the shoulders and head. The movement comes naturally with everyone in the ensemble as they joined together for a lively finale of song, dance and drum.