Pedro Martinez & Roman Diaz – The Routes of Rumba (Round Whirled Records) Keith Boyd 7.23.09
When approaching a musical tradition with which one is almost wholly ignorant, the impulse is to tread lightly. This perhaps minimizes the likelihood of creating offense, but it ultimately imparts a distance from the subject and can lend a “cultural museum”-like quality to the listen. This denies the living, life-giving and breathing aspect that said music may still play in the lives of both its creators and its audience. Another point of entry as a listener/reviewer is the “ethnomusicologist” style. From this point of view one attempts to learn what one can about a music’s history and cultural context as a way to place the music in a continuum relative to other known traditions and styles. While certainly helpful, the somewhat sterile academics involved can tend to drain all aesthetic joy from the listen in favor of simply understanding its “place”. So, what to do? Perhaps it’s best to combine approaches by learning a bit about it and what certain aspects might signify, and then, in the light of this knowledge, dive in to the heart of the music and see what is there. Let’s give history its due. Let’s also not deny that the culture producing the art uses it in certain ways that, while engaging, are best understood from the inside. Ultimately, though, it might be best to then let this knowledge recede while taking in the sound and seeing how it moves you and where it takes your spirit. On the brilliant new CD “The Routes of Rumba,” Pedro Martinez and Ramon Diaz do just that. They use the rhythms of Rumba to move mind, body and heart.
In light of the above comments a touch of history will provide a foundation on which to spring forth in listening. In Cuban music, Rumba is a general term covering a variety of musical rhythms and associated dances. The roots of the Rumba are a blend of the music brought to Cuba by both Spanish colonizers and African slaves. It developed in the provinces of Havana and Matanzas in the late 19th century. Within Rumba there are three main divisions; Yambu, Guaguanco and Columbia. The three varieties differ in instrumentation, vocal style and choreography. Most songs begin with a soloist singing a string of syllables that develops into an improvisation with lyrics that comment on contemporary social issues or incorporates elements of more or less fixed songs. While this is of course an extreme over-simplification, hopefully it will give listeners a foundation upon which to place their enjoyment. Because enjoy is exactly what you’ll do with this disc.
The album starts off with the layered and powerful, “Encyclopedia Of The Drum: Moyubba Ilu”. This “greeting to the drum and to the people” lays out interlocking beats and counter beats that swirl around your head with the sharp tang of a spicy dish of food. In this song one can hear distinctive African and Latin rhythms play with each other in delightful and danceable ways. It’s a wonderful and welcoming opener to what follows. Next up is “Prohibition”. In this song we hear the above- mentioned syllable singing developing into a song. Pedro Martinez sings in a high and pleasantly nasal register that is very reminiscent of the vocals of African Salsa group, ‘Africando”. The call and response interplay is a spine-tingling delight and in the last minutes, as the instruments drop back, we are left with the simple delicious fact of these harmonized voices. They soar and weave around each other in ways that will appeal to fans of the finer moments of Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
The disc is not only a treat for the ears but the eyes as well. Inserted into the computer, one gains access to both interactive and visual features. There is a short and stunning video of Pedro Martinez and Roman Diaz performing the acapella, “Dialogue”. This subtle yet powerful video was made by the conceptual and executive force of nature behind this entire project, Berta Jottar. Berta is a professor, author, artist, film-maker, activist and music producer who has been involved with questions of identity, nationality, gender and culture for her entire life. How she came to be involved with this project is a story to be covered later here on Blog San Diego, but all lovers of great music owe her a debt of gratitude in bringing forth this beautifully recorded music.
First and foremost this disc is a collection of absolute beauty. The virtuosity of the musicians is of the highest order. While the talent has both depth and breadth it never gets in the way of a sweet listening experience. To be sure though, there is an intense conceptual framework here. I would HIGHLY recommend listeners check out the accompanying website www.rumbosdelarumba.com to get not only a deeper sense of Rumba, but also of the particularly refined principals being presented and explored on this album. Do that for sure, but I can also without reservation (and from practical experience!) suggest that you crank up the volume on this music and let its beauty move your feet!