“Cuba and Puerto Rico are two wings of one bird.” This poetic image, written more than a century ago by the Puerto Rican poet Lola Rodriguez del Tio, comes alive in the performances of Dos Alas/Two Wings. Their inspiring show will be performed at Lisner Saturday.
The Dos Alas/Two Wings project celebrates the musical traditions of Cuba and Puerto Rico in a festive, raucous explosion of song and dance. Performing together in the show, Grupo AfroCuba de Matanzas and Los Hermanos Cepeda bring to the stage an energy and excitement that fuel the cultural fire of their island nations.
Grupo AfroCuba de Matanzas was founded in 1957 in Matanzas, Cuba. The group originally formed to maintain the cultural and religious traditions that developed among Cuban-Africans during the years of slavery and colonial rule in Cuba.
African slaves in Cuba established cultural and spiritual societies known as cabildos. Cabildos are mutual aid societies in which members of the same African ethnic group continue the rituals and traditions of their Central and West African homelands. In Cuba, this ethnic heritage mingled with that of the indigenous population and the many Spanish people occupying the island. The blending of cultures in cabildos resulted in a mixture of African, Iberian and Caribbean musical traditions. One of Cuba’s most famous and popular styles of music, the rumba originated in this cultural heritage.
Many of these cabildos exist today, maintaining these uniquely Cuban themes and genres in the 20th century. Each member of Grupo AfroCuba de Matanzas professionally practices the historic performance rituals that illustrates his or her African roots.
Tracing history is a key element in the rumba – a type of folk music that relates a legendary or historical tale. In telling the story, the instruments, singers and dancers are important voices working with and in opposition to each other. Based on the rhythmic percussion of two drums, the rumba takes shape in the on-stage dialogues that occur between a third drum and a dancer, and a solo singer and a chorus. A call-and-answer game is played out by the drummers, dancers and singers, who often improvise and react to their counterparts, increasing the intensity of the performance.
The rumba often is religious in nature or pays homage to a celebrated artist. This blending of sacred and secular music and dance tradition is called bata-rumba. This form was developed by Grupo AfroCuba under the direction of Francisco Zamora, the group’s leader and musical director and a widely respected rumba composer and improviser.
The Puerto Rican wing of Dos Alas also traces its influences to Central and West Africa and developed from the years of slavery shadowing the island’s history. Los Hermanos Cepeda represents the arrival of the Puerto Rican bomba on the international music scene, a goal the Cepeda family fought to achieve for generations.
In Puerto Rico, unlike Cuba, the cultural traditions of the enslaved Africans were not allowed to flourish in their new home. Forms of artistic expression grounded in African tradition were difficult to preserve. The influence of African culture in Puerto Rico was, until recently, officially ignored and marginalized. Yet even in these conditions, the impact of the underlying African heritage is unmistakably visible, and the bomba is the most powerful expression of that legacy.
The bomba style evolved from the Puerto Rican slave experiences between the 17th and 19th centuries. The Cepeda family understands and respects this history. The Cepedas can trace their lineage five generations to an ancestor who sang about his family and community to lighten the burden of the slave’s daily life.
The Cepedas maintained this tradition, even as it was sidelined in both official and popular arenas. With their family advocating the important cultural heritage, the Cepeda children grew up playing drums, dancing and singing bomba.
Today, Roberto and Luis Cepeda have carried the bomba music on to the international musical stage. The brothers realize the resurgence of popular and official interest in the bomba tradition – a tradition their father left in their capable hands. The duo is renowned as two of the finest bomba performers and are masters of the traditionally improvisational performance. Roberto, a dancer, has been known to jump on to the rim of his brother’s drum and dance as Luis plays.
The histories and cultures of Cuba and Puerto Rico are undeniably related, yet distinctly dissimilar. The commonality of African heritage manifests itself in the aesthetic and rhythmic underpinnings of both rumba and bomba. Furthermore, this commonality reveals the relationship of brotherhood between the two separate cultures while illustrating the unique nature of each island’s musical traditions.
In the Dos Alas/Two Wings, the two unite in commemoration of Afro-Caribbean music. The show closes with the “Rumbombazo,” an original piece and a collaboration of the two groups. The result – an unforgettable celebration of the rumba and bomba in which both groups take the stage to deliver a final exclamation of the proud heritage of Cuba and Puerto Rico.
Dos Alas/Two Wings performs at Lisner Auditorium Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets range from $10 to 25.