The interviews, with Sendero/El Almacén co-principals Luis Bran and Liliam Cedeño, were conducted Jan. 15, 2016, at Luis’ home in Matanzas, Cuba. I spent two and a half weeks there studying Matanzas-style batá drumming with Idalberto (Puchito) Pérez, the musical director of the esteemed Grupo AfroCuba de Matanzas. The other purpose of my trip was to learn about the first independently operated record label and artist collective in Matanzas, Sendero/El Almacén. My research was supported by small grants from two universities where I teach: New York University and the State University of New York, Maritime College. I knew I would be studying batá, but wasn’t sure exactly how getting to know the label and collective would go. I had been in touch with Luis in advance of my arrival on the recommendation of an Edmonton-based drummer, Nathan Ouelette, and for this I am very grateful.
This was my second time in Matanzas. In 2013, also supported by grants from New York University and Maritime College, I studied various Afro-Cuban folkloric musics primarily with Luis (Luisito) Cancino Morales and Gilberto (El Indio) Morales Chiong. That first trip was illuminating, but I knew I’d only scratched the surface. I wanted to return with a more specific focus this time. It was fortuitous to meet Luis, as in addition to his insider status in Matanzas’ Afro-Cuban community as a conguero, spiritual practitioner and producer, he also speaks impeccable English. This proved to be a huge help, as I don’t speak much Spanish. We ended up recording this interview at almost the very end of my trip. It rained parts of every day, uncharacteristically, and the weather really slows life down there. Meetings get postponed or cancelled. Gear has to stay dry. People don’t travel because of hazardous road conditions. All that is to say, it was not clear that this interview was actually going to happen. Until, miraculously, it did.
My sincere thanks to Luis, Liliam, Alé, Fito, Indira, Pablo, Puchito, and the entire Sendero/El Almacén extended family for their warmth and willingness to share their city’s rich culture.
Harris Eisenstadt: Thank you for speaking with me. Please tell me about the names of the collective and the label. Maybe you could translate the words and get to the origin story of the collective and the label.
Luis Bran: We have an artist collective established here in the city of Matanzas. The name of the collective is El Almacén, or the warehouse. By this we mean a warehouse of ideas, where we all can coexist regardless of our discipline, whether you’re a painter or sculptor or musician. A place where we can congregate to come up with meaningful ways of collaboration to expand our arts to the world. More importantly, to have a voice, where we can actually launch our productions into the Internet or social media, for others to see what we’re actually doing in this city. El Almacén also has a recording label. Our label is called Sendero. Sendero means pathways and we came up with the name because it is a pathway where upcoming artists can branch into a bigger place for the arts.
It all started in 2007 during Cuba’s largest music festival, Cubadisco, in the city of Havana. During the conference, I was shocked to discover that in the 320 years of our city [Matanzas] there has never been a recording studio or a label—a city that was once called the Athens of Cuba, where a lot of interesting artistic and literary manifestations were born—didn’t actually have a recording label or an editorial label. In other words, we were not cataloging all of these treasures. We started knocking on doors to see who would respond. At the time we discovered there was no license, no permits like the one we were dreaming of, and over the course of the next six years we knocked on every door possible, explaining what we wanted to do.
In the process I met a great visual artist, Liliam Cedeño, who was also fighting on her own to bring visual artists into the mainstream. Through our conversation we decided to help each other. We were offered a dilapidated and almost scary looking warehouse that had fallen to abandon. We organized local artists and we rescued the place—anything from rewiring to bringing a new roof and floor, and we established Matanzas' first artist collective. Still, we had no license, no means to legalize our situation. The second thing that struck us was that we were creating, this artist collective and recording studio, was designed for people who had no means to pay for these services. It was almost like an epiphany. We decided to become almost like a charity, a place where artists could gather and provide their services for free. The results from the artistic productions will be sent to the appropriate channels outside of Cuba and all the monetary results will be divided evenly within the collective.
There are a number of clips that we’ll include on the podcast. Could you describe the significance of the piece that we’ll be hearing, the general idea of each group. First up, Reyés del Tambor.
Reyés del Tambor is actually a rumba group, which is one of the main styles of music that characterizes our province. They’re up-and-coming musicians, the lions of Afro-Cuban music, the young lions. They had a brief tour of Denmark a few years back with great acceptance, so we chose them as one of the first people to launch the project. They are very gifted individuals, and because of the fact that they were up and coming, they still didn’t have a contract with the official label in Havana. So we thought it was a perfect opportunity to launch the career of very promising individuals that represented the core of the young musicians here in the city of Matanzas.
Is it a symptom of youth, then, that a bunch of young musicians would call themselves the kings of the drums, even though they’re 18 years old?
Exactly. They’re very young, very sure of themselves. They play like thunder. They’re fantastic musicians. I think they’re very promising. Probably they will become, once they mature, one of the top rumba groups, not only in Matanzas, but in the whole nation.
And the content of the audio?
According to the interview I did with Michaél, the group leader, [the content of the recording] has a lot to do with what he learned from his uncle, Jesus Alfonso Miró, who was the artistic director of Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, one of the premiere rumba groups in this city. They play, within the numbers, a lot of homages to all of the ancestors, all of the people who came before them. That’s one thing that appealed a lot to me, given the fact that they were so young, but they know how to give thanks to the people who actually educated them. They were very sincere in terms of both concepts. It was evident to me how mature they were intellectually. Besides their youth and their energy all their numbers spoke a lot about our ancestry, about giving thanks to the people who came before them. I actually fell in love the CD. The name of the CD is Intrapuentas de Rumberos, and it speaks about all the different neighborhoods within the city. For example, for me to go to play a rumba in another section of the city, I have to cross a bridge. Rumberos from Pueblo Nuevo, another barrio, have to cross a bridge to come into the city, so it’s almost like bridging the gaps between all of these bridges and playing the music in the center of town after crossing all of the bridges here.
Let’s talk about Ilú Keké.
Ilú Keké is a recording that is going to be co-released later this year on the Musicworks label in New York. It’s a project that started with the collaboration of Amanda Villepastour. Amanda is a professor and a lecture at Cardiff University in Wales. I met Amanda in 2012. Originally I was hired as a translator to help her out with the research she was doing on Aña [the religious deity inside the drums in Cuba] and her research on batá drumming. I came as an interpreter, and it was evident within the first week that we both shared a passion for this art form, for folkloric music, and a beautiful friendship started there, that I can honestly say now, five years later, we’re family. She was instrumental for us in the sense that she helped us a great deal, helping us produce and finance our first production, with the help of Cardiff University. Ilú keké is the name of a drum, in English “ilú" means drum and “keké" means small town or city. Ilú keké is a drum that belonged to the municipality of Cidra. Cidra is a town on the outskirts of the province of Matanzas, and it was a drum that, through family lineage, was abandoned or not used for many years. Through Amanda’s research we have now discovered that this drum dates back from the time when the first sets of drums actually appear in this province. The discovery is monumental and the drum has been restored. We brought it back to the city, and the second step was, given that this was such an old drum, such an important part of our city, we had the idea of bringing the oldest surviving musicians who play this style to actually execute and play this drum. The recording comes accompanied with great research Amanda is doing on aña and on batá drumming, and specifically this drum. And it’s a source of pride nowadays. This is probably the most in-demand religious drum that is played in the city of Matanzas.
Can you preview one of the tracks we’ll hear on the Afropop radio program?
One of the pieces is the elders playing toqués for Changó, which is the orisha, the king of drums, lord of thunder. And these were recordings that we did not include in the original CD because they passed the length or time frame. We had so much material.
Bonus tracks, yes. You’ll hear live renditions of an actual ritual. The people in the city have been so generous. In the past, people came to record religious rituals, but they did it from the point of view of—it was like they were showing it to tourists. This is the first time that I can honestly tell you people know what we’re doing, the importance of cataloging our music, and they're opening their homes, places that were never seen before, ritual places. These are groups that were not performing groups. These are family groups that are believers in the religion, practitioners in the religion, and they’re opening their homes for us to the first time with no limitations to record this sacred music. It is also our responsibility, an ethical responsibility that we have now as a recording studio, in terms of not offending sensibilities, and packaging this so that knowledgeable people—or somebody who doesn’t know anything about what we do, can learn a bit more about this wonderful style of music.
Can you speak about who is playing on the recordings of Ilú Keké that we’ll listen to?
The elders in the recording… the first one is called Péllo. He was the artistic director of AfroCuba de Matanzas, one of our insignia groups. He is a fantastic musician and rumbero, and people in the genre will probably know of him because he is the inventor, one of the creators of a great musical style called batárumba that mixes religious drumming, batá drumming, with secular drumming on conga drums. The second person is Regalado—I’m citing nicknames, which is a very Cuban thing here, we all have our names, we go by nicknames here. Regalado was the quinto player or lead drummer of Afrocuba de Matanzas for many years. They're both in their 70s, so we thought it was very fitting for them to participate. The last drummer was Justilliano Pelladíto. He sadly passed away last year. He didn't see the finished product. We brought Justilliano when he was 79 years old. He was a fantastic human being. During the process he taught us and he showed us a wonderful window into the past. We all are very thankful for having him in the project. Justilliano played in different houses of worship in the city, but never had the opportunity to record anything. He accompanied Péllo and Regalado on this particular recording.
Seems like a good time to connect to some of the younger drummers involved in that tradition. By “younger” I mean Puchito, Orlando, Pepito: adults, long-time professionals, but of a younger generation than the guys you’re talking about. How were they conduits to Ilú Keké, to the older generations, to all this folkloric music, for all you guys, in the studio?
It was wonderful to see when we came up with the idea of bring in these elders, how the youngsters, during the recording sessions, we could see them sitting in awe, mouth open. They themselves didn't know a lot of the old ways, or the houses where these people would have played, certain nuances about this music, mostly because these drummers, when they reach a certain age, they just retire, so the communication between them and the young drummers, unless they come take lessons with them, gets lost. We brought in the young guns, Orlando, Puchito and Pepito to play.…
Again, by “young” we’re talking about fully grown adults with families, but of a younger generation than Péllo, Regalado, and Justilliano.
Exactly. So we brought the youngsters as a way of marking or showing that Afro-Cuban music is alive and well. We wanted to show that there was a transmission from the older generation to the younger generation. In fact that’s the name of the upcoming CD, it’s called Transmission, where the older generation passes on the musical legacy and the younger generation keeps it strong and alive.
Let’s move onto some background about another recording that we’ll hear. Of course we’re talking about Matanzas and the richness of the culture here. But as I’ve been finding out again on this trip, the staggering richness of Afro-Cuban music and Cuban musics in general, maybe it’d be a good time to talk about Rumbatá, which is a group not from Matanzas but from Camagüey. They’re involved with your label.
Rumbatá is the premiere rumba group from Camagüey.
How far is that from Matanzas?
Camagüey is a good six to seven hours away from Matanzas. Camagüey is not a province known for rumba. It was founded in Camagüey probably about 12 years ago. They came into the limelight about six or seven years ago. They have a fantastic director, a fantastic group of committed individuals. I hear a lot of influence in their music from Havana and Matanzas. There is a Camagüey-specific way of rumba—we could hear this through them, that has parts from Matanzas and part from Havana. They have beautiful costumes, they’re a committed bunch with a lot of hard work. They were able to buy their own audio equipment, their own tour bus, which is unheard of in Cuba. They’re a younger group than Los Muñequitos de Matanzas in terms of age. They’re not modeled after their own lineage. They’re modeled after the insignia groups from Havana and Matanzas.
What will we be hearing from Rumbatá?
During the week of culture here last year it was raining so they canceled the show. We had a canceled show and Camagüey is a long ways away. The guys were sitting at the bus, waiting to go back, and we felt like the show must go on. In El Almacén we have a huge portal, or awning, that spreads into the street. We had some microphones and we had some lights. Fito, our sound man, decided, “you know what, I can actually go into the shop, bring cables, we’ll set up and let’s have them play.” No electricity; it was really dark. And we had them play. They play as happy as if the festival was still going. Little by little the people trickled in, so what you'll see is a canceled performance that turned into an impromptu concert, in the outskirts (of downtown Matanzas) at our headquarters.
So it will be rumba and batá rhythms and songs, similar to what you’d hear in Havana or Matanzas? Or, their own repertoire?
They played some rumbas from Havana and they played a lot of rumbas from Matanzas. I think it was a way of paying homage to the local people.
So far we’ve been talking about batá traditions descended from the Yoruba. And rumba, of course, is a secular mix of the many Afro-Cuban traditions here. Can you discuss a recording another of Sendero’s productions, a recording by Bira Montaña.
Bira Montaña is the name of a contienda—that’s the word here in Matanzas for a house of worship. This is not a group. They don’t perform publicly. It’s is a family group by lineage. They’re members of the Congo religion, or Palo religion, here; descendants of the Bantu people from central Africa. During the day they're masons, manual labors, mechanics, and they have this beautiful family group that I would listen to since I was very young. I've heard fantastic stuff emanating from the apartment building. Eventually we became great friends and I became part of the contienda.
During the renovation of El Almacén, some of the members actually came and did all the welding and the rewiring of our space. When we tried to pay them they said, “No, we’re doing this because we’re fellow artists.” And I thought it was very fitting that they would be one the first groups that we actually present. They were scared for their lives because they said, “We've never done this publicly, this is a family group.” And I said, “This is a wonderful opportunity for people who are practitioners of this outside of Cuba,” aficionados, right, to look, to have a peering eye, into what is going in these contiendas. And it was just fabulous. They brought grandma, they brought their their aunts, they brought their 7-year-old children of the group. They were, again, very concerned about their sound quality, but in the end when you hear the recording, you can the hear the spirit is very much alive and present. The Congo nation is alive in Cuba.
What will we be hearing?
The recording starts with a cajón, a cajón espirituál that Congolese, or practitioners of the religion, usually play. It’s played on boxes, and the recording that you will here is a piece where they are actually giving thanks to the saints, or the people, the religious deities they venerate.
We’re not talking about the Yorubá pantheon, right?
We’re not talking about the Yorubá pantheon. We’re talking about the Congolese pantheon. There’s evocation of people like Zarabanda. Because of the syncretism in Cuba with the Catholic pantheon, you'll hear a lot of mentions of El Santísimo, or, the Virgin, in the recording.
At the end of the session, was there a sense that, “wow, that was like being at a ceremony,” for the practitioners and the participants in the recording? Did they feel like nothing was different, having microphones up and other equipment in the space? Was it an informal thing that just happened to be recorded, or did the recording change the ceremony somehow?
I don’t think it changed and that’s the beautiful thing, the central point of what we’re doing here. For years, people from the United States, Canada and Europe did that for us, because we didn't have the technology. Anything I would see on YouTube or in the media—which are great recordings—but they were done by foreigners. Fast forward 15 years, we now painstakingly got some gear. We knew we had a great music school and technicians for video and sound, and they actually merged to create a 100 percent Cuban team. I think there’s a difference when groups are presented with money or payment to do commercial recording that gets taken out of Cuba then when locals come into record their own music, where you could see a drummer working next to a sound man, (with the drummer teaching the sound man) how to mix drums according to him. And this is a great opportunity we have, where we’re going to be able to, without disrespecting the people and the congregation, to capture all of these performances, to capture all of these rituals. In many case the people making the recordings are also practitioners and brothers within the religion that they're capturing, which is a fantastic thing. I don’t think it diminishes the intent of the performers. It’s all between the family.
Could you discuss an upcoming important recording on the horizon for Sendero, involving members of Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, among others, documenting a rarely heard style of Matanzas ceremonial music?
The upcoming production—also through research and it's basically a fact all Cuban musicians know—we discovered there’s not a definite cajón album, meaning the wooden boxes we use to play rumba. Cajón as a box drum has characterized Cuba for years. It has come out of the packing crates they used to use at the ship docks. At the end of the day, musicians would just grab maybe a codfish box or any type of crate used to pack at the docks, and play it. But we didn't have a cajón album [made in Matanzas]. We heard some things coming from Havana. We know many [outside or state] groups had recorded this, and it seemed fitting that we do this 100 percent made-in-Matanzas cajón album. We’re going to attempt a Cajón Para Los Muértos, which is the style of playing you do here when you pay respects, when somebody dies, essentially the last rites, where the community of rumberos and santéros and Congo people will get together to send this person, the deceased, off. So that’s the recording that’s coming up. The important thing is we have El Niño Pujáda, lead singer of Los Muñequitos involved, to lead us spiritually, and through his songs, for the cajón. It will probably be the first time a lot of the old chants—that are not sung anymore—are going to be recorded within this ritual Cajón Para Los Muértos.
Who else will be involved?
Members of Los Muñequitos. They're actually bringing a couple key singers from Reyés del Tambor. There’ll be key singers from a congregation from Congo. Overseeing it all, his name is Enrequítos Juan. He’s kind of a recluse here in this city. But he’s one of the people who’s the most well-versed in all styles of all cajón music that are not played anymore. He’ll be joining us as an advisor. I think it’s going to be a landmark project for us.
Listening to you talk and getting to know you these last couple weeks, seeing some of the key figures in El Almacén, it’s this lively microcosm of Cuba, which means that it brings together people of different ethnicities and backgrounds and economic strata. We’ve been talking exclusively about Afro-Cuban music since that’s the subject of the show, but let’s also talk about key contributors to the label and collective. Puchito is central to El Almacén. Can you speak about his role as an advisor? And can you speak about other important contributors to the label and collective?
It’s a very interesting phenomenon. It’s almost like El Almacén—you’re absolutely right—is syncretic, like the country itself, where artists are converging from all different walks of life. Puchito is the artistic director of AfroCuba de Matanzas. He originally became involved during the Ilú Keké project. Puchito is also a highly revered santéro in the community. He’s an osainista, a master of plants, and he’s a spiritual advisor for a lot of the people that practice the Santería religion. Puchito, from very early on, he’s become our spiritual advisor, in terms of our code of conduct, when we record this music, opening doors for us, teaching our technicians about the proper etiquette when you come to these places of worship, in terms of respecting the craft and the people. It was beautiful to see him sitting next to Fito, our lead engineer, who comes from a rock background. It was beautiful to see how Puchito was showing Fito the religious aspect of the music that he’s miking, to empower him, to let him know what it actually means, so he could mix it more effectively. Many situations like this are happening where perhaps the lighting person or videographer is going to shine his light on a particular altar within the house, and another of our technicians, who is a practitioner, will guide him very carefully around what you can take pictures of, what you can shoot, and how to direct the scene in accordance with what he’s seeing at this ceremony.
And so are other members of the "royal" families, so to speak, of Afro-Cuban folkloric music in Matanzas, are they also showing an interest because Puchito already is involved?
In the beginning people were not sure what we were doing as a team. But through Puchito, through other santéros, they’ve actually taken part in what we do. People are opening their homes to us. The latest recording that we did—and you’ll hear a clip of that in one of the live toqués for Ilú Keké, we came early to set up in the room. We knew the live ritual would happen in the evening. When we got there the house was full of people. so as soon as I saw the car stop with the gear, the people vacated the premises. They gave us unprecedented access. We basically did our miking, we set up all the recording gear within the room, but then people didn’t come back into the room. What they did is they let us record the ritual inside and they sang from outside the room in, which is something I’ve never seen and they’ve never done before, but they realize the importance of documenting their own music, because they know this is Matanzas' first recording studio.
What you’re saying is, them singing outside is better for the recording than for the ceremony. They’re putting their best foot forward as authentically as possible, since it sounds better on the recording with the participants singing outside. This way, listeners, people, will get as close to the real experience as possible.
That’s essentially what we want to do. We want to paint a canvas where a practitioner or non-practitioner can be a fly on the wall and be a part of the ceremony, to hear exactly what we hear. Another anecdote: when our engineer, who is not involved in any of these religions—but his mother is one of the greatest santéras in the city—during the mixing of the first album, he would lock himself in his room for hours, mixing. Later, we found out that while he was mixing, his mother secretly built an altar outside the room, to empower him as he mixed this sacred music that she herself is a believer in.
As a way of wrapping up, could we talk about the way forward, the challenges, what’s on the horizon, as much as seems appropriate?
The challenge is that we need more training, more schooling. We’re the first studio in Matanzas. There’s no precedent. We don’t have a big brother who we can look up to and learn from, or someone who can coach us locally. For us right now, the challenge is to bring visual artists and painters in. We want to integrate them. We want to try to look for a way to make a place for the visual arts, to make a functional marriage, not a dysfunctional one. I think there’s a way we can actually come to a point where our visual artists can use our music to be empowered, for them to contribute their art, and vice versa. Through the visual arts we will acquire more of a knowledge on how to project our art outward.