MIAMI—Philbert Armenteros has a stutter, but you’d never know it when he sings. Then his voice pours out as easily and powerfully as his hands beat the congas, summoning the gut-quivering rhythms and African soul of genuine Cuban rumba.
“The sound of the drum makes you think, and we’ll grow together, my brother,” Armenteros sings. “All my people are of the drum, and I have this illusion, that I’m right.”
It’s a sound almost never heard in Miami outside of private ceremonies celebrated in Santeria, but Armenteros is changing that with his group, Los Herederos (The Heirs), named in honor of his great-grandmother, a renowned rumbera in Cuba who raised him in this profound Afro-Cuban culture.
“I have a love that’s so great for what I do,” Armenteros says, sitting in a hallway at Cafe Nostalgia on Miami Beach before a recent show. “There is such a diversity of music, but this music I carry in my hand is at the same level as any other music.
“Look, all Cubans, the way they talk, the way they walk, the way they function every day, are in rhythm. And if it’s in rhythm, we’re talking about rumba. Rumba is in all our hearts. You only have to feel it.”
That may be, but it’s not a sound heard by many ears, Cuban or otherwise, even in heavily Cuban Miami.
Rumba is the most African of all Cuban music forms, incorporating intricate, powerful percussion, soulful vocals and a wild, limb-flinging style of dancing. Created by African slaves in Cuba, rumba has a secular side, as music of streets and barrios, and a sacred side, as the accompaniment for rituals in the Afro-Cuban religion of Santeria. Its influence can be felt throughout Cuban music, much as the blues echo in American popular music.
But a combination of lingering racial and social prejudice, and the stark nature of a music that doesn’t fit into any commercial medium, has meant that rumba has remained largely an underground phenomenon in Miami. There have been informal groups and jam sessions, but no coherent, accomplished ensemble playing in public. Especially for younger Cuban Americans with little connection to Afro-Cuban culture, rumba often means little more than a vague conga-playing image.
“When I came here it surprised me because I see Miami as the place with the greatest concentration of Cubans in the U.S.,” Armenteros says. “And I didn’t see a representation of our folklore.”
He attributes that to ignorance—and prejudice. “Cubans are like that, we’re very contradictory. We know that we have this tradition, but we don’t want to accept that we have an Afro-Cuban tradition. And it’s the truth.”
“Rumba has always been one of those things of Afro-Cuban culture, and it has always been looked down on as a poor people’s thing,” says Adrian Castro, a Santeria priest and poet who has studied Afro-Cuban culture and music. He says that rumba “definitely” suffers from a racial and social stigma in Miami. “There’s a lot of Cubans who don’t know what guaguanco (a form of rumba) is. It’s always been a poor black thing.”
Philbert Armenteros, 29, leader of the Miami-based Cuban rumba group “Los Herederos,” performs with his group at Cafe Nostalgia in Miami Beach, Florida, August 6, 2007. (Patrick Farrell/Miami Herald/MCT)
Rumba has been Armenteros’ life. His great-grandmother, Mercedes Alfonso, a rumba dancer and singer who raised him from birth in Havana, began taking him to events and ceremonies when he was 3, when Armenteros began to play drums and sing ceremonial songs.
A member of the famed Cuban rumba group Clave y Guaguanco, Alfonso also helped start a system of neighborhood cultural centers in Cuba. She died when Armenteros was 15, but she left him her mission.
“When someone who is the greatest thing you have in your life goes away it’s very difficult,” Armenteros says. “But the greatest thing she taught me is that I have inherited this tradition. Thanks to her I’m here now, in the year 2007, with all this Afro-Cuban tradition that she inculcated in me.”
Now 29, Armenteros came to Miami with his family when he was 18. He has made his living as a musician, playing for private religious events - as do most members of Los Herederos—as well as with traditional Cuban, jazz, and fusion groups.
He is regarded as one of the best Afro-Cuban drummers in Miami, a powerful, accomplished percussionist who plays the drums so hard he sometimes hammers the skins loose. He formed Herederos a year ago, and it includes Cuban members educated in the National Institute of Art as well as Cuban Americans raised here.
One of them is Joanne “Cheeky” Suarez, 23, born in Miami, whose father is a well-known santero, or Santeria priest. She met Armenteros at a tambor, a religious party, when she was 11 years old. Now confident and statuesque, she sings and dances with Herederos, thrilled to show off her culture.
“It’s thrilling to see people who don’t know what our culture is about be interested in our music,” Suarez says. `And not just Cubans, people in general, from many different countries. It’s exciting to actually express what I feel, what I come from. I am American, but these are my roots. My father is like, `I’m getting old, but my daughter is following in my footsteps.’”
For percussionist Pedro Cruz, 32, who had come out for the Cafe Nostalgia concert, Los Herederos satisfies his thirst for a music he’s missed badly since he left Cuba five years ago. “The African music from my country is music of the heart,” Cruz says. “It’s not mechanized music. They play the real rumba.”
Los Herederos has a dozen members, most of whom have two roles, drumming and singing, or dancing and singing. Armenteros leads most songs, in a call-and-response with the group’s exuberant chorus and with the intricate, heaving web of percussion, a sound that is both hypnotic and exhilarating. Some songs pay traditional tribute to Santeria deities, others are original, a 21st century version of the Cuban tradition of commentary on life. One of Armenteros’ goals is to make rumba relevant to younger audiences, to put their own immigrant stamp on this deeply Cuban music.
“Everything we do is very contemporary, very what is happening now,” he says. “We keep it acoustic, very traditional, but with our own lyrics, our rhythms, and our spontaneity, because we’re young and living now, in 2007.
“I try to put a message in our lyrics, so that young people will feel that there’s a tradition in our music, but also understand that it’s contemporary, very much ours, the heirs.”
Herederos’ shows draw admiring musicians. The audience at the recent show at Cafe Nostalgia included Luis Enrique, a former salsa star and a guest percussionist who has played on numerous Latin hits.
“This group is a true representation of (Afro-Cuban) culture in Miami and an evolution of that culture,” says Jose Elias, who leads and plays in a number of local ensembles. “They’re doing it for audiences that wouldn’t have the opportunity except at a sacred session.”