Raul Gonzalez Brito - Laly

Lali in Cuba

I was born in Havana in Cerro, a hot neighborhood, a neighborhood full of tradition you know, "el Cerro tiene la llave", "Cerro has the key." Santeria, abakwa, rumba, paleros, it's all here in Cerro. The people here are transcendant, the rise up above the others. Each barrio has its own things, its own names. "Pueblo Neuvo se pasó", "Los Sitios acere". Each barrio has its saying. I've lived in this barrio for 49 years. I'm the one who's lived here the longest.

For me, since I was a kid I've always loved percussion. When I was a kid, when it was Dias de los Reyes Mago (the 6th of January), my folks would tell me, write a note for the kings so they will bring you something. When I grew up a little, I asked for a tumbadora. And, the kings brought me one! I was about 11, and was I excited that I had a tumbadora! My cousin, Alejandro Brito ("Tito" ) inspired me greatly. He lived right in front. He was a musician and would travel to Japan, Soviet Union all other countries. My cousin's dad had some money. He wanted my cousin to study violin but he didn't like it. So his dad bought him a piano. He studied for 5 years. Finally he got a drum. He loved it and he traveled all over the world. He was the first in our family, in the barrio of Cerro, to play batá. He played with a famous tambolero named Papo Angariga. (A tambolero is one who plays batá.) He never had a white guy in his band. In that era, all the tamboleros were black. To play in the world of drums was difficult. My cousin was a very good man, a good player, very organized, not interested in anything but drums. Papo brought him to the drums. He introduced me to the world of batá. Oru seco (drums with no voice), oru en la sala (with voice), all the golpes for Eleggua, Chango, Obatala, all the saints. And I didn’t have a problem with the world of rumba, palo, guiro. I was about 17 or 18 years at that time.


Lali in Cuba

Also, I played in a famous group in Regla, with a guy name Evangelio (de Regla). He was abakwa and he had a rating of responsibilty in Abakwa, (called a plaza). The name of the "juego" (loosely translated as "gang" and meant as the group of people in the Abakwa religion) was Iyamba Muraya. This was a very important group. Evangelio was very jealous. He would watch everything. There was one drummer in the group, El Chino Sarakó. El Chino was a mulato. He was Abakwa also. He used to carry the drums of Evangélio. I knew el Chino well. He used to ask me, "hey, you like the drums?" Sure I liked them! He would carry the drums of Aña. I would tell El Chino, man I really want to play but I've got problems because of the color of my skin. You know how the people are. Chino would tell me, "man, you're gonna play. You play well, you're a good man. You come with me." He helped me a lot. I had experiences before this, where I would play but because of the color of my skin I wouldn't be respected. Chino would tell them, hey he's with me, he's a good person, and he can play.

Then I played with a guy who would really scare you . His name was Francisco Sayas Batisa. He was a babalawo, hecho de Eleggua. He wasn't Abakwa. He had a juego de tambór called Ilu Abada. The drums still exist. Another person has them. Each group of batá has a name. When you're born, how will they call you when you're walking in the street? You need a name. All the tambores, when they're born, from one juego de tambores comes another. It's like a mother giving birth. So, for example, from my juego of batá, you want one. We look for a babalawo, for the santeros, we look for "osainitos", we look for the animals (for sacrifice), all the things to bring for the tambor, for the ceremony for the tambores. We want to make the drums "sagrado" (sacred) and to give them a voice. My drums have the voice. They are like the father. Your drums are born from mine. Your drums will the voice of my drums. And your drums will have a name.

We have sets of drums, three "juego de fundamento", the sanctified bata drums, very close to my house. One of the fundamento juegos is from Matanzas. I brought them, with my cousin, from Matanzas. An old guy in Matanzas saw us playing. He liked what he heard and he asked us to come to his house. When we get there he had fundamento tambores there. He asked us if we wanted to play his drums. He took them down (fundamento batá can never touch the ground) and we started playing. He could tell we loved the drums. We instantly became friends. He was becoming sick though so he decided to give us a juego de tambores from the 1800's!

He had at his house a tambor de fundamento called "La Atomica". These drums played by themselves. They could turn out the lights by themselves. It's a mystery of the drums. A tremendous set of fundamento batá. (tambor de fundamento). They are onne of the most famous. These drums are a mystery.


Lali in Cuba

Amado Diaz Alfonso, "Guantica" was the name of this man. He's from Pueblo Nuevo in Matanzas. He would tell us one day, a little secret, another day another little secret, but not everything all at once. He was still looking, if yes or no, were we worthy. He was studying us. Then, one day, he gave us the drums. We, my cousin and I, took them to Havana. The only drums known in Matanzas, born there, and now known here, are ours. When my cousin passed, his the drums remained with his brother. He's a santero. He and his brother made saint when they were both small. He doesn't play drums.

These drums are called Abbó Iki. It means "hard word". From these drums were born two more sets of drums. One of the juegos is called Oba Aché ("King of Luck").

I am Omo Aña. I am a batalero. When Guantica became sick he came to Havana and we made a ritual ceremony for the drums. I became Omo Aña. With the most modesty and humility I tell you, in the world of tambores, I'm known as a tambolero. All the guileros ( who play guiro) know me as guilero. (Guiro here is distinguished from the gourd instrument. Guiro in this case is part of Santeria and is usually performed with three chequeres and one quinto.) Babalu Aye is my group that plays guiro. In the world of Palo, I'm know as a palero. In the rumba world I am known because I've been playing rumba since I was a kid. I've played with Rumba y Guaguanco, with Omo de Akokán, with Estrellas de Guaguanco, and many more. I love rumba. I won't eat, I'll leave the women alone, just to play rumba. I love guiro and cajon as well.

When someone asks me, because I have a group, that they want a tambor for Chango, for example, this is where we play batá. When someone asks for a guiro for Obatala, what changes is the musical form. this is where we play guiro. We use three chequeres, an agogo, and one tumba that improvises. The people in Regla (another barrio of Havana) play guiro with two tumbadoras. Agayú de Regla San Cristóbal is a great group from Regla. One tumbadora brings a rhythm, a pattern, and the mula improvises. (The mula is the lowest sounding drum, as opposed to quinto which is used for soloing in rumba.) But really in guiro there's one tumbadora that solos.

When you ask questions about rumba, it's a little dangerous. I want to talk about it without offending anyone. I speak about rumba with a lot of respect to the people from Matanzas; with a lot of repect for los Muñequitos and Afro Cuba de Matanzas. I want to tell you that I was invited by the leader of Muñequitos de Matanzas and Ricardo Caney, the singer, to play with them. They sent for me. For me it was a tremendous satisfaction. I felt so stimulated, honored, and so happy. With all the great rumberos here in Havana, they chose me. They knew that I had played with many great singers here, many great rumberos. All the Habaneros say that the rumba was born in Havana. ("El guaguanco nacio en La Habana y hay que sabes a tocar….") It can be that this is just a song. But, it's generalized here that the rumba was born here. But, if a rumbero from Matanzas says that the rumba was born there, he's entitled to his opinion. It's a thing of respect. When you talk with a musicolgist, you may find that the rumba was born here, in the solares. Every day there was rumba in the Solar de Africa, a solar that's very very famous. It's not there anymore. Let me tell you something, I like the guaguancó more from Matanzas then I do from here in Havana. The guaguancó from Matanzas makes me crazy, it fascinates me. The rhythm of the 3-2 drum is what's different. I like it a lot.

The rumba guaguanco was born in Havana. Remember there are three types of rumba, yambú, guaguancó, and columbia. There used to be a rumba called jiribilla. But it's not used anymore. They used to call this rumba de salon, it was really fast. You could hear it in the decades of the 50s and the 60s. It was used for show.

When I teach a new student, the most important thing, firstly, the first question I would ask a new student is, "do you really want to learn to play percussion?" Do you have the intention to learn? If they like it, then we start to talk about how we are going to love this instrument, how we are going to get the six sounds most important, the four slaps, the open and the bass tone.

The open tone is achieved with the fingers closed and hitting the drum correctly, in the right place on the drum. The slap is the most important and difficult technique. One slap is where you muffle the drum with the left hand, and you slap the drum with the other hand, using a concave shape with your hand. I play this slap at the bottom of the drum. The slap with pressure (what we might call "muffled tone") is played with one hand at the edge of the drum, putting pressure on the drum as we strike. The slap "agudo" is distinct from the open tone although it is played in the same area of the drum. It's a slap tone with an open tone "attached" to it.

We learn how we sit at the drum. Do you sit close or far, how do you incline the drum to get the sound out of the drum? These are all important things to learn.

Also, how do we tune the drum. How to clean the head. Primarily these are the things we learn.

The clave, ahh…a very important and interesting subject to discuss! Guillermo Barreto was a great defender of the clave. The clave exists as a musical instrument and also as a musical genre. A the world knows that the clave it's a musical instrument consisting of two sticks that we play. The clave is from the musical instrument family known as the idiophone family. Many people, many musicians do not give importance to the clave. I have met many musicians who did not give importance to the clave. But, all the instruments have to play inside the clave. Those instruments that do not play in the clave, are atravisado, are "out of clave". It's mounted. This is why the clave is important. You have to be conscious of the clave. You have to find the rhythm, to know where is the clave.

Sometimes I use records to play for my students. The record I did with the group Clave y Guaguancó is very important to listen to. In 1990 it won the prize from Egrem (Cuban record company). I played tumbador and sang on the record.

My classes include percussion depending on what the student wants. Most students want to study rumba. There's a great interest in the world for rumba, because the rumba has a strong force, every day more force. Everyone wants to play rumba well. If the rumba isn't played well, if it doesn't have the sabor (the flavor), you're not playing well. It's like if you make a good cup of Cuban coffee, and don't put sugar. You put in salt. You understand? In the rumba, everything has to be perfect, perfect. For example, when I was playing with Clave y Guaguancó there was this young guy who played catá. He played it a little too strange. We couldn't play with him. It didn’t let us function well. In he rumba everything has to be played with feeling, with sentimiento. When everything is good, the quinto inspires the dancer, everything has to be played well.

I have a lot of patience with students of many levels, and I've had students that could play well and some that had nothing to do with playing percussion. I have patience because I was born to teach. With work I can teach. A teacher needs to have patience, a good character. A teacher needs to have a method to teach. The whole world doesn't learn the same way. You have to have methods for all different people, for all different levels. The first steps are the most difficult. After you teach them the basic sounds, the positions, now they have a little knowledge.

I was a teacher at the Escuela Nacionál del Arta (National School of the Arts, the "ENA"), performing for the technique classes (dance classes). I played batá and I sang. And there I learned about patience. I also learned about how to have respect for my students. When my students had questions, I stayed to answer them.

Lali in Cuba

My message is I would love to say that Cuba has a great force for percussion. We try always to put in the first plane, the instruments of percussion. A long time ago, percussion was very discriminated against. Little by little, the world is changing, the percussion has achieved such a high level that the whole world comes to Cuba to learn percussion. Cuban percussion has one of the highest levels in the whole world. But we are always learning more. Try always to learn more. None of us can say that we know it all. Be humble. I have learned what I have learned in the street, in the fire. Playing rumba, playing in the comparsas, sweating, in the solares, my hands hurt, my back hurts, but I'm struggling, fighting, expanding my knowledge all the time. No one knows it all. In the world of percussion there is a great possibility to learn.