Yoruban folks from West Africa found themselves in shackles on Cuban shores, the docks of Matanzas and Havana. Naked on arrival, the slaves smuggled music within their body memories and spirits. They brought “clave,” alternating three and four beat measures at the confluence of 4/4 and 6/8 time. Translating as “code,” or “key” in Spanish, clave locks with drums of three sizes.
This pattern spread with the Yoruban slaves across Latin America. On Friday, Oct. 18, Missoula’s Omo Oddara will be performing the Cuban polyrhythmic manifestations of such spawn. The afro-Cuban percussion and dance ensemble has been at it for six years and have made several trips to Cuba and even hosted Cuban performers here in town. Omo Oddara are the real deal—when they get going, you know it.
At a recent rehearsal, I spoke with the group about their music, and what you can expect at their next show. You can expect Santeria, the musical accompaniment for the afro-Cuban religion of the same name. Two-headed bata drums are played to invoke various deities, called “orishas,” each of which represents a different natural element such as lightning, the ocean or metal.
The three sizes of bata play complex call-and-response patterns, producing a sound that mimics Yoruban conversation. Expect more than four flavors of rumba, a blend of Yoruban polyrhythms and Spanish song elements characterized by minor key progressions descending to a major. Percussion-based, rumba doesn’t require fancy instruments, making it accessible to the poor.
“Rumba is street music, poor people’s music,” says Omo Oddara’s Doug Murray. “If you don’t have a guitar or a piano, you can still find a wooden box.” Wooden salt-cod boxes evolved into wooden drums called “cajones” (not to be confused with cojones). Damon Bruno adds: “Rumba is a neighborhood thing...dancing, singing, rum, cigars...songs about what’s going on.”
Rumba is also known as “the Dance of the Hen and the Rooster,” a sexually charged game of dance between man and woman. The rooster, or gallo, tries to slyly maneuver for a vacunao, often signified by the pelvic thrust, which the hen, or gallina, coyly tries to avoid.
“Going for the vacunao is the moment of truth,” explains Murray.
“Someone wins a point, and someone loses a point.”
The dancers play the game to the rhythm of the musicians, but in an interesting twist, the lead quinto drum follows the rhythmic footwork of the gallo, interpreting his movements into sound. Some gallos are so skillful that they can not only score a vacunao on the gallina, but they can do so while leaving the quinto in the dust as well. Thus, men are encouraged to keep stalking, even when the woman says “no,” because she actually means “try harder.”
The celebration of such gender relations can be unsettling for those who have gotten used to the idea that “no” means “no” and cat-calls aren’t cool. In the context of our politically correct society, this primal routine makes you wonder.
“Nobody can make you feel as sexy as a Latin man,” observes Mary Nellis. “But it can quickly get overwhelming and suffocating. On the other hand, people around here don’t always know what to do with the sexual side of dancing.”
However you feel about it, reminds Jason Murdy, “It is this way in Cuba.” There is always value in seeing things as they are. But how can us “Sensitive New Age Guys and Gals” tread the line between sugar, spice and a gender-neutral playing field? A delicate process to be sure, and a good place to begin would be the salsa class following the show, which will in turn be followed by a full-on salsa party.
The stuff of epic dance parties, salsa is the work of diverse influences upon rumba. Often, when people describe the sound they most strongly associate with “salsa,” they are talking about son, widely considered the root of salsa. Son contains the melodic element known as montuno, which is a polyrhythmic section of a chord progression, minor chords descending to a major. When the montuno resolves is when you shake your head in amazement and say something like “Dang, that’s dirty.” Then you carve some freshies on the dance floor.
Building on what the Yorubans brought over, salsa actually originated in the United States as a blend of son with other American elements. They called it salsa because, whatever it was, it was a mix, it was hot, it had the montuno, the congas, and clave, and it was not a problem.
Missoula’s salsa scene has been slowly emerging from dormancy, and for dancers of all abilities, this class—instructed by Omo Oddara’s Jesse Weber—will be the place to take it to the next level.
The fun starts at 7 PM, Friday, Oct. 18, upstairs at Union Hall. The show is also a send-off event for longtime members Jesse Weber and Damon Bruno, and Omo Oddara will also be joined by founder and longtime supporter Josh Hargesheimer. Cost is $8 for the whole package, $5 for show only.