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Los Muñequitos de Matanzas are no strangers to Miami International Airport. These rumberos have been favorites on the touring circuit at U.S. college campuses and concert halls since 1992, and more often than not that means spending an hour or four at MIA, pushing carts packed with congas and costume changes from the inspections at U.S. Customs clear across the terminal to the domestic gates. Sometimes the layover is long enough for Cuba's best-known folkloric troupe to pile into a couple of vans and visit cousins in the city. Once the troupe even set up an impromptu concert in town, but that was back in 1996, when the county's Cuba ordinance barred the kind of nonprofit arts organizations that typically sponsor the Muñequitos from hosting a formal show. Until now. Nearly two years after U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno suspended the Cuba ordinance, one of the parties to the successful ACLU challenge, the Miami Light Project, has teamed up with the tireless world-music promoters at the Rhythm Foundation to bring us Los Muñequitos -- just in time for their 50th anniversary tour. Better late than never.
"Do you want to talk to them about the Latin Grammys?" asks Caridad Diez, in a tone equal parts apprehension and anticipation. Just arrived from the island on this March afternoon, Los Muñequitos have scattered about the Continental Airlines lobby to wait for the flight that will take them to the first stop on their nationwide tour. Musical director Jesus Alfonso Miro is out on the sidewalk smoking a cigarette; dancer Vivian Ramos Aldazábal is curled up on one of the plastic seats trying to catch some sleep; thirteen-year-old Luis David, the youngest member traveling with the troupe, is listening to R&B singer Usher over headphones.
The spunky, bespectacled Diez is not only in charge of running interference with the press and of making sure everyone gets on the next plane, she also is the producer of La Rumba Soy Yo (I Am the Rumba) the compilation that won a Latin Grammy last year for best folk album and featured Los Muñequitos prominently.
The Latin Grammy is both a point of pride and a sticky subject: In the mind-boggling chain of events that led to last year's Latin Grammys pulling out of Miami at the last minute, the Muñequitos figured as one of the Cuban acts whose mere association with the event sparked plans for protest. Then the terrorist attacks on September 11 not only made the site of the Latin Grammys irrelevant, they made all of that hullabaloo about rumba dancers and salsa singers seem less than earth-shaking. The answer to Diez's question: "No, not really."
Los Muñequitos began performing the miracle that is rumba long before Castro came to power, and they will be performing that miracle long after he finally goes. And like the first rumberos, who a hundred or so years ago sang and danced and drummed away hard days of work in the dockyards of Matanzas -- just as their parents had sung and danced and drummed away brutal days in the sugar cane fields -- Los Muñequitos keep the Congo and Yorubaland alive no matter who would rule them. The rumba and the ritual dances Los Muñequitos perform are too ancient and profound for any dictator to harness or any naysayers to silence.
In 1952 Gregorio "Goyo" Diaz founded the troupe with friends, picking up the name the following year after their song about the adventures of comic-strip characters ("muñequitos") hit big. When Goyo died in 1996, his children and grandchildren, and the children and grandchildren of his friends, kept the troupe alive. "We have always kept the tradition," says general director and dancer Diosdado Ramos Cruz. Moving from the street to the stage, however, the rumba has grown flashier, often faster, and even more sublime. "There have been practical changes," concedes Diosdado's son, choreographer Bárbaro Ramos Aldazábal, who joined the group 22 years ago at age 7. "The rumba was almost always done in the solar [a communal patio], or at parties. Bringing it to a concert hall changes it, makes it more theatrical." Touring has introduced changes too. Working with their counterparts in the United States, Los Muñequitos invented a fusion style of rumba and tap now featured along with the traditional three styles of fast-paced columbia, sexually charged guaguancó, and slow, sensuous yambu.
No one in the troupe can, or will, say just what makes for a good rumba. "I see someone sing or play and I know if they are good or not. It's the same thing with dance," says Baldomero Ricardo Cané Gómez, who has been with the group since 1970. "You see and you just know."
That's why Bárbaro Ramos is glad Miami will finally have the chance to see Los Muñequitos. "We feel like we are coming to the United States for the first time," he says. "There is a public here that knows about rumba but doesn't know us. We want to show them how good we are."