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Cuban Music Lesson: Los Papines


Get ready to be schooled, asere. It’s time for a Cuban music lesson! Learn to tell your cha cha cha from your mambo without leaving your couch. Put on your dancing shoes, guayaberas, park your 57 Chevy, light up that Habano, and pay attention.

By Jack Tomas

When we are about 15 months old, we figure out the wonders of making noise. God knows kids younger than that make a racket, but at around that age is when we learn to purposefully create sounds. If you’ve ever seen a child this age bang his spoon against his high chair, you know what I mean. It is one of the most basic human functions. It shows our innate need for create sound out of our environment. Music probably began when one of our cavemen ancestors (Homo Hispanicus), picked up a rock or two sticks and hit them together. The best music sounds like it was there all the time, just waiting in the air to be played. The music of Los Papines is like that. It is the most basic, primal, and spiritual Cuban music. It’s also some of the best.

Los Papines were the four Abreu brothers: Luis, Jesus, Alfredo, and Ricardo from Marianao. The brothers grew up in the Afro-Cuban musical tradition, particularly that of the rumba. As children, they would play in the streets on the boxes that the bacalao was shipped in. They continued to develop their craft in the classic guaguanco style. It is a percussive music, in which only or mostly rhythm  instruments are used along with singing. It is music at its most basic, and yet melodically and rhythmically complex. Rumba and guaguanco come straight from the African religious traditions. In the big band era of the 1950’s, Los Papines root music was a hard sell. People wanted the big brass bands of groups like Benny More and Perez Prado. Later, in the 1960’s an increased interest in Afro-Cuban roots music brought Los Papines to prominence as Cuba’s premiere rumba quartet.

Though well respected in Cuba and elsewhere in Latin America, Los Papines are less well known here in the U.S. Perhaps, it’s because they stayed in Cuba instead of leaving like so many others did. Still, in the world of Latin percussion Los Papines are hugely influential. Tito Puente, Ray Barretto, Mongo Santamaria, and many others have all cited Los Papines as one of their greatest influences. It is a testament to their legacy, that when Alfredo died in 2009 he was buried with state honors and his funeral was attended by Raul Castro. You can’t beat the beat, yo.

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