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Cuban Music Lesson: Guaguanco

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

We’ve talked before about the African origins of Cuban rhythms and their synthesis with Spanish music. One of the amazing things about the Cuban experience of slavery in contrast with North American slavery, is how much of their African culture was retained. Africa-Americans have largely lost a knowledge of the language and religion of their ancestors. Most have no idea what ethnic group their ancestors belonged to. In Cuba, all of that has been retained. One wonderfully danceable and weird manifestation of this phenomenon is the guaguanco and the secret society that spawned it.

When people think of secret societies, they usually think of groups like the Freemasons, Skull and Bones, or the Illuminati. The groups paranoid nutbags on Internet forums think secretly run the world. The truth is Africa is full of secret societies. These exclusive clubs are accessible only to the initiated. Your initiation involves some kind of ordeal -often bloody- and then a transmission of secret knowledge. Just like the Freemason’s passwords, symbology, and secret handshakes, these organizations have secret movements, dances, and rhythms only they understand. One of these groups is the Abakua. They come from an area in what is modern day Benin. This society invokes the powers of the gods to become leopards. Yeah, you read right, they are friggin’ Cuban wereleopards. One of these rhythms is a specific type of rumba called guaguanco. Abakua initiates took both the rhythm and the dances and brought them out to the light of day. Though everyone and anyone can dance to it, only they know the hidden meaning. One of the fixtures of the Carnaval de Santiago, is a dancer known as trapito. He wears a multicolored suit with a conical mask and uses a whisk and broom to ward off evil. He dances his special guaguanco to purify the crowd.

Guaguanco has become one of the most popular Cuban rhythms. Celia Cruz, Albita, Tito Puente, The Buena Vista Social Club, Dizzy Gillespie, and others have incorporated this beat in their songs. The accompanying dance is very popular too. The women dance in one spot while the man dances around her, flinging a red handkerchief and doing deep pelvic thrusts. I wonder what that’s supposed to represent? The dance is almost identical to one done by their Dahomey Carabali ancestors. That’s dirty dancing that defied the slave trade. Beat that Jennifer Grey!

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