Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Ibae: Luis Embale

Luis Embale, early 1950's
(Photo Credit: Courtesy familia Embale)

Born 23 January 1930, a legendary rumba singer who's voice was sadly never recorded, an inspiration to his brother Carlos, Guillermo "El Negro" Triana, and who knows how many others.

El Solar de los Embale
221 Calle Ángeles, e. Corrales y Gloria

(Photo: Barry Cox, February 2008)

The great Benny Moré would frequent the solar of the Embale family, at 221 calle Ángeles in Jesus María, pictured above, to sing rumbas.

Entering the Solar
(Photo: Barry Cox, February 2008)

Guillermo Triana, "El Negro," grew up down the street at Nº. 212.

Miguel Chappottín would often sing harmony to Luis' voz prima.

View from interior of the solar.
The Embale's apartment is to the right.

(Photo: Barry Cox, February 2008)

Among Luis' favorite numbers to sing were:


Ya se oye por la esquina
Un rumbón muy especial
Que baña la calle Vera
Con su luz primaveral
Ya está cayendo la noche
Y el misterio nocturnal
Lo mismo que mi alma
Se refleja en tu mirar
Tengo el alma muy contenta
Porque anoche te besé
Y al son de tu mirada
Mi cariño te entregue
Pero porque
Tu tendras que ver
Que en este nuevo amor
La historia se repetirá
Por eso yo me he puesto a analizar
De que todo en la vida es un cuento
Xiomara, ¿porque?
Xiomara, ¿porque?
¿Tu eres asi?
Óyelo bien Xiomara, habla
Dime si estás arrepentida
De haberme querido tanto
Como yo te quisé a ti
Jamás podrás comprender cuanto te quisé
Jamás podras olvidar cuanto te adoro
Ya todo terminó y todo se acabó
Sin amigo y sin amor
Que yo también como todo
Tuve dinero, amigo y amor
Si el amor se ha olvidado de mi
Y mis amigos me brindan traición
Mi amigo y mi amor
Mi amigo y mi amor
Se han ido los dos

Coro: Qué lástima con Xiomara a mí me dá

and "Yo tengo un cráneo contigo"

Yo tengo un cráneo contigo, nené
Y quiero que tú sepas
Que de ti me enamoré
Cuando yo te conocí
Caminando por la calle
A mirar tu lindo talle
Negra yo me estremecí
Recuerda que tú me diste a mí
Una grancita de amor
Para vivir un idilio amoroso los dos
Dime si no lo recuerdas
O es que se te olvidó
O es que mi cariño
En ti nunca perduró
Por eso en mi canto yo te digo así
Yo tengo un cráneo contigo, nené
Y quiero que tú sepas
Que de ti me enamoré

Coro: Anda, decidete

Entrance to the Embale's apartment.
(Photo: Barry Cox, February 2008)

Echoes of past rumbas.
(Photo: Barry Cox, February 2008)

Luis Embale, far right. Havana, early 1950's.
Others unidentified.

Courtesy familia Embale)

Luis Embale was returning home one night from a rumba in Las Yaguas (a notoriously poverty-stricken Havana district, home at various times to Tata Güines, Mongo Santamaria, and El Goyo) when he accidentally cut his arm.

The wound became infected and Luis died of tetanus a few days later, on June 11, 1958.

He was 28 years old.

José Luis Rey Embale (nephew) and Felicia Embale Molina (sister)
Remembering Luis in their house in El Cerro.

(Photo: Barry Cox, February 2008)

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Celebrando: Miguel Ángel Mesa Cruz

Miguel Ángel Mesa Cruz
(Photo Credit: Isnavi Cardoso Díaz. Havana, Feb 2008)

One of the great rumberos of all time turns 82 today. Miguel Ángel "Aspirina" Mesa Cruz was born June 7, 1926, in Guanabacoa on calle Cruz Verde entre Candelaria y Duarte (down the street from Rita Montaner).

Most people probably recognize Miguel Ángel's distinctive voice from the classic CD "Rapsodia Rumbera," especially his composition "Miguel Ángel, El Divertido":

"Yo me llamo Miguel Ángel
El divertido y el rumbero
Esto se lo digo yo
Y aúnque no tenga dinero
Siempre estoy de buen humor
Ay, pero falta lo mejor
Que le debo de explicar
Si todo tiene su final
Segun en la poesía
Resulta que Miguel Ángel
Todos los días amanece igual..."

"My name is Miguel Ángel
The fun guy and the rumbero
That's what I say
And although I don't have any money
I'm always in a good mood.
Oh, but I left out the best part
That I have to tell you
If everything must come to an end
As the poets say
It happens that Miguel Ángel
Wakes up every day the same as before..."

Fewer people may know that almost exactly 10 years ago, on June 11 1998, an Italian friend of his recorded a great set of 8 of Miguel Ángel's own tunes, under the title "El Caballero de la Rumba: Los Aspirinas en Guaguancó."

That was circulating as a CD for a while, and he's recently made those tracks available for download here. (Available as separate downloads, or you prefer you can download them all in a single .rar file (@320) here.)

We're also happy to share with you a clip of Miguel Ángel singing what many consider to be his forte, the style of rumba known as columbia. This was recorded in Atarés in February 2008, and is part of a full-length DVD, featuring many legendary rumberos, which we hope to make available soon.

Finally we're also publishing a translation of the article below, which contains a recent interview with the maestro. Enjoy!

"Aspirina, el Caballero de la Rumba"

(Photo Credit: INVASOR)

(NOTE: This article is a translation of the Spanish by Alexey Fajardo López and originally published 12/12/2007 at, also reproduced below.)

Hardly anyone knows him by his real name. In the neighborhood everyone calls him "Aspirina," although to many the comparison seems contradictory, given his complexion, black like his ancestors from Africa or who knows where. Others call him "The Gentleman of the Rumba."

What is for certain is that he is part of a family nucleus of more than 140 members, all rumberos, and of which he says he is proud from the moment he rises till the moment he goes to bed, and even while he sleeps.

"I was born, raised, and live in the neighborhood of Cruz Verde, in Havana, where Rita Montaner was born, and there they dance rumba for no reason at all, because they have it in their skin, in their blood."

"This is a place of rumberos, I don't believe there is a single person there who doesn't know what it is about and who doesn't move his feet when he hears a drum. It's a mixture of Abakuás, Malongos and Paleros all together, but nevertheless, the roots unite us, and the melody has made us brothers."

His real name is Miguel Ángel Mesa Cruz; the nickname was acquired since, in his youth, he worked with his brother Pedro Pablo for two Galician pharmacists, going out in the streets to sell aspirins.

"They call us the family of the Asprins, but we are sure it is meant affectionately, because in my family, we are all good people, yes, we could be lacking food one day, or some other thing, but not rumba; that's something that we need to live."

"The "Gentleman of the rumba" came about almost without me knowing it, they started calling me that in all 43 barrios of Havana. Rumberos like Mario "Chavalonga" Dreke, among others, started calling me that, and it stuck, although," he laughs and rubs his hands together, "it doesn't bother me."

Whoever hears him sing is overwhelmed. Vocal qualities intact, even at 82 years of age; vigorously moving to the sound of the drums, controlling his movements.

Perhaps some only see him as just another singer who now sings with the Conjunto Folkórico Irawo, formed in Guanabacoa, devoted to the songs of the Yoruba, Congo, Arará, Abakuá, and others that today are part of the roots and foliage of the processes that make up the cement on which our nation was built. Or maybe they aren't aware that Aspirina is the author of most of the songs that this group performs, or that, in 2001, he won a Latin Grammy, in the category of Best Folkloric Album, for the CD "La Rumba Soy Yo," produced by Caridad Diez and Joaquín Betancourt, for the label Bis Music, together with the All-Stars de la rumba cubana.

"To win the Latin Grammy was, for me, something great. In the first place because I wasn't expecting it, and secondly, because this is the dream of so many musicians, composers and singers. I didn't even believe it at first, I was so happy. I think it was one of the most beautiful moments of my life, comparable only with the happiness of knowing we are a large and unified family, and with that news of January '59."

The Gentleman's eyes are like two black pearls who shine from the deep; his speech is not slow, the words flow spontaneously, and while he talks he moves his hands as if he were trying to make each phrase into a rumba, charged with authenticity and elegance.

"In Ciego de Ávila they treated me as if I were family, what nice people I met there, and this Festival of Popular Art is a treasure, it would be great if it continues because there is really a need to show the youth the origins of each thing in the arts."

The Uncle, as he is also called by the dancers, musicians and singers of Irawo, doesn't boast of his talent or knowledge, but says he is hurt by the fact that he has won an award from a foreign land without receiving any such distinction from his own country.

"I'm not forgotten because this group is my new motivation and, although I am retired, I don't think of retirement."

"One enters rumba almost without knowing why, but one never leaves it. Nevertheless, it hurts that the Dirección de Cultura from my province doesn't recognize the merit that I acheived with a life devoted to music and dance."

"I do have a consolation: I never betrayed my people. I traveled and had propositions of many kinds, and here I am. I am the son of a Cuban father and a Jamaican mother. I have blood from the two nations, but I was born in Cuba and, in spite of the fact that there are people that say this and that, I intend to die here, next to my people and my rumba."

(Versión original en Español:)

Casi nadie lo conoce por su verdadero nombre. En su barrio todos le dicen Aspirina, aunque para muchos resulte contradictoria la comparación debido a su tez, negra como la de sus antecesores venidos de África o de quién sabe dónde. Otros lo llaman el Caballero de la rumba.

Cierto es que pertenece a un núcleo familiar de más de 140 integrantes, todos rumberos, y del que dice sentirse orgulloso desde que se levanta hasta que se acuesta, incluso, mientras duerme.

“Yo nací, me crié y vivo en el barrio de La Cruz Verde, en La Habana, el mismo donde nació Rita Montaner, y allí se baila la rumba hasta sin motivos, porque lo lleva uno dentro de la piel, en la sangre.

“Ese es un sitio de rumberos, creo que no existe una persona que no sepa en qué consiste y aunque sea mueva los pies cuando escucha sonar un tambor. Es una mezcla de abacuás, malongos, paleros, todo junto, sin embargo, nos unen las raíces, y la melodía nos ha hecho hermanos.”

Su nombre real es Miguel Ángel Mesa Cruz; el mote se lo ganó a partir de que, durante su niñez, su hermano Pedro Pablo y él trabajaban para dos carboneros gallegos que tenían una botica y salían a la calle a pregonar su venta de aspirinas.

“Nos dicen la familia de los Aspirinas, pero estamos seguros de que es de cariño, pues en mi núcleo, ese grande que le dije, todos somos gente de bien, eso sí, nos puede faltar la comida un día, o cualquier otra cosa, pero la rumba no; es algo que necesitamos para vivir.

“Lo de Caballero de la rumba surgió casi sin darme cuenta, empezaron a decirme así en los 43 barrios de La Habana. Rumberos como Mario Chavalonga Dreke, y otros me bautizaron así y se me ha quedado, aunque —ríe y se frota la manos— no me molesta.”

Quien lo oye cantar queda consternado. Cualidades vocales intactas aún a sus 82 años de edad; brío en la escena para moverse al compás de los batás, señoreo en los movimientos.

Quizás algunos solo lo vean como un cantante más que ahora acompaña al conjunto folklórico Irawo, formado en Guanabacoa y cultor de los cantos yoruba, congo, arará, abakuá, y otros que hoy son parte de la raíz y el follaje de los procesos que conforman el cimiento sobre el cual se erigió lo nacional. O tal vez ignoren que Aspirina es el autor de la mayoría de los números que interpreta esta agrupación y que, en el año 2001, obtuvo un premio Grammy Latino, en la categoría de Mejor Álbum Folklórico, con el disco La rumba soy yo, producido por Caridad Diez y Joaquín Betancourt, para el sello discográfico Bis Music, junto al All-Stars de la Rumba Cubana.

“Recibir ese premio, para mí, fue algo grandioso. En primer lugar porque no lo esperaba y, en segundo, porque ese es el sueño de gran cantidad de músicos, compositores, intérpretes. Incluso, cuando lo supe no lo podía creer de tanta alegría, enseguida sonó un tambor y se armó la gorda. Creo que ha sido uno de los momentos más lindos de mi vida, comparado solo con la felicidad de que seamos una familia muy numerosa y nos mantengamos unidos, y con la llegada de aquella noticia de enero del ’59.”

Los ojos del Caballero son como dos perlas negras que brillan desde lo profundo; sus palabras, nada lentas, se escurren con una espontaneidad que escapa de construcciones léxicas rebuscadas y, mientras habla, mueve las manos como si quisiera lograr que cada frase tuviera el mismo ritmo que una rumba solariega, cargada de autenticidad y donaire.

“En Ciego de Ávila me han tratado como si fuera de la familia mi’jo, qué gente más atenta he conocido acá, y esta Feria de Arte Popular es una joya, sería bueno que nunca se dejara de realizar porque hace mucha falta que se le enseñe a la juventud de dónde viene cada cosa en el arte.”

El Tío, como también le dicen los bailarines, músicos y cantantes de Irawo, no presume de su talento ni de su conocimiento, en cambio, manifiesta, que sí le lastima el hecho de ganarse un premio en tierra extraña sin que en su nación jamás le hayan otorgado lauro o distinción alguna.

“Yo no estoy olvidado porque esta agrupación es ahora mi nueva razón y, aunque sí me jubilé, tampoco pienso en el retiro.

“A la rumba se entra sin saber casi ni por qué, pero no se sale de ella, sin embargo, me duele que la Dirección de Cultura de mi provincia no reconozca el mérito que me gané con una vida entera de entrega a la música y el baile.

“Hoy me queda un consuelo: jamás traicioné a mi pueblo, viajé y tuve proposiciones de todo tipo, y aquí estoy. Soy hijo de cubano y jamaicana. Tengo sangre de las dos naciones, pero nací en Cuba y, no obstante hay gente que diga que si esto, que si lo otro, yo me pienso morir aquí, al lado de mi gente y de mi rumba.”

Enviado por Alexey Fajardo López (Invasor)
Foto de Invasor
fecha 12/12/2007

Friday, June 06, 2008

Celebrando: Ricardo Llorca, "Chacho"

Ricardo Llorca "Chacho"
(Photo by Barry Cox, Havana, February 2008)

Former "Voz tercera" for Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, "Chacho" was born June 6, 1938 in Santos Suarez and at 4 years old his family moved to El Cerro, where he started participating in rumbas from an early age.

He began singing professionally in 1954 with Los Principales, the recording and touring group of Celeste Mendoza. In 1970 he began singing with Rumboleros, where he remained until 1984 when he was invited by Diosdado Ramos to join Los Muñequitos de Matanzas. Specializing in the high harmony, he lent his powerful voice to such classics as "En Opuestas Regiones" and "Alma Libre," both sung in duo with the late Ricardo Cané.

He accompanied Los Muñequitos on their first international tour, to England in 1989. Upon returning he quit the group because of his fear of flying. Thereafter he retired from singing professionally.

Here is a rare clip of Chacho singing with Los Muñequitos, captured by an unknown videographer in Matanzas around 1985.

And here are a couple of Celeste Mendoza tracks featuring Los Principales (via fidelseyeglasses). Can't be sure if Chacho is singing on these, but it seems quite likely.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Rumba Blogs

A couple of recent rumba-related blog finds you might want to check out:

"Tony's Conga Adventures" at

Bay-area based percussionist and drum restorer updates us on his projects and the Bay Area rumba scene.

"Rumba Clave: An Illustrated Analysis" at

"What, exactly, is rumba clave? ... One thing is certain: What you see in standard western notation as written-clave is a long way from what's actually played.

But what is actually played? And can that somehow be illustrated? Well, I took a shot at it (with recordings containing rumba clave, a music editor, and Photoshop), and you'll find the results below."

Carlos Aldama's website at

Biography, photos, video, history and more.