Gateway to the Future: Román Díaz Rumba Ensemble
Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares began its 9thseason in September, 2020 with a series of three virtual concerts by violinist and vocalist Terry Jenoure called Portal. The season ended on June 13, 2021 with an in-the-flesh affair featuring the life affirming music of the Román Díaz Rumba Ensemble. To invoke the most prescient and prevalent metaphor of our time, we are sailing through a portal and stand ready to shape a new future.
The tribulations of the past year were laid to rest in a barn atop a hill on the bucolic Valley View Farm in Haydenville. There the percussionist, singer and scholar Román Díaz led his seven-member group in a program of religious Afro-Cuban music that summoned the Orishas that will surely guide us in the months and years ahead. Díaz, who came to the U.S. from Havana in 1999, is widely acknowledged as a living repository of traditional Cuban folkloric music. His ensemble: Sandy Perez, Vanessa Ayaba Irawo, Rafael Monteagudo, Onel Mulet, Abraham Rodriguez and Clemente Medina, have long history together. All have dedicated their lives to the preservation and practice of Afro-Cuban music.
Over 200 people gathered in the open-air barn and on the surrounding grounds, smiling and hugging after 15 long months of isolation. Then from their dressing room, the musicians emerged singing and playing shekere as they slowly made their way to the stage, pausing by an altar honoring our friend Victor “Cuco” Guevara, a music lover in the broadest sense and a charter member of Jazz Shares, who passed in 2017.
The ensuing 90 minutes were transformative. The music, the setting, our rekindled understanding of the importance of community, all came together with a sense of newness, urgency and joy.
I don’t have knowledge of the music and tradition like Brandon Marger, who supplied the congas and timbales, or Miguel Periche, who brought the three, two-headed Batá drums and danced in the aisles, or Dr. Ivor Miller, a friend of the musicians and an expert on Cuban cultural history, whose flight from Cameroon brought him home a day late for the concert. But I know enough to recognize the real deal when I hear it.
There were a few jazz oriented pieces like Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma” and “Tin Tin Deo” and W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues”, which gave saxophonist and flutist Onel Mulet a chance shine. But most of the evening was a dive into the deep well of traditional rumba music. The presence of trap drums, played wonderfully by Rafael Monteagudo, gave the music a wrinkle and bite. The youngest member of the group, Monteagudo had a full understanding of the chants and rhythms, while adding the snap crackle of the drum kit to the mix.
All seven members of the ensemble sang. When they sang together, their fullness resonated in our bodies and our souls. Besides Díaz, whose large frame produced a mellifluous low-pitched sound, the principle singers w
ere Abraham Rodriguez and Vanessa Ayaba Irawo.
Rodriguez, whose godfather was the legendary percussionist Orlando “Puntilla” Ríos, has performed with Eugenio “Totico” Arango, Grupo Folklorico y Experimental Nuevayorquino and Michelle Rosewoman. His strong voice and infectious spirit lifted the bandstand.
Vanessa Ayaba Irawo is a remarkable singer born and living in Gloucester, Massachusetts with her husband, percussionist Sandy Perez. Known more for its sea faring culture than as a hot bed of Afro-Cuban music, Ayaba Irawo, whose birth name is Lindberg, has nevertheless become a master of the form. On multiple occasions after the performance, the musicians broke into song to share chants, which she often led. In her role out front of some of the Yoruba-based sacred songs, she served as “akpwon,” or lead singer.
I first met Díaz, widely referred to as “el Maestro”, on June 11, 2015 when he performed a Jazz Shares concert with pianist David Virelles. A Facebook memory of him and Virelles along with Pablo Yglesias, Cuco and me around my dinner table popped up on the six-year anniversary. It also appeared on Díaz’ timeline.
The Román Díaz Rumba Ensemble was originally scheduled to perform at the Magic Triangle Jazz Series at UMass on March 26, 2020. Those 15 months have been filled with loss and sadness, but the wait made the celebration of this ancient and evolving tradition all the sweeter. We have entered the portal.