excerpt: “History of the Groove, drummer’s story”
Russell Buddy Helm ©2013 all rights reserved
1997. Los Munegutios were performing in LA. It was a rare opportunity to see this great musical treasure from Cuba. They had about six drummers, five singers, and about five dancers. They sang the traditional Santeria songs and improvised amazing drumming and vocal arrangements that sent chills up my spine. They are authentic and have been performing since nineteen fifty four. They are from the Matanzas province and are considered world class in presenting the sacred Afro Cuban drumming music. The crowd was entirely Hispanic and African American. There was one other white man there who I knew had drummed with Baba Olatunji. Cathy wore a beautiful green burnt velvet dress and I had on green suede hush puppies I had bought on South Beach on our last trip down to Miami. The whole concert hall was a party with important people in the Santeria Community meeting and greeting. There was a palpable air of magic over the whole crowd. The queen of the Latin magic community ended up sitting next to us and she had on a burnt green shawl that was identical to Cathy’s; only Cathy had the whole ensemble and it made her look look like the real queen of the night. The Latin Voodoo queen took it as an insult and spent the whole night trying to irritate Cathy by holding her baby up and getting him to kick Cathy in the arm. Her husband finally traded seats with her to try to focus on the incredible music and dancing. Nobody liked the fact that I was there. The crowd was very possessive of their magical music and did not want an Anglo taking part. Delicious authentic Cuban food was served out front of the Wilshire Ebell theater. There were even Cohibas available to purchase from a very discreet Cuban gentleman. I was enjoying the music, the sacred singing and dancing but I was on my guard to some extent. I tried not to let it interfere with our good time. At the end of the concert, the players on stage asked for people to come up on stage and dance with them. Cathy insisted that we go up on stage. I did not want to but she insisted, so there we were up in front of this crowd dancing and clapping. I was watching the old drummers teaching the young drummers how to stay steady and work the grooves that created the magical trances. I watched the old man singer clapping his hands to the clave rhythm. I tried to match him but I could not, which really puzzled me. The clave was a rhythmic pattern that I knew something about but he was doing something different to the three/two rhythmic structure and it was just slightly off from what I could clap. I couldn’t get it. As we left, the LA gangs were assembled in the parking lot and made remarks as we passed through them.
“Did you hear what they said?” Cathy asked me after we had gotten through.
“No.” I said not looking back. “I’m deaf.”
“Good.” She said. “The chica said…but she has a nice dress.”
The next day I went to a special drumming seminar with the Munequitos drummers in a strange warehouse district in an art gallery for Latin black magic artwork. The drummers were assembled in the gallery and a small crowd was gathering around them. The owner of the gallery looked me up and down and charged me double. I grabbed three plastic chairs to sit behind the crowd and still see the drummers. They were not smiling. This was serious magical drumming. They didn’t give me a second look, but the witch from the night before was there and she did not like me attending this sacred drumming event. She sent her assistant over to me and asked for a chair. I gave her one of my chairs then got another one from the stack. The witch came over to me and hissed at me.
“You have to go!”
“I’m here for the drum.” I said simply. She screamed at me in a hiss that got the drummer’s attention but they didn’t stop playing a groove that was thick and dark, weaving around the room like a huge black python. Her frizzy black hair was flying in all directions and her crazy eyes were like a mother barracuda I had met once off of Big Pine Key about twenty feet down. She didn’t really scare me that much, which really pissed her off.
“What are you? The chair cop?” I said. Her tattooes of pentagrams and voodoo markings danced on her chest as she hissed at me. I ignored her and she stomped away. I focused on the drummers. She didn’t scare me. When I had gone after these rhythms while living in Coconut Grove back in the day, I found myself looking down the barrel of a forty five automatic pistol and the Cuban with his finger on the trigger, calling me, “Goddam hippie.” This time I was determined to get the sacred magical grooves.
I felt protected. The drum I was playing belonged to Guro Dan Inosanto; Bruce Lee’s partner. It was full of his Chi. He was my student and his energy was like the Dalai Lama. I knew that the drum had always protected me. It was an understanding that went all the way back to when I was facing the real danger of being recruited by the CIA when I was nineteen. The woman who had recruited me gave me a gift, a ring, It was set with a sardonyx stone carved into a royal signet stamp that she had gotten in Iran back when the Shah was sitting on the Peacock throne. She told me, “Wear this ring and you will be safe as long as you play the drums.” I did wear it until I accidentally hit it on the rim of my tom tom during a Bethlehem Asylum concert in Miami and it splintered the stone. This was after she had tried to get me to commit to working undercover for the CIA in the anitwar movement in nineteen sixty nine. When the ring broke, I worried about it. Then I took it off and I felt a whole lot better. I felt that the drum had freed me from her emotional blackmail.
“This drumming was outlawed in Cuba until only recently. If a drummer was caught playing these rhythms they would be put in jail. So the drummers got fish boxes and played them instead. That is how these sacred rhythms survived in Cuba.” The African Cuban instructor explained.
I watched intently as the three drummers each played their parts together. They did not smile. This was not entertainment. This was sacred and ancient; a mix of Catholic and Yoruba imagery in a secret society that had survived for hundreds of years in Cuba. They were still protecting it. Finally, I was seeing the combination of rhythms that I could not get the night before. They were playing the clave in a six beat pattern, not the conventional four beat pattern! Suddenly the whole world of Afro Cuban sacred drumming made sense to me. I had been trying to hear it in four beat patterns while they were actually playing in six beat patterns. It excited me more than anything else I have experienced in a long time. The owner of the gallery came up to me.
“You have to leave…now” He said and slid me my money so that no one would see it.
Outside, loading Guro Dan’s conga drum into my van, an old pick up truck arrived and a black man got out. He was walking with a cane. He was my age and his injury looked old. He was probably a Viet Nam combat veteran. He gave me a heads up as he loaded his conga drum onto a dolly with some effort.
“You’re leaving. Is it crowded in there?” He asked me with genuine friendliness.
“It’s not for white people.”
He looked shocked. “No…”
“Then you tell me what it is, man. ”
“Sorry that happened.”
“Just don’t sit on more than one chair.” I said and drove away. I got what I wanted; the mystical clave patterns in a six beat pattern were the missing secret ingredients to the newly evolving healing drum therapy that I was working on. It would have been a good idea for the witch to let me have them. If my people get better, then their people would benefit. I understood what they were trying to protect. This is a new day though, and the secrets of spirit and healing are now in the open. We are all sharing the groove now.
excerpt; History of the Groove, drummer’s story”
Russell Buddy Helm ©2013 all rights reserved.