Explorations in Afro-Cuban Dance and Drum

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The annual Explorations in Afro-Cuban Dance & Drum workshops are hosted by the Humboldt State University Office of Extended Education in Arcata, California. The classes focus on Afro-Cuban folkloric song, dance, and percussion.

"Since 1996 local music teacher/musician Howie Kaufman has led Explorations in Afro-Cuban Dance and Drum, a workshop series at HSU that brings teachers and students from far and wide. Passion for the clave rhythm led some seriously dedicated Humboldters to find ways around the U.S. blockade (United States embargo against Cuba) of the Caribbean island and bring Cuban music and musicians here."—Doran (2011).[1]

Founder's Hall is the most prominent and oldest building on the HSU campus.

The politics of Cubans teaching at Humboldt State University[edit]

Despite the United States embargo against Cuba, a slight relaxation allowed the Afro-Cuban folkloric group Los Muñequitos de Matanzas to tour the United States in 1992. The tour initiated a period of relaxation in relations between the United States and Cuba, during the presidency of Bill Clinton. There were more cultural exchanges between the two countries during the Clinton Administration, than at any other time since the beginning of the embargo in 1960. The last time relations had been similarly relaxed, was in 1977, during the presidency of Jimmy Carter. The 1992 Muñequitos tour also established the small California college town of Arcata as a preferable venue for touring Cuban groups. Los Muñequitos performed, and gave dance and drum classes in Arcata in 1992, 1994, and 1998. During the 1990s more Cuban music and dance groups performed in Humboldt County than in any other rural county in the United States.[2] Beginning in 1996, Humboldt State University invited touring Cuban folkloric masters to teach at their Explorations workshop.[3] Eventually, the University obtained visas for Cuban teachers, and brought them directly from the island to the workshop. After the September 11 attacks of 2001, visas for Cuban teachers were unattainable. Although there is no evidence that Cuba was involved in any way with the attacks, Cuba is still technically one of four countries designated as a State Sponsors of Terrorism by the United States Department of State.[4] Relations between the United States and Cuba remained chilly throughout the presidency of George W. Bush. In the post-9/11 period, the University turned to hiring Cuban folkloric masters already residing in the U.S. The presidency of Barack Obama has seen a slight loosening in travel restrictions between the two countries. Los Muñequitos de Matanzas once again toured the United States in 2011. Muñequitos member Ana Perez was able to obtain a temporary visa, enabling her to remain in the United States and teach for several months. Perez taught at the 2011 Explorations workshop.


Song classes occur in the evenings. Latin Beat Magazine states: "Classes are progressive and cumulative. Thus, participants are encouraged to attend the entire program."[5]

Lecture/demonstrations include "Cross-rhythm: The Underlying Structure of Afro-Cuban Dance and Drum," "Comparing the African and Cuban Bata Drums," "The Clave Matrix," "Haitiano History and Styles," "La Rumba Cubana: 150 Years of Identity and Resistance," and "Swing: The Elusive Feel."


Each year the Humboldt State campus hosts the largest assemblage of Afro-Cuban folkloric dance and drum masters in the United States.[6] Faculty members have included: Francisco Aguabella, Carlos Aldama, Jesus Alfonso, Susana Arenas, Erick Barberia, Jose Francisco Barroso, Miguel Bernal, Toto Berriel, Roberto Borrell, Juan Brown, Luis Cepeda "Chichito," Jesus Diaz, Roman Diaz, Sonyalsi Feldman, Lazaro Galarraga, Gary Greenberg, Reynaldo Gonzalez, Alison Hong, Regino Jimenez, Howard Kaufman, Rogelio Kindelan, C.K. Ladzekpo, Mark Lamson, Silfredo La O Vico, Freila Merencio, Harold Muniz, Santiago Nani, David Penalosa, Ana Perez, Sandy Perez, Teresita Perez, Jose Cheo Rojas, John Santos, Michael Spiro, Chris Walker, and Scott Wardinsky.


Song instruction includes the Lucumí and Iyesá (Santería), Arará, Palo (religion), and rumba traditions.


Styles of dance include Santería, Arará, Palo (religion), and rumba, in both the Havana and Matanzas styles, as well as "Haitiano" genres, and salsa (dance).


Percussion instruction includes batá drums (three levels), conga drums, quinto, shekere, and cajón. Some instruction in Cuban popular styles (salsa music, timba, Latin jazz, etc.) of congas, bongos, timbales, drumset are also offered.

Batá drums. From left: okónkolo, iyá, itótele. Photo: Harold Muñiz

Class Level Prerequisites[edit]

From Humboldt State University:


"LEVEL 1: Requires little or no prior experience with Afro-Cuban dance styles.

LEVEL 2: Requires prior Afro-Cuban folkloric dance experience with the ability to keep up in a moderately fast paced environment. Participants must be: able to pick up moves and steps quickly familiar with the bembé /güiro step familiar with the fundamental orishá steps

LEVEL 3: Master class. For professional dancers, teachers, and performers of Afro-Cuban folkloric dance. Requires mastery of the fundamental orishá steps, and the ability to keep up in an extremely fast-paced, high energy environment. Intended for those with many years of experience in Afro-Cuban dance"—Explorations.[7]


"LEVEL 1: Requires little or no prior experience with Afro-Cuban music or conga drumming techniques.

LEVEL 2: Requires introductory knowledge of Afro-Cuban rhythms and some prior conga drumming instruction. Participants must demonstrate basic conga drum strokes (open/tone, bass, heel toe, muff and slap) and basic rhythmic independence (tapping the pulse or mainbeat while clapping the cinquillo, tresillo, son and rumba claves, and the bell to bembé .) Level 2 rhythms will be broken down slowly and methodically. LEVEL 3: Rarticipants must demonstrate all Level 2 skills plus: Caja and supportive parts to bembé /agbe clear distinction of conga strokes and stick techniques an ability to pick up rhythms at a moderate pace LEVEL 4: Participants must demonstrate all level 3 skills plus: demonstrate supportive parts for guaguancó understand how all parts fit together be able to tap pulse or mainbeat with foot to bembé /agbe and guaguancó rhythms and bell patterns demonstrate sound hand and stick techniques demonstrate an ability to pick up rhythms quickly

LEVEL 5: Master class. For professional musicians, teachers and performers of Afro-Cuban folkloric music. Requires several years experience playing Afro-Cuban folkloric music. Must have lead drumming experience and all Level 4 skills"—Explorations.[7]

Faculty performance[edit]

On the last night of the workshop, the faculty gives a performance in the Van Duzer Theatre, in the HSU Theatre Arts Building.

Grupo Exploración[edit]

In the summer of 2000, Explorations faculty members Miguel Bernal, Juan Brown, Michael Spiro, Harold Muniz, and "Chichito" Cepeda recorded a CD of instrumental experimental folklore. With no singing, the melody of the tuned drums provide the thematic focus of the music. The results were released as the CD Drum Jam (Descarga al tambor) on Bembe Records (2026-2).

"Isolating the drum this way is unusual since many percussionists derive their inspiration from singers and dancers. Still, the session gives Afro-Cuban percussion instruments rare focus. Certain drums assume melodic roles, playing a "song", while others create a second strata of melody beneath the soloist"—Harrington (2001).[8]

"Some of its hypnotic effect results from repetition, and is an effect that you might expect to occur if Philip Glass did an all-percussion recording. The slight variations, when they occur, become large, meaningful elements in themselves"—Polin (2001)[9]


Although not an official part of the course, there are informal rumbones ('rumba parties') nearly every night. These are typically held off-campus, at various homes in the community. This is where some of the best music can be heard, as masters and students alike, sing, dance, and drum with great inspiration. Special rumbones occur on Tuesday evenings. For the first two years, the workshop hosted catered Tuesday evening parties at Redwood Park. In the third year, the Tuesday rumbones moved to Moonstone Beach, at the mouth of the Mad River (California). Shortly after the 2009 beach party began, local neighbors called the police, complaining about the drumming. Since then, the Tuesday night rumbones have occurred a few miles south, at Mad River Beach. The new location is not near any residences, and therefore, does not violate Arcata's famous "Bongo Ordinance."[10]


  1. ^ Doran, Bob (July 28, 2011). "Smokin' Cubans." The North Coast Journal. Accessed December 2011.
  2. ^ Drum Jam (Descarga al tambor). Liner notes. Bembe Records CD 2026-2. 2000.
  3. ^ Reiner, Terry "Humboldt University's Exploration in Afro-Cuban Dance and Drum" World Percussion and Rhythm v. XIII n. 2 January 2013.
  4. ^ https://web.archive.org/web/20100503183011/http://www.state.gov/s/ct/c14151.htm. Archived from the original on May 3, 2010. Retrieved May 5, 2010.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  5. ^ Mangual, Rudy. "11th Annual Explorations in Afro-Cuban Dance & Drum Workshops." Latin Beat Magazine. 1 April 2007.
  6. ^ Doran, Bob. “The Cuban Connection.” The North Coast Journal. 21 June 2001. Web.
  7. ^ a b "Explorations in Afro-Cuban Music and Dance - Humboldt State University, Arcata, Calif., USA". Humboldt.edu. Retrieved 2015-03-31. 
  8. ^ Harrington, Spencer. Beat Magazine. 1 March 2001.
  9. ^ Polin, Bruce. Descarga.com. Web.1 Jan. 2001.
  10. ^ "Bedtime for Bongos." North Coast Journal, News Briefs. April 1996. Web. Retrieved 2011-12-30.

Further reading[edit]

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