Jesús Alfonso: Conga player and musical director of Cuba's 'Kings of Rumba'

Sunday 23 October 2011 01:12

Known in Cuba as "Los Reyes de la rumba" ("The kings of rumba"), Los Muñequitos de Matanzas are recognised internationally as being among the leading ambassadors of this ancient AfroCuban musical tradition – one of the building blocks of contemporary salsa.

The group was founded in the town of Matanzas on 9 October, 1952, and made their first trip outside Cuba in July 1989 to perform at the Suave Suave Festival at London's ICA, with the percussionist Jesús Alfonso as their musical director – a position he had held since 1967.

Alfonso returned to the UK with Los Muñequitos de Matanzas once more in 1991, and was on all their other tours. The group visited many countries in Latin America and Europe, as well as making a dozen tours of the United States before the Bush government's ban on visas for Cuban performers put a stop to this.

The musician, producer and musicologist Ned Sublette witnessed their US debut, and subsequently released seven of their albums on his Qbadisc label. He remembers Alfonso as the "musical genius of the group": "I've never seen a conguero [conga player] who impressed me more. It was never about flashy technique with him, it was about saying deep things. When the Muñequitos first came to New York in 1992, at their first gig at Johnny Colón's music school, every Latin drummer in town was there, open-mouthed..."

In its purest form – as showcased on the album Cantar Maravilloso (1990), which the group recorded in London for the UK label Globestyle – the rumba is a strictly a voice and percussion style, accompanied by dancers. Although a strong singer, Alfonso was most revered for his rich, ringing timbre on the quinto, the high-pitched conga drum that "talks" while the other two drummers maintain the beat.

Alfonso composed around 70 per cent of the group's original material, and was best known for his song "Congo Yambumba", which Eddie Palmieri also recorded. Many of his other compositions such as "La Llave", "Chino Guaguao" and "Saludo a Nueva York" have become classics of Cuban rumba.

An only child, he entered his vocation at the age of seven as a musician and dancer in Comparsa La Imaliana, a carnival group co-founded by his father. There followed stints in the Orquesta de Música Moderna of Matanzas and the Papa Goza group, before he joined Los Muñequitos de Matanza. Along with the group's singer Richard Cané, he taught literacy to rural Cubans, and in recognition of this and his music, he was granted the title Hijo Illustre ["Illustrious son"] of Matanzas.

From the 1970s onwards, he participated in the recording of over 20 albums with Los Muñequitos, and was responsible for arranging their vocal harmonies, also recently taking on a crucial role as a producer.

In 2001, the group won a Latin Grammy in the Best Folklore Album category for their contribution to the multi-artist album La Rumba Soy Yo on the Cuban label Bis Music. They received two further Grammy nominations, for Rumba de Corazón (2003) and Tambor de Fuego (2007) as well as numerous awards in Cuba.

Jon Lusk

Jesús Alfonso Miró, rumbero; born 1948, Matanzas, Cuba; married Dulce María Galup (eight children); died Matanzas 3 June 2009.

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