Africa: Rumba By the Connecticut River

It started with an email from Pastor Steven Jungkiet of the Old Lyme Congregational Church in Old Lyme, Connecticut. Steven was inviting us to two weekend events featuring Román Diaz and his Cuban rumba ensemble, with two visiting rumba elders, Lazaro Galarraga based in Los Angeles and Sandy Perez based in Boston. On Saturday night, they would perform in Essex, CT, on the banks of the Connecticut River, and on Sunday morning, at the Old Lyme Congregational Church.

Curious, but far from clued in, Sean Barlow and I made our way to Essex shortly before sunset on a balmy Saturday evening. Then the surprises began. First, the setting was marvelous, a spacious wooden house with wall-sized windows looking out on the veranda and the river beyond. The hosts had designed it to feel like a boat, and the effect was impressive, as was the lavish spread of delicious food. Then came the guests, including three former Afropop collaborating scholars, Ivor Miller (The Voice of the Leopard, The Cameroon-Cuba Connection), Ken Bilby (The Story of Gumbe) and Michael Birenbaum Quintero (Agua y Luz: Music of Tumaco and the Afro Colombian Pacific).

That alone was enough to tell us we were in for something special.

Pastor Steven, an avid Afropop fan, was keen to introduce us to various guests and, of course, to the artists. He told us that Lazaro Galarraga was among the last of his generation of Cuban rumberos. His grandmother had been brought to Cuba as a slave from Nigeria, and he actually remembered knowing her as a child. Serious. What followed was a series of thrilling conversations, leading gradually to the music, which began at twilight on the veranda with the musicians standing and everyone joining in on melodious choruses, and ended with a long session in the living room with kids playing on the loft and everyone dancing and singing to some of the most exquisite Cuban music you’ll find anywhere.