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Performers get lost in the rhythm

Juan Carlos Blanco and Kati Hernandez perform the rumba yambú, a traditional Cuban couples dance, in Lyman Hall at Pomona College. Blanco, born in Havana, had been performing professionally for 15 years before coming to the United States and has also founded his own Afro-Cuban music company Omo Aché. Hernandez, also a native of Cuba, has been dancing since age 9 and graduated from the Escuela National de los Artes, Havana’s national school of art. / photo by Warren Bessant

Jason D. Cox
Staff Writer

A dozen pairs of hands struck drums as eight youthful voices sang out sacred songs in a performance of Afro-Cuban music Monday night at Pomona College.

Twenty student performers drummed and sang together in harmony to an audience of 50 at Lyman Hall in the Thatcher Music Building.

The music, associated with of the polytheistic Afro-Cuban religion known as Regla de Ocha – literally, “Law of the Orishas” – gave a glimpse at a time when the gods were just a campfire and a song away.

“I came to a performance last year and decided I wanted to try it myself,” said Katie Kerr, a senior performance theater major from Pitzer College.

“It’s fun because (professor Joe Addington) is so helpful and you can learn to play your own little beat.”

The students were directed by their professor, Addington, who directed the ensemble, which was accompanied by four special guests.

Professional singer and Havana native Lázaro Galarraga led the students in song. Lorenzo Peñalver kept the beat on the claves, a percussion instrument.

Dancers Juan Carlos Blanco and Kati Hernandez showed the audience what a traditional Afro-Cuban ceremony might have looked like by demonstrating traditional dances that reflected the personalities of the deities associated with each piece of music.

“I got hooked after I saw them perform last semester,” said Rebekka Manzella, a junior neuroscience major at Pitzer, “It’s a long class, but he teaches it in a fun way.”

“There is such a high level of discipline here, these guys work really hard,” said Addington of the students in the class. “They’re all very respectful and work hard.”

Addington added that it takes the whole semester of hard work, but eventually it comes together. The set list was composed of seven student performances followed by two special performances by the musical guests and Addington.

The first four were Regla de Ocha praise songs, each dedicated to a different one of the Orishas, or deities.

Each song performed by the students used specific instruments and beats, starting with the Bembé, followed by two pieces featuring the Batá drums, and lastly the Guiro, a Puerto Rican percussion instrument.

An especially exciting piece to listen to was one in which the music progressively built on itself.

Starting with the foundational rhythm, the performers added a new drumming pattern every four bars, until they were playing a total of four distinct patterns simultaneously by the end of the song.

Each dance performed by Blanco and Hernandez was unique to the deities for whom they are performed: Eleguá, the messenger of the Orishas and owner of the crossroads; Obatalá, the Orisha of peace, wisdom and purity; Ochún, the Orisha of sweet waters and of romantic love, laughter, and dance; and finally Yemayá, the Orisha of the sea and mother of the world.

There are two main categories of Afro-Cuban music: religious and profane. The songs performed on Monday were of the religious category.

Over the course of the concert, student performers used drumming patterns including marcha, used in salsa and Latin jazz; merengue, used in the Dominican Republic and eastern Cuba; and rumba guaguancó, a music and dance form that emerged from the barracones, or slave quarters, of Havana in the 19th century.

Addington was sure to add at the end of the performance that there will be another performance in the spring.

Jason D. Cox can be reached at

Lazaro Galarraga and Lorenzo Penalver perform traditional rumba drumming, which has roots in the slave quarters of 19th century Havana, Cuba, while Kati Hernandez performs an accompanying dance Monday night at Pomona College. The rumba style of music is essential in the practice of Regla de Ocha, a polytheistic religion in Cuba. Both Galarraga and Penalver are professional performers in the rumba style of music. / photo by Warren Bessant

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