Fiesta Del Tambor 2018: An Honest Review
The name brings images of street parades of drummers and dancers: The Party of Drums. It’s easy to envision in Cuba, thousands of drummers parading the streets, rocking us into high ecstatic states of trance and rhythm bliss. Nights filled with powerful Cuban rhythms, Rhumba, Bembe, Mozambique, Palo, and who knows what other cultural forms one might get to experience in an event with such a powerful name as Fiesta Del Tambor.
I was invited by Cuba Plus Magazine and KOSA to come and see what the event was all about and to do some documenting. I was also invited to be a part of a program that KOSA and Cuba Plus were hosting for Canadian and US Citizens to come to experience the event. In the KOSA program, participants are able to learn more about Cuban rhythms from the great masters of Cuban Drumming firsthand. I packed up my bag, and my Cuban novio Ernesto from Trinidad, Cuba and we taxied on over for the 4 hour drive to Havana, curious and ready for an amazing week of rhythm bliss, drumming and learning.
The event has been going on for over 15 years. It lasts for a week in Havana, with clinics in the daytime and concerts at night. There are also competitions in several different categories of drumming that inspire young people to get involved and demonstrate their talents. There are timbale competitions, bata competitions, conga, rhumba, dance, etc. The clinics take place in large halls with large audiences and are distinctly separate from the intimate educational experiences that KOSA was creating over at Club Havana all week for their guests.
The evening concerts were large venues and big time showy productions featuring some of the greatest (or at least most famous) of Cuba’s musicians and artists, along with artists and musicians from Brazil. Brazil was the featured country this year at Fiesta del Tambor and Noche de Brasil was a beautiful show featuring the incredible powerhouse voice of Fabiana Cozza and piano virtuoso Joao Donato along with an interesting twist of Janis Siegel from the Manhattan Transfer Project singing Brazilian songs. And of course, lots of Klimax since Fiesta del Tambor was founded by it’s highly acclaimed drummer, Piloto.
At one point during one of the shows, I overheard someone say, “Fiesta del Tambor? Bah, Eso es Fiesta de Orkestras de Cuba.” I have to say I am mostly in agreement with him. The concerts at night gave very brief features to the most powerful drumming groups and long extended sets to the orchestras such as Klimax and Manolito Simonet the final night. The music was all top notch and no complaints on the quality of the shows by any means. Yet, the honest truth, in my experience, after experiencing lots of other drumming events and festivals in Cuba such as Trinifolk in Trinidad, is that the event falls short for it’s name in the showcasing of the richly diverse drumming cultures of Cuba I was hoping for.
To me, it felt like the drumming groups were the intermissions for the orchestras for most of the nights inside the theatres. For an event called “Fiesta del Tambor” one would imagine it to be the other way around. For example, one of the most famous of Rhumba groups of all times in Cuba, Munequitas de Matanzas, had an incredibly short set of only a few songs on the final night.
They managed to deliver one of the best performances of the event in a too short performance but it left myself and hundreds of other Cubans there hungry for more and disappointed to see so little from a group we cherish so much. People immediately started to leave when the Munequitas were replaced with yet another salsa orchestra. The timbale solo was cool, but rhumba was what the people really wanted in that crowd. You could feel it in their singing and wild waving arms during the Munequita’s short set.
There were no street parades of drummers, like you’ll find at Carnival or more folkloric traditional events, but there were rhumbas in the patio many nights which were jam packed to the point of body contact at all times, if you were willing to miss the bigger events inside. The primary venue of Theatre Mella does not encourage dancing with theatre style seating, but we all know that you can’t keep the Cubans sitting down for long when there’s music happening. We all danced from our seats, and in the aisles as much as we could.
The Night of the Woman was by far one of the most powerful nights, featuring women percussionist and artists from Cuba and Brazil, demonstrating the incredible diversity of women to be able to drum, dance and make it look incredibly beautiful to master those worlds with sensuality, grace and fierceness combined.
It was hard not to notice, however, that the Night of the Woman was the only night that the Video Screens weren’t producing images of the artists, nor were the big boom cameras scanning right and left the way they did every other night of the event. It’s hard to know if it was just a coincidence, an oversight or an executive decision to not give the women the same coverage as the mostly male groups got all of the other nights. It was a hot point of conversation amongst not just the women but many men who felt it was disrespectful and disappointing to not get those close up shots of the women rocking it and looking good doing it.
The KOSA workshops that were going on in conjunction with Fiesta Del Tambor with Aldo Mazza were a true demonstration of hands on participation, education, and an opportunity for intimate sharing, question and answer and learning in a small classroom environment and are an awesome add on if you want to come experience the event and learn. Aldo had some of the top professionals in their fields there presenting and teaching a small group of 12 students. Every student got dedicated time with the instructors, and the opportunity to talk, share, and study with some of the top percussionists in Cuba. If you visit my YouTube channel, you can see some of the interviews with the students and hear from them first hand on how their experience was at the KOSA program. Aldo Mazza is a joyful rhythm and music lover, and I thoroughly enjoyed every day I spent with him and the students learning and listening.
So overall with all things taken into account, the event was well worth experiencing and I wouldn’t miss it!
I can’t say I would give Fiesta Del Tambor a full 5 star rating simply because I personally think there should be a LOT more focus on the drum at the evening concerts. The salsa orchestras get plenty of exposure and play in Cuba. For the Orkestras to be dominating the concerts at night for an event called “Fiesta del Tambor,” was my one and only real disappointment in the event. More drums please, more Munequitas, more bata, more folkloric, and yes, even more cowbell please.
I would however give the KOSA event with Aldo Mazza a 5 star rating if you’re interested in learning from some of the most famous of Cuba’s musicians in an intimate environment and leaving Cuba with a new understanding of the rhythm, the techniques and mostly the creative virtuosity that makes Cuban music so contagious and powerful.
I will most certainly go back to experience it’s continued growth, and I look forward to many more years of going to work and play more with Aldo Mazza and KOSA.
If you want to come to Cuba to see some amazing music, learn from some of the top masters in Cuba, and have an amazing time in Havana, it’s absolutely worth coming. Join us for next year, you can join the Facebook group here and sign up to be on our Email List Here for updates for next year.