Every March, for 19 years, this Cuban festival has brought together national and international percussionists.
Guillermo Barreto Drum Festival

No one has any doubt that Cuban people have rhythm in their blood. From our very birth, we live surrounded by the rhythms of the clave and the drum. It doesn’t matter if we were born in a humble neighborhood, in the middle of the countryside or in the heart of the great city of Havana.

So it was excellent news that this March, after waiting two years due to the pandemic, the Guillermo Barreto Memorial Drum Festival returned to the Cuban cultural scene. After conquering venues and theaters, we can assume that the success of this 19th edition will be followed by many more.

Honor to Whom Honor Is Due

The percussion festival in Cuba is dedicated to the great artist Guillermo Barreto, one of the best instrumentalists Cuba has produced.

Born on August 11, 1929 in Havana, Barreto played drums in the 1940s in the Cabaret Tropicana orchestra, directed by Armando Romeu. Later, he joined the Sans-Souci orchestra with Rafael Ortega and in 1957, he participated in the Bebo Valdés orchestra. He also stands out in his career for having been a founding member of the Cuban Orchestra of Modern Music, along with such important musicians as Carlos del Puerto, Carlos Emilio Morales, Chucho Valdés, Enrique Plá and Paquito de Rivera.

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Barreto shared the stage with international artists such as Billo Frómeta, Johnny Richards, Lucho Gatica, Nat King Cole, Stan Getz, Tito Puente and Tommy Dorsey. In his solo work for the National Symphony Orchestra, he participated in works by Leo Brouwer and Sergio Vitier.

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After his death in 1991, – his innumerable contributions to Cuban music were recognized. That is why his nephew, the percussionist Giraldo Piloto Barreto from Climax band, started working in 2000 to organize the “Fiesta del Tambor”, sponsored by the National Center for Popular Music in Cuba.

We Habaneros were in need of a good rumba…

Every March, this festival has historically brought together several national and international percussionists. For pandemic reasons, it had to be suspended for the first time in 2020 and then again in 2021. But this pause did not prevent the tradition of the Guillermo Barreto Drum Festival from being renewed this year, in its 19th edition.

Echoes of the XIX Edition of the Drum Festival

This celebration brought together Havana dance companies, jazz groups, folk groups, percussion and dance master classes, foreign guests, popular dance music orchestras and many other cultural activities.

The drum contest was also convened, with the participation of 13 young professional musicians. Rey Ponce won first place, but the rest of the contestants’ presentations made clear the that the state of percussion in Cuba is healthy.

Theoretical Event and Master Classes

The first day of the Festival began with a master class by the president of the event in the Taganana room of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, where the event was held. It was attended by amateurs, young students from our art schools, journalists, professionals and anyone interested in approaching the drums.

Eduardo Ramos, who won the contest prize in the 2011 edition of the festival, gave a master class on the percussion set. Other teachers who made their presentations in the Taganana room were Adel González on congas and Ruy López-Nussa on drums.

Adel Gonzalez was at the Guillermo Barreto Drum Festival
Adel González Photo: Apollo Chamber Players

Theory was put into practice in  the afternoons at the Hotel Nacional, with presentations by “Real Project” together with Adel González, and “Robertico y su Latin Way”.

The Drum Festival Goes to the Streets

After two years of absence, this Festival was more than necessary, it was essential. We Habaneros were in need of a good rumba, so in the first week of March several musical groups filled that void for the Guillermo Barreto Drum Festival in Memoriam.

It was time to respond to the claim of many dancers, who asked for a greater projection of the event in the community.  One of those privileged communities was El Mambí, in Guanabacoa, which on March 2nd received the music of “Clave de Rumba.” The residents of La Herradura Park (San Miguel del Padrón) had the same taste, who enjoyed the rumba of the “Timbalaye Ensemble”.

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The following day, the La Libertad neighborhood in Boyeros …received the honor, while “Clave de Rumba” acted in Habana Nueva, Guanabacoa.

On Sunday March 6th? the party was held in Trillo Park, in Centro Habana. The prestigious “Rumbatá” group put those who attended to dance to the rhythm of the drum.

The party also reached the Arco de Belén in the middle of Old Havana, where Nsila Cheche dedicated her spiritual touches and songs to Merceditas Valdés. This was also the setting for popular master dance -classes, open to those who wanted to appreciate the richness of music in motion. Teachers Domingo Pau, Jennyselt Galata, Johanne García and Oddebi García were in charge of demonstrating forms of dance intimately linked to Cuban percussion such as the Yoruba cycle, the fused casino and the rumba in its Columbian, guaguancó and yambú variants.

Another place of homage was the Callejón de Hamel, created by the painter and community promoter Salvador González, who recently passed away due to  COVID-19. Several bands played in his memory, including Brenda Navarrete, Iyerosun, Ronald y Explosión Rumbera, Rumbatimba and Timbalaye.

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The Salón Rosado de la Tropical did not want to be left behind and opened its stage for two consecutive nights to Rumbatá and Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, accompanied by Formell y Los Van Van, and Alexander Abreu y Havana D’Primera.

As Giraldo Piloto stated, “playing in the neighborhoods is a way of reflecting how much percussion owes to popular culture.” If Cuba has produced great percussionists, many of them today with academic training, it has been because they were nurtured by what is played and heard in the neighborhoods, deep in Cuba.”

The Nights of the Old Havana Amphitheater

Right in front of the Bay of Havana, this open-air venue had a wide range of percussionists on its nights from Thursday to Sunday. With the cannon shot at 9:00 am or pm and orchestrated by Efraín Sabás, the artistic director of the event, the amphitheater had everything from traditional to rock music. This last rhythmic touch was Síntesis, the band led by Carlos Alfonso that fuses well our Yoruba tradition with modern music.

Another special moment was the tribute to the 70 year trajectory of Los Muñequitos de Matanzas. This band, a whole school when it comes to rumba, took percussion from the La Marina neighborhood to stages around the world without ever losing its roots and authenticity. During their tribute concert, they invited Mayito Rivera, David Blanco, Giraldo Piloto and Klímax to accompany them.

Other groups that made the amphitheater their own place were Eduardo Ramos y Más con Menos, the National Folkloric Ensemble, Pupy y los que Son Son and Rumbatá accompanied by Haila María Mompié.

Guillermo Barreto Drum Festival

For the closing of the Drum Festival, the amphitheater had prepared the presentations of the tropicana cabaret ballet; Rolando Luna and Cuban All Stars; Ronald y Explosión Rumbera with the comparsa of Los Componedores de Batea; and Elito Revé y su Charangón together with his guests Alain Pérez, Alexander Abreu and Brenda Navarrete. There were also the guys from Gigantería Habana, who showed that even on stilts the rumba was made to dance.

A Party That Won’t Stop

Thus, after a week full of rhythms and percussion, on Sunday March 6th the Guillermo Barreto in Memoriam Drum Festival concluded. But not the mood of the Cuban to irse de rumba (go partying)

In our country, this expression is synonymous with going out to celebrate, going on a spree or spending a night of fun. But don’t let our festive spirit fool anyone: the Cuban musician takes his percussion to heart, treats it with respect and masters it with the professionalism and ease of a true virtuoso.

Along with dancing, it is a trait of nationality that defines us and identifies us wherever we are in the world. As Giraldo Piloto himself expressed, there is no Cuban idiosyncrasy without drums, without rumba and without dance:

“The drum is the backbone of Cuban music, the common thread of all the styles and all the genres that represent us, the rumba, the son, the guaracha, the pilón, the mambo, the chachachá, the mozambique, the songo and from there to there…it is our identity.”

The only thing left to do then is wait for March, 2023, when La Fiesta del Tambor Guillermo Barreto in Memoriam XX once again will bring together what is most valuable and shines in the world of percussion.

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Miguel Freijo Buendia is the founder of the Havana Music School, an independent project that provides music lessons to anyone interested in Cuban music. After working in the stock market for more than twelve years, Miguel decided to take a break for three months and went to Cuba to study bass guitar. He began his journey in Pinar del Río, the town where his grandfather was born, but soon moved to Havana where he took bass lessons with Fernando Tort. The experience and lessons changed his life completely and after graduating from bass guitar, he decided to stay longer in the island playing Cuban music and attending many live concerts every week. He is married to Claudia and they proudly welcomed the birth of their child, Luna in 2019.

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