I have been trying to build up my rumba repertoire, and although I do not consider myself a singer at all, when I get together with the guys and we play a little rumba without lyrics, it kills me, so I'll usually work up the nerve to sing a verse or two and bring a coro in, just so things sound halfway decent. If its one thing that I have learned about the rumba is that it is comprised of 3 necessary ingredients: Drum, Voice, and Dance. Without this triumvirate you are just jamming. So I have been trying to learn as many rumba "standards" as I can. "Donde Vas, Mulato, Donde Vas", "El Kikiriki", "Palo Quimbombo", and "Malanga". So as I am singing "Malanga" again and again, while playing guagua, I start thinking, "Why not try and do a little research on the legendary rumbero, Jose Oviedo "Malanga".
Now Malanga, along with other rumberos such as, Chaborro, Andrea Baro, Mulense, Roncona, Pancho Mumba, Macho, have been canonized to the point where at times we may not even believe they existed as humans, but rather the legends they portray in the songs in which they are mentioned. But lets dig a little deeper shall we?
A quick google inquiry dug up the following, written by Maria del Carmen Mestas.
His body stopped moving and his soul departed to only god knows where. His eyes were still open and a fine line of blood left his mouth. José Rosario Oviedo, the best timbero ever had just enjoyed his last pleasure of rumba.
The day before he had had a weird dream: a faceless woman was taking him by the hand and leading him along a path of silence. He woke up and the vertigo made him feel as his bed was a ship about to sink. He looked out the window and the cold wind brought shivers down his spine: little by little he managed to get on his feet. It had to be that way. That was going to be a great day. His friends were waiting for him to watch him dance and he had to show them that he was still the king, the chosen one by the rumba goddess.
On his way to the party he ran across an old man who told him: "Malanga, don’t go. Go back home. This is not your day." The dancer laughed and his small teeth shone in the dark. He turned away and kept moving toward the challenge.
Before he got there he stopped and tapped the rhythm in his mind. He also rehearsed a few steps of Columbia, an exclusive dance for men, even when Andrea Baró and Chichí Armenteros became famous Columbia female dancers. He pretended to bat a homerun, then to bullfight a fierce bull ready to run him over, and finally to fly a kite willing to escape in the blue sky.
The party had already begun. Chenche and Mulense, with their usual skills, gave a magnificent dissertation to the audience. Then, José Rosario, who was never the first to come out, danced and danced to everyone’s joy.
Short and fat, but with quick moves, Malanga challenged gravity with a bottle over his head looking up the sky. Then, he produced several sharp knives from his waist and, with a unique, violent, and feverish dance, he stole a big hand from the audience. Then he had fun, cracked a few jokes, and strolled with proud amongst the women present at the party. He had a glass of cheap aguardiente in his hand.
Suddenly the great timbero dropped the glass and took his hands to his aching stomach. His look seemed lost in the distance. His legs weakened and then he fell heavily to the floor. Someone asked, "Malanga, Malanga, what’s wrong, bro?" The rumbero wanted to answer but his words wouldn’t come out. Then he died.
Who was the murderer? Whose hand dropped poison or ground crystal in the glass? Was it a broken-hearted affair? Was it vengeance? Was it the rivalry of another rumbero? Or maybe politics? Believe it or not, Malanga had enemies due to his increasing support to the liberal party, of which he was a political sergeant. Everyone gave his or her version of the facts. However, the truth was never known. It remains as buried as the famous rumbero.
Some people say he was born 5 October 1885, in La Esperanza estate, Alacranes. Others say he was born in Sabanilla del Encomendador, in the properties of a wealthy landowner named Oviedo, near Unión de Reyes, Matanzas. He was the son of an unknown father and Francisca Funciona or Pascuala Oviedo.
There are no pictures of him, only the spoken portrait of those who met him.
He was a nice guy. His face was marked by chickenpox. He had big eyes. He was nicknamed Malanga when he was a kid. He was a black guy who danced and played rumba very well.
People say that in Guines, Havana, he had a group of fans who would always come to watch him dance in the porticos of Café La Lombilla, where he often came to dance rumba. The businessmen of the café appreciated it so much that even gave him a commission because he drew many clients to the place.
He would often travel to Ciego de Ávila to the sugarcane harvest. There is a story that reflects his vocation for rumba. One day someone came to the fields looking for him. He was needed urgently. But he was nowhere to be seen. Then someone asked: Why don’t we play some rumba? And if fact, he showed up in seconds hoe in hand.
It is believed that he became so famous that the Club Atenas, and exclusive place for black intellectuals in Havana, welcomed him in their premises because of his dancing prodigies.
Before his involvement in the Guerrita de Agosto, the dancer had founded the Union de Reyes’s Timberos club, who followed him around the country.
In the 1920s he had a strike of bad luck. His daughter Bernarda died one month after she was born, and later he broke up with his wife Federica Crespo.
Even when his death might have happened in Ciego de Ávila, some people say it happened in a shantytown in Ceballos, Morón.
An old musician of the times, Cecilio Campanería -Campana Naveró-, ascertained that Malanga and a group of rumberos were invited by Chenche and Mulense to travel to Morón "to have a ball," but everyone "smelled a rat" and declined. Only the ever defying Malanga went looking for death. He paid no attention to his friends’ warnings. He wouldn’t listen to anyone.
"I saw him depart on that one-way trip. I insist it was envy, Chenche and Mulense’s envy. That poison was in their hands."
Where is Malanga’s body? That’s another mystery. A gravedigger who met him back then is sure he didn’t bury him in the Ciego de Ávila cemetery. Then, if he did die there as so many people claim, where was he buried? Or maybe his body was secretly buried to avoid a police investigation? Was it really a murder?
Research hasn’t shed any more light over his death, which shocked rumberos and friends alike. It is known that it happened in the 1920s, maybe in 1923, and that the Unión de Reyes mayor, Ramón González Quevedo, allowed a three-day feast as tribute to the great timbero. There is a park in Unión de Reyes called Parque de la Rumba José Rosario Oviedo, and musicians play their conga drums there to keep Malanga’s flame alive.
So while the purpose of "Sentimiento" remains to highlight rumberos, bomberos, pleneros and Afro Caribbean percussionists from the NYC area, It would almost be criminal not to mention some of the early pioneers whose influence has definitely stood the test of time. Thats all on Malanga for now, but if you want to do more research on the Cuban rumberos of yesteryear you need to check out: (These are the cats that are really tackling the Cuban side of things)
Esquina Rumbera (Barry Cox' Site)
Conjunto Folklorico Nacional Blog
La Rumba No Es Como Ayer