Drapetomania: Grupo Antillano and the Art of Afro-Cuba


La Habana Vieja, by gildemax, wikipedia commons

The African American Museum in Philadelphia hosted the exhibition “Drapetomania” in February and March of 2016, on two floors, in its Galleries No. 3 and 4. The museum’s vertical space and multiple floors, lends itself to smaller and less traditional exhibitions.

Grupo Antillano’s mission was to highlight Afro-Cuban influences in the participating artists’ work. There are works by more or less twenty Cuban artists featured in the exhibition, although not all of them were active members of Grupo Antillano. However, their works are in the spirit of the group since they focus on Afro-Cuban culture and images. The most well known artist included is Manuel Mendive, whose work is internationally famous.

There are different types of media represented, such as sculpture, video, oil/acrylic on canvas, and mixed media. The most striking piece, in my opinion, is Resurrección , by Rafael Quenedit Morales, the founder of Grupo Antillano. It is a sculpture, and one of the first pieces one sees on entering Gallery 3. At first it appears to be a very typical  sculpture of the Latin American colonial period: an angel in front of a wood cross. However, on further examination one notices that this angel has a bi-colored face–white and red, and that its wings are red, white and blue. In addition, it carries a scepter that appears to be topped with a symbol from an Afro-Cuban religion.

Adelaida Herrera Valdés uses old shutters in her piece, Vecinos. Discolored receipts and letters are stuck in the slats.  http://www.queloides-exhibit.com/grupo-antillano/grupo-antillano_artistas_adelaida.html There is a connection with the neighbor, but at the same time these worn down shutters may remind the viewer of the weariness and difficulty of life in Cuba.

Some of the artists, such as Leandro Soto and Juan Roberto Diago, reference Afro-Cuban religion in their titles: Los juguetes de Elegguá and Yo soy monte. In Los juguetes de Elegguá (2012), Leandro Soto (b. 1956 Cienfuegos), uses 2 large canvasses in red and black. There are many items recognizable in this compendium of toys for Elegguá, one of the orishas, or divinities in regla de ocha, an Afro-Cuban religion. These toys in the painting include: elephants, bells, clovers, keys, cups, boats, machetes, candles, cars, hearts, chalice, shells, spades, buildings, clubs, paths and roads. Elegguá is considered a messenger and has many roads. One reason he is important is because he connects the other orishas with humans.


In Yo soy monte, Juan Roberto Diago evokes the idea of el monte.  Although the English translation in the museum is “I am mountain”, el monte in Afro-Cuban culture has referred to wilderness or the clearing in the forest, specifically the place where religious rites can occur, or historically, a refuge. For more about Mr. Diago, visit http://havana-cultura.com/en/visual-arts/juan-roberto-diago

Perhaps the most politically charged piece in the exhibition is La suerte del mayoral (The Overseer’s Luck) by Santiago Rodriguez Olazabal (2012). This painting has only three colors, white, black and red. A man is tied to a tree, rendered in black charcoal, and red paint splurts from his chest. View the painting on this site:  http://www.afrocubaweb.com/grupo-antillano/pages/N.%20Olazabal-%20La%20suerte%20del%20mayoral.html

The African American Museum in Philadelphia is to be commended for bringing this exhibition to Philadelphia. There are very few opportunities to see so much Cuban art at once in the United States. In light of the recent attempts to reestablish trade and travel with Cuba, hopefully this will not be the last exhibition of Cuban art in the area, and is a sign of more interaction between the U.S. and Cuban artistic communities.

The African Museum in Philadelphia is located in Old City, and open from Thursday through Sunday. http://www.aampmuseum.org/






Concert for piano, guitar and voice for Musica de Camara of NYC (Anna Tonna)

What follows is a blog post that appeared on Spanish Song Slinger by Anna Tonna:

The tireless Eva de la O, soprano, producer, arts promoter and artistic director of Musica de Camara of NYC has been a supporter of my activities for many years now.  She first programmed me in a s…

Source: Concert for piano, guitar and voice for Musica de Camara of NYC

Ballet Hispanico At the Annenberg in Philadelphia

Ballet Hispanico, a professional dance company from New York City, presented three pieces in their dance concert at the Annenberg Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia on February 5, 2016. Very different in theme, each dance contained hispanic inspired music (Bury Me Standing uses traditional gypsy melodies, which are recognizable today by many in Spanish flamenco)  and also showcased the versatility, artistry and innovation of the company: Sombrerísimo, (choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa in 2013), Bury Me Standing (1998 by Ramón Oller) and Flabbergast (2001 by Gustavo Ramírez Sansano).

The first dance, Sombrerísimo, featured male dancers with hats, hence the name, which translated from Spanish, would be something like “extremely hats.” According to the program it was based on the artistic works by Belgian René Magritte, which were of men wearing bowler hats. The style was mostly “modern” with a little bit of latin (as opposed to classical ballet), in which the feet and the rest of the body are able to take on movements outside the ballet vocabulary. The hats were tossed around and became characters as well.

The longest and most serious piece of the evening was Bury Me Standing.  I love the title. It comes from a Romani proverb, referenced in the book by Isabel Fonseca: “Bury me standing, I’ve been on my knees all my life.” This refers to the oppression that the Roma (aka the gypsies or gitanos) have experienced for centuries. Ms. Fonseca’s book, Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey, was published in 1995, based on her own observations drawn from four years of living with the Roma. The choreographer is from Spain, and Spain has a huge Roma, or gitano population in Andalusia. Having spent part of last summer in Granada, I visited Sacromonte (the Roma part of town) and flamenco was all over Granada so  their culture was still fresh in my mind.

Bury Me Standing is a tribute to the Romani, but never replicates the footwork or the intricate handiwork of the flamenco, although there are glimpses of it. The choreographer goes beyond what we usually see as gitano or flamenco dance to invoke a mood and tell the story. Only the men do the hand movements at one point. Everyone is barefoot in the dance so even in a lined up formation, no noise could be made or heard from the stylized footwork that recalls zapateo. The style is contemporary or modern dance, with some flamenco/gypsy inspired movements. The choreographer makes excellent use of the stage–there is no part of it that is not used at some point in the piece. Levels are also varied, with some steps taking place with the dances on the floor, on their knees, or jumping. There is a table too, and two women relate on the table. All of this results in a very multidimensional and multilayered performance.

Through the intense choreography and imaginative staging, they communicated the somewhat foreign context of the Roma. The emphasis on the collective, the group consciousness and unity was evident, as well as a charismatic male leader, who had a few solos. We see some of the conflict that occurs in this group, as the women walk on their knees, gossip and cross themselves repeatedly. Some men also walk on their knees, but the group of women doing it is singled out and very striking. The Roma are more traditional and patriarchal than mainstream Spanish culture today, and this was well depicted through the dance. At the same time, the crawling and walking on the knees, refers back to the Roma proverb, and is a reference to the oppression that the Roma have experienced for so long, no matter what country they live in. The dance ends with all of them running in place, which could have various interpretations–perhaps a more positive one is that they are standing up and empowered. Bury Me Standing is a  moving tribute to the Roma, these “nomadic” people who have spread throughout Europe and even to the United States.

The last dance, Flabbergast, was light and funny, and a good ending to the evening. They broke the fourth wall, sung while they danced: “voy a bailar, ” and talked to each other. In this dance, which the program says ” exposes with humor our stereotypes and preconceived ideas about new and foreign places… telling the story of a newcomer coming to a place for the first time”. somebody is always doing their own thing on stage! Ballet Hispanico ended the concert with a pose and a smile–after a varied and polished program that entertained and encouraged the audience to think, laugh and feel.


Ballet Hispanico was founded in 1970 by Tina Ramírez. The company specializes in Spanish and Latin American inspired dance. In addition to their professional touring company, they also maintain a thriving school to train young and aspiring dancers in Spanish dance, Classical Ballet and Contemporary Dance. The current Artistic Director is Eduardo Vilaro.




BRAZILIAN SAMBA DANCE WORKSHOP In Philadelphia February 14th at 11:30 am. Where? at The Performance Garage 1515 Brandywine Street, Philadelphia PA

It’s Carnaval season, so take advantage of this one day samba dance workshop with professional dancer and choreographer Angelica Cassimiro.

*The class starts with a 25-minute warm up that exercises basic isolation of the body, following by stretching and strengthening exercises. After the warm up, Angelica introduces the students to samba no pé (basic samba step) and passo marcado (simple choreographies), typical of the Rio Carnaval. The whole class is accompanied by the sound of upbeat and irresistible Brazilian music. Be ready to sweat!!

*Come with comfortable clothes and be prepared to be barefoot -PRE-PAY RATE -$16 per workshop class Payment accepted via PayPal following the link below: https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=UEQAV9WGQG5TA

DROP IN RATE day of class- $18 per workshop class CASH only day of the event Please email, text or call Angelica with any questions or concerns at: Cassimiroa@gmail.com 973-220-7784

****Classes don’t happen weekly at this time because this young but experienced dance artist is constantly on tour. Be sure to spread the word and experience these classes while you can*****






Love Songs from Spain

“Burn, Heart, Burn” is the translation of the title of the CD “Arded, Corazón, Arded” by Ana María Díaz (Ruimonte). The CD was released in 2014 and is a collection of baroque love songs from Spain. Ms. Díaz Ruimonte painstakenly researched these songs which are not in the libraries of most instrumentalists or singers, in the Spanish National Library, Catedral de Valladolid and the Monasterio de Coimba, according to the CD notes. There are fourteen songs on the disc and they include lyrics by important writers such as Lope de Vega and Calderón de la Barca, pillars of the Spanish Golden Age. In addition, there is a cantata written by G.F. Handel.

Ms. Diaz Ruimonte’s vocalism for the period is quite fitting–a light soprano which swells and fades in messa di voce on some notes. Her Spanish, as a native speaker, is clear and well prononunced. Unlike some other non-native singers, there is no displacement between language and meaning. She sings naturally in her native language and communicates directly. For baroque specialists and lovers of Spanish art music, this is definitely an interesting and innovative CD to add to your collection. For more information and to purchase the CD, visit her website: anamariadiaz.com


Upcoming engagements include El carro de amor and Soprano Meets Contrabass (with her husband Alan Lewine) on September 12, 2015 in Philadelphia. For tickets: href=”http://anamariadiaz.com/events”

Hispanic Art: At Home and Abroad

The Denver Art Museum encourages the artist in us all, especially in children. The regular collection and current exhibitions include stations and creativity corners where visitors can create their own masterpieces related to the exhibits or contribute something that they make in the museum to a specific piece. For example ´´Aqua-Terra´´ /Terra-Aqua by Francisco Alvarado-Juárez, is a walk-through forest concocted out of paper bags, which are reused and painted.  There is a station with two tables and four chairs where one can fabricate insects and other animals to put in the forest. The museum provides the paper, scissors, and colored pencils. I made a multi-colored butterfly which I placed on the floor of the forest. In this way the viewer also contributes to the piece, which is in essence an eternal work in progress. By walking through, the pubilc also interacts with the work. As they become part of it by being in it at that given moment.

The Museum also maintains permanent collections of Spanish colonial art, Pre-Colombian art and art made by Spanish descendants from the southwest of the U.S.A. Currently, it also  houses the exhibition ´´Glitterati; Portraits and Jewelry from Colonial Latin America.¨ In its permanent collection of Spanish Colonial Art,included are religious paintings and statues. The extensive collection of Pre-Colombian artefacts (jewelry, sculptures, ceramics, and other items) showcase indigenous pieces from all over Mexico, Central America and South America.

For those looking to explores Hispanic culture in Denver, they can experience centuries worth of art and interact with works by contemporary latinos, Spaniards, colonists and indigenous in Spanish America and the U.S.A.

The Book of Life: Testimony of a Shared Heritage?

For centuries the United States (and what were once the British colonies/US territories) has been intertwined with the people who live in the area today known as Mexico. In fact, part of the USA, the state of Texas and much of the Southwest was part of Spanish territory. Although in the north of the USA one does not readily feel this legacy as strongly, it is quite obvious in the region that used to be part of Spanish territory/Mexico, and that currently share a border with Mexico.
As a child growing up in New York City, Spanish was always there, but there were no (or very few) Mexicans. The majority of Spanish speakers were Puerto Ricans or Nuyoricans, and perhaps some Cubans. Gradually this began to change and today in New York City (and its tri-state area, including New Jersey and Connecticut), Spanish speakers hail from all over Latin America and Spain. There is even a sizeable Mexican immigrant population–even though some of them hardly speak Spanish, but indigenous languages.  It is fascinating to see today that Mexican culture has spread from the Southwest to the East Coast via more recent immigration. The midwest already had a Mexican-American population which came by early railroad to work in agricultural and meat packing industries some four generations ago.

Words like “fiesta,” “cinco de mayo,” “loco”, “no problema” are now part of the American English lexicon. Americans not only eat at Mexican restaurants and fast food joints, but also have been preparing chile, tacos and other Mexican-derived foods for decades. Go into any grocery store in the country and you’ll find tortillas, guacamole, tortilla chips, jalapeños and salsa. In spite of the love-hate relationship with Mexico–the rejection of it expressed through rabid xenofobia and prejudice against Mexican immigrants, and the acceptance through the consistent use of cheap immigrant labor and more positively, the cultural mixing–it cannot be denied that there are certain areas of the USA that have always been hispanic. These are: Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. For sure,  Mexico and many things mexican, are now in our blood.

The Alamo. San Antonio, TX

The Alamo. San Antonio, TX

The fun and colorful children’s film The Book of Life (in Spanish: El libro de la vida) is a reflection of this history and cultural intermingling. It unites a cast of talented, mostly latino voice actors to tell a love story–the triangle between Manolo, Joaquín and Maria. Guillermo del Toro, of Mexican descent produced the animated feature and Plácido Domingo (opera) and Zoe Saldana (Star Trek) and Kate del Castillo (Mexican soap operas and Bajo la misma luna) are well known international celebrities that lend their talents.

The Mexican holiday, Dia de los muertos, The Day of the Dead, is prominent in the film. This holiday has Aztec origins but was tolerated by the Catholic Church in Mexico. The Day of the Dead is a remembering of those that have passed on. But unlike the somber funeral of mourning, that is characteristic of death in U.S. culture, it is celebratory and festive. The Day of the Dead is often celebrated as two days in some parts of Mexico. One day is in rememberance of the infants and children who have died and the other day is for the adults. The concept behind it is that by remembering what these people were like, one will feel their presence on The Day of the Dead.  They will return in spirit. Mexican people who celebrate it, go to cemetaries with flowers, music and food and have a big party to welcome back their dead ancestors. They also make altars at home too, with candles, skulls, mask, and figurines that represent their dead loved ones and ancestors. There is a special pan de muertos (bread for the dead) that is baked for this holiday. The figurines show their deceased family doing activities that they enjoyed doing while alive and other foods and beverages that they liked are also prepared. All of these features of the holiday appear in the movie and the characters even look like the skeletal dolls that represent the dead on the altars.

Day of the Dead figures

Day of the Dead figures

The movie is lighthearted and the characters endearing. It is full of color, music and folklore. It is spoken and sung mostly in English, but there is a Spanish version that is playing in Spanish speaking countries. The Book of Life meshes the Mexican with the United States language (English) and its manner of presenting the story is simple and accessible to most. It is perhaps consoling to Mexican-Americans living in the Southwest, and familiar to a younger generation of “anglos” who have learned of Day of the Dead in school or in community events. At any rate, this is an uplifting and fun story that is educational and enjoyable to watch unfold. Go see it!

Luisa Fernanda: Encore!

One beautiful woman, 2 men–a triangle. The stuff of love stories. One of the men is young and flaky. The other is established and mature. Who will she choose? Then enter the duchess! Dangerous liaisons develop within this quartet. This flirtatious noblewoman captures the attention of both men, originally devoted to the serious Luisa Fernanda. 


COT (Concert Operetta Theater) led by Daniel Pantano in Philadelphia, boldly takes on a difficult challenge with one of the most famous (if not THE most famous) grand zarzuela, Luisa Fermanda, by Spanish composer, Moreno Torroba.  José Melendez as Musical Director and pianist, is the backbone of this endeavor. A big hurdle in producing zarzuela outside of Spain and other spanish speaking countries, has always been casting. In Spain zarzuelas are still done, even some of those composed in the 18th and 19th centuries. There is a tradition and a background knowledge of the cryptic historical intrigues and politics that comprise many of the libretti. In addition, the public and the performers are familiar with the genre and speak the language. In the United States at least, the performance of classical music (and zarzuela as a form of operetta floats between musical theatre and opera) in Spanish has lagged behind that in French, German and of course Italian. Even Russian works are done more often. Spanish diction has just started to be taught in some conversatories and music programs.

In addition to the language barrier, zarzuela  includes spoken dialogue and dance as well as singing. The nature of the lead roles especially, require an operatically trained voice (or at least one which attempts the training) and musicianship to learn the parts well enough to be able to follow an orchestral conductor.  The “comedy couple” in some zarzuelas (and there is none in Luisa Fernanda) is often cast with less glorious/less trained voices BUT, this couple must dance and act well since they deliver most of the laughs. In essense, for some of the zarzuelas, you need a triple threat opera singer (or zarzuela singer in Spain) who speaks and sings Spanish. These requirements make it difficult and expensive to produce a zarzuela. Remember, that there are full orchestras that go along with all this stage action and design, so in addition to a budget that can rival a fully staged opera, and assembling a qualified cast, there is the issue of marketing and getting “butts in the seats.” Outside of New York City, some parts of California, New Mexico, Texas and Florida, with strong hispanic populations, this requires much more work than getting people into an opera or a musical in English. The heydey of zarzuela in the United States, was in those areas, from the 1980s to the early 2000s. Plácido Domingo himself, and Pablo Zinger of New York City, were instrumental in promoting the genre during this time. Later, it seemed that people just ran out of funding, or  perhaps the energy, to produce as much.

COT is able to skirt some of these issues with a concert version. There are no sets or costumes, and acting while speaking is reduced to the minimum. The singers wear formal wear, suits for the men and gowns for the ladies. Since there are scores and music stands visible and the audience knows it is a “concert version,” they come prepared to enjoy the music without the elaborate sets, authentic costumes, dancing and dialogue. A screen was set up to the left of the stage, and titles were projected in English, facilitating comprehension for the non-Spanish speakers.

During the concert on Sunday, October 19, 2014, I missed at first, the costumes, movement and set, but then the voices in this production made up for it. In particular, tenor, César Delgado, delivered a rendition of “De este apacible rincón” that rivaled that of Plácido Domingo!

Laura Maria Reyes who played Luisa Fernanda, (and on 5 days notice!) and Jorge Espino as Vidal, also displayed solid technique, diction, beaultiful vocalism, and idiomatic expression. The rest of the ensemble, some not native Spanish speakers, held their own in the dialogue and navigated the somewhat awkward vocal lines that often plague zarzuela. Although the end results are very charming and sometimes cute, zarzuelas are not that easy to sing. One interesting change was to have mezzo Chrystal E. Williams sing the roles of Mariana and El Saboyano. El Saboyano is usually sung by a tenor, but she owned it! The best actor in the spoken dialogue by far was Valentine Fernández-Buitrago. He seemed at home with this kind of acting and with good reason as he began performing in it very young in Puerto Rico. As Duchess Carolina, Eugenia Forza embodied this persona. Although there were no costumes, she appeared to have stepped out of a Goya portrait–Cayetana in the flesh–and I mean that as a compliment. Her stance, her expressions, her “look” fit the character of quasi decadent nobility.

My favorite part of this zarzuela has always been the duet “Cállate, corazón.” To sing it or hear it is just heartwrenching. I had to stop myself from standing up and yelling “Can we get rid of the music stands??” This was the one point where I just wanted to see them be Luisa Fernanda and Javier and forget that this was a “concert.” That is the one negative about a well done concert version: It always makes you want more and to long to see the work fully realized. Hopefully, this is the start of something in Philadelphia. COT needs to do this show again and other local companies need to think about repertoire in Spanish. COT proved that this zarzuela’s music could stand on its own. Without all of the trimmings (and the expense and complicated casting), perhaps this is a way to still enjoy this unique genre.

To view a complete Spanish performance of Luisa Fernanda: 

Bio-Jewelry: Creativity Provides Women’s Healthcare in Brazil


Dorly Piske, who is part of the Partners of the Americas in Wyoming, has been steadily working for the past few years to raise funds to subsidize women’s healthcare in Brazil. Dorly has been making jewelry from açai seeds and other natural beads in order to fund a mobile mammagram program in Goias, Brazil. Traveling around the U.S.A., with pounds of beads, scissors, wire and string, Dorly, who is originally from Santa Catarina, Brazil, organizes jewelry making workshops and gives talks about the lack of sufficient and early diagnosis of breast cancer in rural areas of Goias. IMG_0115

Jewelry students of all ages learn about the mammagram machine that will be purchased and the doctors in training who will ride a bus with it to give screenings to women in rural Goias. They also learn how to string beads on cords and wires in order to make original necklaces, bracelets and earrings. These items are then “sold” and the proceeds donated to Partners of the Americas for the breast cancer project. Here is a bracelet that I made in a workshop in March at Villanova University near Philadelphia:

CM bracelet

The workshop was sponsored by the Department of Cultural Studies and the Falvey Library. Dr. Karyn Hollis stated in her introduction about jewelry and culture: “Jewelry is what makes us human.”

After her visit to Villanova, Dorly headed to Washington DC to discuss future fundraising plans. Then she returned to the West in order to meet up with Patricia Moura, a designer from Brazil, who was going to instruct some of the workshops!

To find out more about “Bio-Jóias” or Bio-Jewelry for Breast Cancer, to schedule a workshop, or make a donation to this very worthy project, please visit on
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/PartnersWyoming