Archive for the Makeda Dancing in Cuba Category

Queen Makeda Astounds the Cubanos!

Posted in Makeda Dancing in Cuba with tags on July 8, 2018 by playthell

Making Magic on the Dance Floor

 Queen Makeda Murders the Mambo in Old Habana!

It was a sultry summer afternoon in old Habana and the bright Caribbean sun bathed the old stone buildings as well as the black, brown and beige brick house bodies on display, in a shower of golden sunlight.  Afro-Cuban Cojuntos were ubiquitous, woven into the fabric of Cuban life, which seemed to move and groove to the rhythm of the Clave.  Grand Sonoros and Sonoras sang from street corners and open air cafes, captivating the promenaders with the sensuous sounds of Son…. not everywhere but anywhere….not all the time but anytime.

El Grande Sidewalk Sonoro!

 A Performance Worthy of Carnegie Hall

 As chance and the ancestors would have it, I was strolling through the elegant old city with my daughter Makeda when we happened upon a smoking Cojunto whose lead singer fancied himself something of a Mambo King, a monarch of movement who invited all comers to step to him in a friendly challenge dance and match his marvelous moves.  After bedazzling a couple of daring Cuban Senoras and Senoritas with his complex footwork, brazenly showing off his mastery of this sensuous dance of romance, he met his match.  Queen Makeda, the Renaissance Amazon from the Big Apple, whose Mambo skills were forged in the Ritmos Caliente of Spanish Harlem.   And I knew if he called her out she would step up and represent!

A great fan of dance, especially the Mambo, witnessing the dance well done is a natural high for a Congero like me; rooted in the Afro-Cuban vernacular dance tradition, upon whose rhythm’s the Mambo is dictated…along with the timbales, bass and clave.  Armed with my camera, and understanding that photography is often an art of chance, I clandestinely contrived to get Queen Makeda and the Cuban cock of the walk out on the dance floor…I knew it would be a great show!

I walked over to the gloating Mambo King and offered a simple suggestion: “Dance with her, she’s from New York.” The mystique of New York City is no less bewitching on the fascinating Ilse of Cuba than elsewhere in the world, thus with a devilish grin and graceful serpentine strut the Mambo Maestro proceeded to take my advice and invited Makeda to dance.

My intention was to capture their performance on film, but I was confronted with an important aesthetic decision: Should I go for still shots or video?  Given the hypnotic character of moving images with sound, and the widespread public fascination with the electronic spectacle, logic would seem to dictate that I produce an audio-visual presentation. But I was going for something different, and from my perspective something more.  I wanted to capture the intricacies of the dance and freeze them in time forever.  And I believe that still shots are the best way to do it.  Hence I took out my camera, popped in an 8 Giga-bite file, and prepared to shoot.

Queen Makeda: Renaissance Amazon

What the Mambo Maestro didn’t understand was that he was jumping in the ring to do battle with a Black Magic Woman, who had a wide vocabulary of dance moves encompassing many genres at her command.  She is an Artist, Athlete, Scientist and Shaman and as her God-Father Mookie Jackson would say: “An she doos em all good!” Like her intellectual God Mothers Kathrine Dunham, Pearl Primus and Zora Neal Hurston, Makeda is interested in the values, mores and folkways of the Neo-African cultures of the Atlantic diaspora that produced the dances she performs.  Hence, she is an avid reader of scholarly treatises on the subject which allows her to experience the deeper meaning of the dance.  Her performance with a Haitian company in a powerful ritual to heal that devastated nation after the earthquake is a poignant case in point.

A quintessential Womanist named after the powerful Ethiopian Queen of Sheba, she prefers Goddesses to male Gods and feels a closer kinship to Oshun and Yemaja than Jesus or Allah.  And she danced a homage to Pele, the goddess of fire on the edge of the Volcano that is presently erupting in Hawaii.

Sacred Dancing in the Pacific Ring of Fire

A Homage to the Goddess Pele


Ritual Dances to Heal Haiti



The bold and fearless sense in which she approaches life also informs her attitude toward dance.  Her performance with the Afro-Cuban dancer/sonoro on that sunny afternoon in a case in point.  They delighted the crowd of onlookers, who applauded boisterously, as they expressed astonishment that an Afro-American girl could dance the Mambo so.  The pictures tell the story of that enchanted evening, magic moments in Old Habana.

Mambo Diablo!

















Their Performance was greeted by wonder and Surprise…. 

They asked: How can an American dance like that? 


See: The band Makeda Danced With!

Mui Caliente!

But What the Cubanos Didn’t Know……


Was Keda had Killed the Mambo Before


At Club Camarrada


In Spanish Harlem

Or, Dancing With Big Papi

To the Ritmos Caliente

Of Zon del Barrio

Rocked by “The Great Oreste” on Congas!

Dancing Under the Stars

At Manhattan’s South Street Seaport


She’s Oshun’s Daughter…A Black Magic Woman

What a Wonderful Night for a Moon Dance!

A Renaissance Amazon: Scientist, Shaman, Athlete Artist

I Believe She Can Fly!!!

Jump up and Touch the Sky!!!

Although I was once an avid advocate of the idea that pride in one’s ancestors was essential to the development of self-esteem, observing it in practice over half a century I have begun to regard that argument with suspicion; to view it with a jaundiced eye.  Far too often I have witnessed pride in one’s ancestry degenerate into mere racial, national or ethnic chauvinism, or become a thin veil to camouflage one’s lack of individual achievement.  In which case it amounts to riding on somebody else’s cool.  Hence I have come to believe that we actually have no right to lay claim to our ancestors, or other members of our racial or national group’s achievements.

Alas, that’s not a foundation on which genuine self-esteem can be built. We may justly celebrate their great works, but in the end true self-esteem must involve worthwhile achievements on the part of the individual.  That being said, we may justly show pride in our children if they are outstanding, and if we were good parents that helped shape them into the what they have become.  Hence I am a shameless doting dad!

Despite the fact that words are my game – a claim repeatedly affirmed by great editors at distinguished journals in which my work has been published on both sides of the Atlantic – I can conjure no words to adequately express my pride in and admiration for my junior daughter Makeda.  And my handiwork is imprinted all over her; from her respect for scholarship in forming conclusions about important matters; her independent cast of mind, and her absolute refusal to be a slave to either social convention or conventional wisdom in her fields of interests; which are eclectic and spans art and science.  Although we have a similar approach to knowledge, our differences are  distinguished by the fact that she has spiritual proclivities that tend toward the mystical, while I am a cold rational materialists.

Although whenever I invoke the authority of the “scientific method” as the ultimate arbiter of truth, she is not shy about reminding me that she has the superior scientific education.  However there is one arena where we are completely simpatico, and that is our love of Afro-Cuban and other Neo-African music and dance traditions of the Black Atlantic diaspora. This is obviously because she is a dancer and I am a drummer who is not reluctant to get on the dance floor when he is not playing the Congas.

The Apple Didn’t Fall Far From the Tree!

El Chocolate and Fabulous Afro-Cuban Dancer Jasmine del Pino

El Chocolate Caliente: Congero!

That is why I composed this photo-essay on Makeda as a dancer, capturing an impromtu Mambo performance with an Afro-Cuban Conjunto in a recent visit to Old Habana; Mecca of the Son Montuno, which I love to play, and which is ideal for dancing the Mambo.  She more than held her own, she represented New York splendidly, just like I knew she would when I instigated the dance with the Afro-Cuban virtuoso.  But then, I believe she has the smarts and grit to be or do whatever she desires in the world.  The truth be told: I BELIEVE SHE CAN FLY!


Watch Makeda Dance the Mambo with Miguel in Spanish Harlem



Text, Video and photographs by: Playthell G. Benjamin**

**Except the photographs in Hawaii; Makeda in the Gold Lame dance Costume; the magnificent leaping shot; and the Moon Dance Silhouette.