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Remembering Agustín Romero-Diaz, Leader Of The Loose Park Drum Sessions

courtesy: Pat Conway

Agustín Romero-Diaz, a native of Cuba and Kansas City resident, died last week at the age of 67. A drummer and singer, he wasn't known for his performances in a band, or on stage. In his three decades in Kansas City, he shared his passion for Afro-Cuban music each week during afternoon drum sessions in Loose Park. 

In 1980, in Cuba, during an economic downturn, there were housing and job shortages and political unrest. President Fidel Castro announced that "Anyone who wants to leave Cuba can do so." About 125,000 Cubans left the island, between April and October, in a mass exodus by boat called the Mariel boatlift. 

And that’s how musician Agustín Romero-Diaz made his way to the United States, and to Kansas City.

"I met him, I think the year was 1983," says Bird Ellington Fleming, artistic director of the Traditional Music Society in Kansas City. "A lot of my students that I had, I basically, once I got them well versed in the fundamentals, I would turn them over to Agustín.”

Romero-Diaz learned the rumba as a child, growing up in Havana. He went on to master different styles of Afro-Cuban music, some rooted in the traditions of Africans brought as slaves to Cuba. 

"I think he was actually the missing link in my Afro-Cuban expression, in terms of my knowledge of folklore and technique in drumming," says Fleming. "He’s made me who I am as a musician."

Credit courtesy Pat Conway
The rumba group, circa 1991, at Bird Fleming's house. Agustin Romero Diaz in on the top row, far left.

In the mid-1980s, musician Pat Conway was taking Congo lessons from Fleming. A few months later, he met Romero-Diaz at a rumba session on Fleming’s porch. And then, for nearly 30 years, first on Saturdays, and then Sundays, about a dozen white, black and Latino musicians have played together in Loose Park.

"It was old school, a lot of hanging out, and him showing you things and you trying to pick it up," says Conway. "There were sessions where we’d get together at two in the afternoon, and I’d be dropping him off [at his home] at midnight. So, it could get pretty intense."

Rumba involves percussion, dance and voice. Conway says Romero-Diaz played lead drums - and he was their gallo.

"It's called gallo, which means Rooster, and that’s the lead singer," says Conway. "[He's] the voice that cuts the drums and calls you to respond." 

"There was a before Agustín and an after Agustín," says Pablo Sanhueza, who moved to Kansas City in the 1990s. Currently in Santiago, Chile, researching Afro-Chilean msuic, he says Romero-Diaz taught by example. 

"All he wanted from us was dedication," says Sanhueza. "He expected us to practice it and master it for next Sunday. He had very high expectations for us."

According to Sanhueza, Romero-Diaz lived through the golden age of Afro-Cuban music. He says Romer0-Diaz's death marks the end of an era. 

"We lost an encyclopedia, a walking encyclopedia of Afro-Cuban culture," says Sanhueza. "There is a saying, an African saying that applies too well to this: 'When a master drummer dies, with him an entire library burns down.' And that’s very true with him in this case." 

Over the last year, Agustín Romero-Diaz’s health had declined. He had a heart condition and lung disease. But Pat Conway says he was playing music up until the end, or at least a few weeks before his death on August 21 at the age of 67.

Conway says he and other musicians plan to get together to share stories, and, of course, play a rumba for Agustín. 

Special thanks to Alex Smith for the musical recording in Loose Park. 

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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