James Sparshatt explains the story behind El Ensayo – the rehearsal

El Ensayo

“I was wandering through Holguin in eastern Cuba when I heard the drum.  The rhythm was familiar but I wasn’t enough of an expert to recognise which santo it represented.  Perhaps it was the warrior god Chango but it could just as easily have been Oshun the water goddess. 

The rhythms floated in the sultry afternoon balm, bouncing from crumbling edifice to paint peeled door, their source disguised.   A second drum took up the beat and then I heard the haunting lament of an Afro-Cuban voice. 

On the corner there was an old colonial building its doors and windows boarded up with sheets of corrugated iron.  As I wandered towards it the music grew in intensity and it was obvious that this beautiful edifice was not as abandoned as it appeared.  The music stopped as suddenly as it had begun and all that remained was the echo of memory and a sole dog yapping in the distance. 

I found what appeared to be a door in the iron cladding and rapped loudly.   A bolt was pulled back, the door thrown open, and I was confronted by a huge, bare-chested, sweat soaked Rastafarian.  His gaze moved from me to my camera to the bottle of rum poking its head out of my camera bag.  He stepped aside to let me pass.

Inside I found a troupe of dancers preparing for a festival.  I greeted the drummers and dancers who returned my smiles and happily accepted the gift of rum to soothe the throat and free the rhythm.  I chose a spot to watch the rehearsal and prepared my Mamiya7ii camera.

I love the Mamiya for work like this.  Its rangefinder focusing presents challenges for pure street photography but when you have time to compose an image, to place yourself in position and wait for the image to unfold – it is wonderful.  The limit of 12 shots per role to slow the process, a fixed focal length and the promise of a beautiful 7×6 medium format negative.

I spent the next hour or so soaking up the atmosphere, taking the occasional shot and slowly blending into the scene, becoming a part of the rhythms of the day.  And then it happened.  There was a lull in the rehearsal, the closest of the dancers adopted a proud pose, the afternoon light spilled through a doorway to sculpt her figure and that of her fellow performers, I raised my camera checked the focus and aperture and with a barely perceptible click released the shutter.”

                                                                                                                                                           courtesy of James Sparshatt