Felipe García Villamil was born into a family rich in Afro-Cuban musical tradition. His mother, Tomasa Villamil, came from a line of prominent singers, musicians and dancers of the Yoruba-derived Santeria religion. Her family also included performers of Matanzas province's signature folk music, the rumba. Many of these relatives performed with Cuba's leading folklore groups, such as Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, Grupo Afro Cuba de Matanzas and Conjunto Folklórico Nacional.
García Villamil's father, Benigno García García, was an adept in the Kongo-derived Palo Monte spiritual tradition and in the Abakuá men's society brought to Cuba from West Africa. From his Yoruba great-grandfathers, García Villamil inherited a set of batá drums.
"My drums are called Anya Biollo," he said. "They were born of Noblas Cárdenas, and came to my hands in this way. The founders of these drums were four men born in Africa, in the city-state of Oyo, in the land known presently as Nigeria: Noblas Cárdenas, grandfather of Tomasa Villamil on her mother's side; Mauricio Piloto, grandfather of Tomasa Villamil on her father's side; Oba Enkole; and Ablawo Ochablowo."
With deep grounding in the three most prominent Afro-Cuban rituals, García Villamil became one of the most talented Cuban drummers. He also learned to make the instruments to accompany each ritual tradition: the three sizes of batá drums, the yesá drums, and the set of gourd rattles called gúiros or chéqueres. He has been described as a completo — a complete percussionist. In addition, he crafts exquisitely beaded Santeria ceremonial objects and is deeply knowledgeable about the healing properties of plants.
In Cuba, García Villamil directed the highly respected folkloric performing group Emikeke. After coming to the United States in the 1980 Mariel boatlift, he settled in New York City, where he formed the group Tradicion Mantacera and later reformed Emikeke with his advanced students. Emikeke performed widely in the region.
In recent years, García Villamil has moved to Los Angeles, where he continues to perform and teach. His skill as a ritual craftsman also has brought invitations to exhibit and demonstrate his work. His symbol-filled, consecrated "Altar for the Spirit Sarabanda Rompe Monte" was a featured component of the exhibition "Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African Americas," organized by Yale professor Robert Farris Thompson. This altar was built in a closet in a third-floor apartment and was described as an "urban munansó" (altar enclosure). At the top was a straw hat for Sarabanda Rompe Monte to wear as a sign of his presence. The munansó also contained nkisi of Cantella (a lightning charm), Madre de Agua (mother of the waters), and Kobayende (with red cloth and feathers).
García Villamil has participated in the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta and conducted seminars and workshops at the American Museum of Natural History and the Caribbean Cultural Center in New York and at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles. He is committed to the preservation of Afro-Cuban performance traditions that synthesize song, drumming and dance and that are incorporated into systems of moral and philosophical guidance and healing.
Thompson, Robert Farris. Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African Americas. Munich: Prestel/Museum for African Art (New York).
Velez, Maria Teresa. Drumming for the Gods: The Life & Times of Felipe García Villamil, Santero, Palero & Abakua. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000.
Felipe García Villamil interviewed by Dan Sheehy, 2000 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Washington, D.C., courtesy National Endowment for the Arts