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Home | Research Library | Cuban Rumba

Cuban Rumba

In Cuba, Rumba is a generic term covering a variety of musical rhythms and associated dances. The rumba has its influences in the music brought to Cuba by Spanish colonizers as well as Africans brought to Cuba as slaves. Rumba is more than a music and dance genre; it is the collective expression of the Creole nature of the island itself. Rumba is a secular genre of Congolese African and Spanish flamenco influences, and is one of the primary ancestors of popular music in Cuba.

Los Muñequitos de Matanzas
Map of Cuba

Rumba developed in the Cuban provinces of Havana and Matanzas (one hour east of Havana) in the late 19th century, as a blending of Congolese-derived drumming styles and Spanish flamenco-singing influences. As a sexually charged Afro-Cuban dance, Rumba was often suppressed and restricted because it was viewed as dangerous and lewd.

Afro-Cuban rumba is entirely different than ballroom rumba, or the African style of pop music called rumba. Rumba developed in rural Cuba, and is still danced in Havana, Mantanzas and other Cuban cities as well as rural areas, especially those with a significant or predominant black community, although now it is infused with influences from jazz and hip hop.

A Cuban Rumba song often begins with the soloist singing meaningless syllables, which is called 'diana(s)'. He then may proceed to improvise lyrics stating the reason for holding the present Rumba ('decimar'; span.: to make ten-line stanzas), or instead tunes into a more or less fixed song such as: "Ave Maria Morena" (Yambú, Anónimo), "Llora Como Lloré" (Guaguancó, S. Ramirez), "Cuba Linda, Cuba Hermosa" (Guaguancó, R.Deza), "China de Oro (Laye Laye)" (Columbia), "Malanga (Murió)" (Columbia)".

There are three main styles of Cuban rumba: the yambú (the oldest style dating back to the colonial period), the guaguancó (the most popular of the three) and the columbia (the most African-flavored, and also the fastest).

Rumba Performance
Rumba Performance

Yambú is the oldest and slowest known style of rumba, sometimes called the Old People's Rumba. As the oldest style, yambú was first played on wooden box drums called cajones (as African-derived drums were feared and often banned), the Cuban claves (simple wooden sticks that are probably one of the most important instruments in the island's history) and a metal shaker called the maruga. In addition, cucharas (spoons) were sometimes added, playing a counter rhythm to the claves. This counter rhythm would eventually be played by palitos (sticks) on a guagua (horizontal piece of bamboo on a stand).

It uses the slowest beat of the three Rumba styles and incorporates movements feigning frailty. It can be danced alone (especially by women) or by men and women together. Although male dancers may flirt with female dancers during the dance, they do not use the vacunao of Rumba Guaguancó. The yambú dance is slow and graceful, danced by male-female couples who combine Spanish and African movements in a courtship-style partnership.

Rumba Guaguancó is faster than yambú, with more complex rhythms, and involves overtly flirtatious movements between a man and a woman in the roles of "Rooster" and "Hen". The guaguancó style emerged later as a faster tempo form, and was (and still is) played on tumbadoras (conga drums), along with the claves, the palitos and the maruga. The conga drums are modeled after the Congolese yuka drums, direct descendents of the African ngomas, and would go on to be the most commonly used hand drums in all of Latin music. There are three main sizes (or widths) of tumbadoras: the tumba (bass), the segundo or tresdos (middle) and the quinto (highest, which is the lead drum), and each drum is tuned to a distinct pitch. (At first, tuning took place with heat as the skins were nailed on, but later, metal tuning hardware developed.)

The woman both entices and "protects herself" from the man, who tries to catch the woman off-guard with a vacunao -- tagging her with the flip of a handkerchief or by throwing his arm, leg or pelvis in her direction in an act of symbolic sexual contact. To defend herself, she may cover with her hand, or use her skirt to protect her pelvis and whip the sexual energy away from her body. Guaguancó most likely inherited the idea of the 'vacunao' from yuca or macuta dances, which were both brought to Cuba by Bantú ethnic groups. This rooster-hen dynamic is a feature of many African dances found throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, and in many places was frowned-upon (or even banned).

(Note: In our CTV routine, we have a "vacunao" moment with the girl protecting herself)

Rumba Columbia (not "Colombia") is a fast and energetic Rumba, with a 6/8 feel, which is often accompanied by a 6/8 (Spanish 'seis por ocho') beat struck on a hoe or a bell. It is assumed that the Columbia originated in hamlets in the interior of Cuba rather than the suburbs of the larger cities from where other types of Cuban Rumba stem.

The Columbia is primarily a male-only demonstrative dance, with a more uptempo and complex rhythm that incorporates some of the Congolese ritual music aspects as well as the Bantú languages, still widely used in folkloric as well as popular music. It too is played on tumbadoras and the other noted percussion instruments, and also adds a bell that plays a complex 12/8-meter pattern on top of the 4/4-meter structure. Solo, traditionally male, dancers provoke the drummers, especially the player of the smallest drum (Quinto, here also soloist drum), to play complex rhythms that they imitate through their creative and sometimes acrobatic movements. Men may also compete with other men to display their agility, strength, confidence and even sense of humor. Columbia incorporates many movements derived from Congo dances as well as Spanish flamenco, and more recently dancers have incorporated breakdancing and hip hop moves. While only men typically dance columbia, there were (and are) famous women who stood out such as Andrea Baró, who is often the subject of columbia songs.

The structure of rumba songs has remained virtually the same since it first began. In the yambú and guaguancó styles, the claves begin the song, establishing the tempo with the distinct, five-note pattern (which is the heartbeat of most Cuban music as well as salsa). The remaining percussion instruments enter in layered fashion, and begin their repetitive patterns. The lead singer then sets the key with a series of scat-like vocalizations called the diana, followed by the verses of the song. The lead vocalist then initiates the call-and-response section and is responded to by the chorus while he/she improvises in between, and it is at this time that the dancing begins.

Los Muñequitos de Matanzas
Oyelos De Nuevo
Los Muñequitos de Matanzas

Almost the same structure holds true for the columbia, the difference being that many songs begin with the cowbell (and the claves are not always included), and columbia dancers dance solo instead of in couples. Traditional rumbas began to be recorded in Cuba much later after their emergence (around the 1950s), and the seminal group Los Muñequitos de Matanzas is one of the most significant folklore ensembles to take the genre around the world. In the past several decades there have been variations to the styles, instrumentation and dance, but despite its evolution, rumba continues as the ultimate expression of the Afro-Cuban way of life for all generations on (and off) the island.

According to Cuban percussionist, singer, composer and historian Gregorio 'el Goyo' Hernandez, who became widely accepted as a specialist in Cuban Rumba after his album "La Rumba Es Cubana: Su Historia" (2004, Unicornio No. 6004), Cuban Rumba Columbia has its origins in the drum patterns and chants of religious Cuban Abakuá traditions. Fact is that the 'cáscara' or 'palito' rhythm of Columbia, either beaten with two sticks on a piece of bamboo or on the rim of the congas, is the same as the one played in Abakuá chants, which is played with two small plaited rattles ('erikundi') filled with beans or similar objects. The drum patterns of the lowest conga drum is essentially the same in both Columbia and Abakuá as well.

Sources: Wikipedia; National Geographic; World Music; Afropop; Global Rhythm; Smithsonian Global Sound; IFE-ILE;

Books: Cuba and its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo; Ned Sublette; Chicago Review Press, 2004

Bolding added by BAILA Society