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Cuban rumba

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Cuban rumba

Music of Cuba
General topics
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Media and performance
Music awards Beny Moré Award
Nationalistic and patriotic songs
National anthem La Bayamesa
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In Cuban music, rumba is a genre involving dance, percussion, and song. There are three main forms: yambú, guaguancó, and Columbia. Rumba is an amalgamation of several transplanted African dance and drumming traditions, combined with Spanish influences. People of African descent in Havana and Matanzas originally used the word rumba as a synonym for party. Olavo Alén states: “[Over time] rumba ceased to be simply another word for party and took on the meaning both of a defined Cuban musical genre and also of a very specific form of dance.”[1]


  • Structure 1
    • Rhythm 1.1
    • Song 1.2
  • History 2
    • Pre-revolution 2.1
    • Post-revolution 2.2
  • Styles 3
    • Yambú 3.1
    • Guaguancó 3.2
    • Columbia 3.3
  • Quintessence of Cuban rhythmic sensibility 4
    • A way of life 4.1
    • Influence on transplanted African traditions 4.2
    • Influence on popular band music 4.3
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7



Rumba clave in duple-pulse and triple-pulse structures

Rumba is played in both triple-pulse (9/8, 3/4) and duple-pulse (2/4, 2/2) structures. In Columbia, triple pulse is the primary structure and duple pulse is secondary. In yambú and guaguancó duple-pulse is primary and triple-pulse is secondary.[2] The three conga (or tumbadora) parts are known as salidor, segundo, and quinto (the lead drum). The parts have other names too. Rhythmically, rumba is based on the five-stroke guide pattern called clave and the inherent structure it conveys.[3]


Yambú and guaguancó songs often begins with the soloist singing meaningless syllables, which is called the diana. According to Larry Crook, the diana is important because it “also contains the first choral refrain. The lead singer provides a phrase or motive for the choral sections, or they may present new but related material. Parallel harmonies are usually built above or below a melodic lie, with thirds, sixths, and octaves most common.”[4] Therefore, the singer who is presented with singing the diana initiates the beginning of the rumba experience. 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), or "Malanga (Murió)" (Columbia)".

Rumba songs consist of two main sections. The first, the canto, features the lead vocalist, performing an extended text of verses that are sometimes partially improvised. The lead singer usually plays claves.[5] The first section may last a few minutes, until the lead vocalist signals for the other singers to repeat the short refrain of the chorus, in call and response. This second section of the song is sometimes referred to as the montuno.



David Peñalosa states: "It should be mentioned at the outset that the history of rumba is filled with so many unknowns, contradictions, conjectures and myths which have, over time been taken as fact, that any definitive history of the genre is probably impossible to reconstruct. Even elders who were present at historic junctures in rumba’s development will often disagree over the critical details of its history."[6]

African slaves first arrived in Cuba in the 16th century with the early Spanish settlers. Due to the reliance on sugar as an export during the late 18th and early 19th century, great numbers of slaves were brought to work on the sugar plantations. Where large populations of slaves lived, African religion, dance, and drumming were clandestinely preserved from generation to generation. Cultural retention among the Bantu, Yoruba, Fon (Arará), and Efik (Abakuá) had the most significant impact in western Cuba, where rumba was born. The consistent interaction of Africans and Europeans on the island brought about what today is known as Afro-Cuban culture. This is a process known as transculturation, an idea that Cuban scholar Fernando Ortiz brought to the forefront in cultural studies like Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar. Cuban transculturation melds Spanish culture with African cultures, as with the seamless merging found in rumba. Ortiz saw transculturation as a positive social force: "consecrating the need for mutual understanding on an objective grounding of truth to move toward achieving the definitive integrity of the nation."[7]

By most accounts, rumba first emerged in Cuba during the 1880s, at the time when slavery was finally abolished on the island. We know that the Congolese-based progenitors of rumba existed in the slave barracones (‘barracks’) during the early nineteenth century. It is therefore highly probable that various types of proto-rumbas were danced prior to the first rumba references made by contemporary chroniclers. Initially the musical instruments of rumba consisted of regular household items: the side of a cabinet functioned in the role of the present-day tumba or salidor (the primary supportive drum), while an overturned drawer served as the quinto (the lead drum) and a pair of spoons played the cáscara part on whatever was available.[8]

Several types of rumba emerged, some of which have been lost to time, or are extremely rare today. These include the taona,[9] papalote,[10] tonada,[11] and the jiribilla and resedá.[12]

Rumba served as an expression to those who were oppressed, thus beginning a social and racial identity with rumba. The synthesis of cultures can be seen in rumba because it "exhibits both continuity with older traditions and development of new ones. The rumba itself is a combination of music, dance, and poetry."[13] During slavery, and after it was abolished, rumba served as a social outlet for oppressed slaves and the underclass which was typically danced in the streets or backyards in urban areas. Rumba is believed to have grown out of the social circumstances of Havana because it "... was the center for large numbers of enslaved Africans by the end of the eighteenth century. Rebellion was difficult and dangerous, but protest in a disguised form was often expressed in recreational music and dance."[14]

Even after slavery was abolished in Cuba, there still remained social and racial inequality, which Afro-Cubans dealt with by using rumba's music and dancing as an outlet of frustration. Because Afro-Cubans had fewer economic opportunities and the majority lived in poverty, the style of dance and music did not gain national popularity and recognition until after the effects of the 1959 Cuban Revolution institutionalized it.


After the Cuban Revolution of 1959, there were many efforts by the government to institutionalize rumba, which has resulted in two different types of performances. The first was the more traditional rumba performed in a backyard with a group of friends and family without any type of governmental involvement. The second was a style dedicated to tourists while performed in a theater setting.

Two institutions that promoted rumba as part of Cuban culture – thus creating the tourist performance – are the Ministry of Culture and the Conjunto Folklórico Nacional de Cuba ('Cuban Nacional Folkloric Company'). As Folklórico Nacional became more prevalent in the promotion of rumba, the dance "shifted from its original locus, street corners, where it often shared attention with parallel activities of traffic, business, and socializing, to its secondary quarters, the professional stage, to another home, the theatrical patio."[15] Although Folklórico Nacional aided in the tourist promotion of rumba, the Ministry of Culture helped successfully and safely organize rumba in the streets.

In the early post-revolutionary times, spontaneous rumba might have been considered problematic due to its attraction of large groups at unpredictable and spontaneous times, which caused traffic congestion in certain areas and was linked with fights and drinking. The post-revolutionary government aimed to control this "by organizing where rumba could take place agreeable and successfully, the government, through the Ministry of Culture, moved to structurally safeguard one of its major dance/music complexes and incorporate it and Cuban artists nearer the core of official Cuban culture."[16] This change in administering rumba not only helped organize the dances but also helped it move away from the negative connotation of being a disruptive past time event.

Although this organization helped the style of rumba develop as an aspect of national culture, it also had some negative effects. For example, one of the main differences between pre- and post-revolutionary is that after the revolution rumba became more structured and less spontaneous. For instance, musicians dancers and singers gathered together to become inspired through rumba. In other words, rumba was a form of the moment where spontaneity was essentially the sole objective. However, post-revolutionary Cuba "led to manipulation of rumba form. It condensed the time of a rumba event to fit theater time and audience concentration tie. It also crystallized specific visual images through... [a] framed and packaged... dance form on stages and special performance patios."[17] Yvonne Daniel states: “Folklórico Nacional dancers . . . must execute each dance as a separate historical entity in order to guard and protect the established representations of Cuban folkloric traditions . . . by virtue of their membership in the national company, the license to elaborate or create stylization . . . is not available to them.”[18] As official caretakers of the national folkloric treasure, the Conjunto Folklórico Nacional has successfully preserved the sound of the mid-twentieth century Havana-style rumba.[19]

True traditional or folkloric rumba is not as stylized as the theatrical presentations performed by professional rumba groups; rather, "[i]t is more of an atmosphere than a genre. It goes without saying that in Cuba there is not one rumba, but many rumbas."[20] Despite the structure enforced in rumba through the Folklórico Nacional and the Ministry of Culture, there will always exist traditional forms of rumba danced at informal social gatherings which hold the true spontaneity of rumba and Cuban culture.

In the 1980s Los Muñequitos de Matanzas (founded 1952) greatly expanded the melodic parameters of the drums, inspiring a wave of creativity that ultimately led to the modernization of rumba drumming. Freed from the confines of the traditional drum melodies, rumba became more an aesthetic, rather than a specific combination of individual parts. The most significant innovation of the late 1980s was the rumba known as guarapachangueo, created by Los Chinitos of Havana, and batá-rumba, created by AfroCuba de Matanzas. See: Guarapachangueo demonstrated by Los Chinitos. See: Batá-rumba performed by Folkloyuma. Batá-rumba initially was just a matter of combining guaguancó and chachalokuafún, but it has since expanded to include a variety of batá rhythms.


There are three main types of rumba: yambú (the oldest and slowest style), Columbia, and guaguancó (the most popular style, which can be heard in salsa songs such as "Quimbara" by Celia Cruz)". In all three, there is a gradual heightening of tension and dynamics, not simply between dancers but also between dancers and musicians and dancers and spectator/participants.” [21] Regardless of which type of rumba is being performed, the dancers have connections not only with themselves but also with the musicians and singers.[22]


Yambú is older than guaguancó, and is sometimes called the old people's rumba. It uses the slowest tempo 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 guaguancó. In Matanzas the basic quinto part for yambú and guaguancó alternates the tone-slap melody. The following example shows the sparsest form of the basic Matanzas-style quinto for yambú and guaguancó. The first measure is tone-slap-tone, and the second measure is the opposite: slap-tone-slap.[23] Regular note-heads indicate open tones and triangle note-heads indicate slaps.

Basic Matanzas-style quinto part for yambú and guaguancó.


The term guaguancó originally referred to a narrative song style (coros de guaguancó) which emerged from the coros de claves of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Rogelio Martínez Furé states: “[The] old folks contend that strictly speaking, the guaguancó is the narrative."[24]

Guaguancó is a couple dance of sexual competition between the male and female. The male periodically attempts to “catch” his partner with a single thrust of his pelvis. This erotic movement is called the vacunao (‘vaccination’ or more specifically ‘injection’), a gesture derived from yuka and makuta, symbolizing sexual penetration. The vacunao can also be expressed with a sudden gesture made by the hand or foot. The quinto often accents the vacunao, usually as the resolution to a phrase spanning more than one cycle of clave. Holding onto the ends of her skirt while seductively moving her upper and lower body in contrary motion, the female “opens” and “closes” her skirt in rhythmic cadence with the music. The male attempts to distract the female with fancy (often counter-metric) steps, accented by the quinto, until he is in position to “inject” her. The female reacts by quickly turning away, bringing the ends of her skirts together, or covering her groin area with her hand (botao), symbolically blocking the “injection.” Most of the time the male dancer does not succeed in “catching” his partner. The dance is performed with good-natured humor.[25]

Vernon Boggs states that the woman's "dancing expertise resides in her ability to entice the male while skillfully avoiding being touched by his vacunao." [26] . Arcata Theatre, Arcata, CA 21 July 1992.Guaguancó performed by Los Munequitos De MatanzasSee:

Cuban music group Vocal Sampling has performed an all-vocal version of rumba guaguanco on the song "Conga Yambumba".


Rumba Columbia performance: Washington DC, 2008

Columbia (not "Colombia") is a fast and energetic rumba, in a triple-pulse (6/8, 12/8) structure, and often accompanied the standard bell pattern struck on a guataca ('hoe blade') or a metal bell. Columbia originated in the hamlets, plantations, and docks where men of African descent worked together.

According to Cuban percussionist, singer, composer, and historian Gregorio 'el Goyo' Hernandez, who became widely recognized as a specialist in Cuban rumba after his album La Rumba Es Cubana: Su Historia,[27] Columbia originated from the drum patterns and chants of religious Cuban Abakuá traditions. The drum patterns of the lowest conga drum is essentially the same in both Columbia and abakuá. The rhythmic phrasing of the abakuá lead drum bonkó enchemiyá is similar, and in some instances, identical to Columbia quinto phrases.[28] The following abakuá bonkó phrase is also played by the quinto in rumba.

Abakuá bonkó phrase which is also played by the quinto in Columbia.

In Matanzas, the melody of the basic Columbia quinto part alternates with every clave. As seen in the example below, the first measure is tone-slap-tone, while the second measure is the inverse: slap-tone-slap.[29]

Basic Matanzas-style Columbia quinto part.

The guagua (cáscara or palito) rhythm of Columbia, beaten either with two sticks on a guagua (hollowed piece of bamboo) or on the rim of the congas, is the same as the pattern used in abakuá music, played by two small plaited rattles (erikundi) filled with beans or similar objects. One hand plays the triple-pulse rumba clave pattern, while the other plays the four main beats.

Abakuá erikundi and Columbia guagua pattern.

The fundamental salidor and segundo drum melody of the Havana-style Columbia, is an embellishment of six cross-beats.[30] The combined open tones of these drums generate the melodic foundation. Each cross-beat is "doubled," that is, the very next pulse is also sounded.

Havana-style Columbia salidor and segundo composite melody

Columbia quinto phrases correspond directly to accompanying dance steps. The pattern of quinto strokes and the pattern of dance steps are at times identical, and at other times, imaginatively matched. The quinto player must be able to switch phrases immediately in response to the dancer’s ever-changing steps. The quinto vocabulary is used to accompany, inspire and in some ways, compete with the dancers' spontaneous choreography. Yvonne Daniel states: "The columbia dancer kinesthetically relates to the drums, especially the quinto . . . and tries to initiate rhythms or answer the riffs as if he were dancing with the drum as a partner."[31]

Men may also compete with other men to display their agility, strength, confidence and even sense of humor. Some of these aforementioned aspects of rumba Columbia are derived from a colonial Cuban martial art/dance called El Juego de Maní which shares similarities to Brazilian Capoeira. Columbia incorporates many movements derived from Abakuá and Congo dances, as well as Spanish flamenco, and contemporary expressions of the dance often incorporate breakdancing and hip hop moves. In recent decades, women are also beginning to dance Columbia.

Quintessence of Cuban rhythmic sensibility

A way of life

In 1985 the Cuban Minister of Culture stated: "Rumba without Cuba is not rumba, and Cuba without rumba is not Cuba."[32]

As Matanzas rumbero Esteban "Chachá" Vega Bacallao (1925-2007) recounts: “I was born in the neighborhood called Simpson. You had rumba for lunch and rumba for dinner . . . so, you had to learn rumba . . . Young and old, with great respect, and consideration. It was a whole way of life. [In other words, we’re born with the rumba] and we will die with the rumba.”[33]

Another famous Matanzas rumbero, Francisco Aguabella (1925–2010) similarly reminisces: “The first thing you hear when you wake up in the morning is the drums. It’s a national sport, as important as baseball. You see a bunch of guys on the street, and someone will start clapping his hands, or tapping out a rhythm on a Coke bottle with the bottle cap. Then they’ll be pounding on wooden crates, or a wall, or splashing in the puddles of water dripping out of an old air conditioner, or playfully tapping on somebody’s head. You can’t escape the rumba.”[34]

The Havana-born rumbero Armando Peraza (b. 1924) remarked that when he returned to the island in 2002 (he moved to the U.S. in 1949), one of the things he found most surprising was the degree to which rumba had further integrated into everyday Cuban life. Peraza recalled: "Whether people met me for the first time or if I was with my family, nobody wanted to see me play drums but they did demand to see how I danced rumba. It was a challenge thrown to me to prove that I was still Cuban . . . to prove that I still had my Afro-Cubanismo. By the way, I passed every test!”[35]

Influence on transplanted African traditions

Rumba has influenced both the transplanted African drumming traditions and the popular dance music created on the island. In 1950, Fernando Ortíz observed the influence of rumba upon ceremonial batá drumming: "“The drummers are alarmed at the disorder that is spreading in the temples regarding the liturgical toques ['batá rhythms']. The people wish to have fun and ask for arrumbados, which are toques similar to rumbas and are not orthodox according to rites; the drummers who do not gratify the faithful, who are the ones that pay, are not called to play and if they do not play, they do not collect.”[36]

The batá rhythms chachalokuafun and ñongo in particular have absorbed rumba aesthetics. Michael Spiro states: “When I hear ñongo played by young drummers today, I hear rumba."[37] In chachalokuafun the high-pitched okónkolo drum, usually the most basic and repetitive batá, improvises independently of the conversations carried on between the other two drums (iyá and itótele), in a manner suggestive of rumba.

The contemporary style of lead drum accompaniment for the chekeré ensemble known as agbe or guíro, is played on the high-pitched quinto, instead of the lower-pitched tumba as was done in earlier times. The part has evolved away from the bembé caja (lead drum) vocabulary towards quinto-like phrases.[38]

Rumba has had a notable influence on cajón pa’ los muertos ceremonies. In a rare turn of events, the secular yambú was adopted into this Afro-Cuban religion.[39]

Influence on popular band music

Many of the rhythmic innovations in Cuban popular music, from the early twentieth century, until present, have been a matter of incorporating rumba elements into the son-based template. For example, bongos incorporating quinto phrases are heard on 1920s recordings of son. Several of the timbales cowbell parts introduced during the mambo era of the 1940s are Havana-style guaguancó guagua patterns:

Four different timbales bell parts adapted from guaguancó guagua patterns.

Descargas (instrumental ‘jams’) where jazz-influenced improvisation was developed, were first known as rumbitas in the early 1940s.[40] The musicians improvised with a rumba sensibility. By the 1950s the rhythmic vocabulary of rumba quinto was the source of a great deal of rhythmically dynamic phrases and passages heard in Cuban popular music and Latin jazz. Even with today’s flashy percussion solos, where snare rudiments and other highly developed techniques are used, analysis of the prevailing accents will often reveal an underlying quinto structure. The following excerpt is from a timbales solo by Willie Bobo (1934-1983) on Dizzy Gillespie's jazz standard “Night in Tunisia” (1959).[41] The excerpt begins crossing the bar in a typical quinto fashion on 1-e and then resolves in the third measure.

Excerpt from timbales solo by Willie Bobo

In the late 1970s guaguancó was incorporated into Cuban popular music in the style known as songo. Songo congas play a hybrid of the salidor and quinto, while the timbales or drum kit play an embellishment of the Matanzas-style guagua. See: Ignacio Berroa demonstrate basic songo stick part.

Matanzas-style guaguancó guagua.
Basic songo stick pattern.

Contemporary timba musicians cite rumba as a primary source of inspiration in composing and arranging. Timba composer Alain Pérez states: "In order to get this spontaneous and natural feel, you should know la rumba . . . all the percussion, quinto improvising."[42]

See also


  1. ^ Alén Rodríguez, Olavo (2002: 3) "A History of the Congas" AfroCuba Web. Web.
  2. ^ Peñalosa, David (2011: xxii) Rumba Quinto. Redway, CA: Bembe Books. ISBN 1-4537-1313-1
  3. ^ Peñalosa, David (2009: 185-187). The Clave Matrix; Afro-Cuban Rhythm: Its Principles and African Origins. Redway, CA: Bembe Inc. ISBN 1-886502-80-3.
  4. ^ Crook, Larry (1982: 92) "A Musical Analysis of the Cuban Rumba". Latin American Music Review. 3.1.
  5. ^ Manuel, Peter. Caribbean currents. Chapter 2: "Cuba". Philadelphia: Temple U. Press. 1995.
  6. ^ Peñalosa (2011: 184).
  7. ^ Ortiz, Fernando. "For a Cuban Integration of Whites and Blacks." AfroCuba. Ed. Pedro Perez Sarduy & Jean Stubbs. New York: Ocean Press 1993. p. 31
  8. ^ Peñalosa, David (2011: xiii) Rumba Quinto. Redway, CA: Bembe Books. ISBN 1-4537-1313-1
  9. ^ Courlander, Harold (1942: 238) 1942 “Musical Instruments of Cuba,” The Musical Quarterly, v. 28, n. 2.
  10. ^ Sublette, Ned (2004: 258) Cuba and its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.
  11. ^ Sacred Rhythms (Regino Jimenez and Ilu Aña) Bembe CD 2027-2 (2001).
  12. ^ Alén Rodríguez, Olavo (2010: 3) "A History of the Congas" AfroCubaWeb.
  13. ^ Crook, Larry. "A Musical Analysis of the Cuban Rumba". Latin American Music Review. 3.1 (1982): 92.
  14. ^ Daniel, Yvonne. Rumba: Dance and Social Change in Contemporary Cuba. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995. p. 19
  15. ^ Daniel 1995, 59.
  16. ^ Daniel 1995, 61.
  17. ^ Daniel 1995, 65.
  18. ^ Daniel (1995: 100).
  19. ^ Peñalosa (2011: 236).
  20. ^ Carpentier, Alejo, and Alan West-Durán. Music in Cuba. Transition. 2000.82 (2000). p. 207.
  21. ^ Daniel 1995, 70.
  22. ^ Daniel 1995.
  23. ^ Peñalosa (2011: 10).
  24. ^ Martínez Furé, Rogelio (1963) Conjunto Folklórico Nacional de Cuba. Catalogue.
  25. ^ Peñalosa, David (2011: xiii) Rumba Quinto. Redway, CA: Bembe Books. ISBN 1-4537-1313-1
  26. ^ Boggs, Vernon (1992). Salsiology.
  27. ^ 2004, Unicornio No. 6004
  28. ^ Peñalosa, David (2010: 186-191). The Clave Matrix; Afro-Cuban Rhythm: Its Principles and African Origins. Redway, CA: Bembe Inc. ISBN 1-886502-80-3
  29. ^ Peñalosa (2011: 19).
  30. ^ Peñalosa, David (2010: 33). The Clave Matrix; Afro-Cuban Rhythm: Its Principles and African Origins. Redway, CA: Bembe Inc. ISBN 1-886502-80-3
  31. ^ Danniel, Yvonne (1995: 69). Rumba: Dance and Social Change in Contemporary Cuba. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. ISBN 025320948X
  32. ^ What’s Cuba Playing At? BBC documentary film (1985).
  33. ^ Roots of Rhythm Chachá Vega quoted. DVD.
  34. ^ Aguabella, Francisco (1999) Inter. J. Poet. “Francisco Aguabella: Sworn to the Drum.” Drum Magazine Online. Web.
  35. ^ Peraza quoted by Peñalosa (2011: 183).
  36. ^ Ortíz, Fernando (1950: 125) Los instrumentos de la música folklórica de Cuba. tr. John Turpin III and B.E. Martínez 1980. Oakland, CA: the translators.
  37. ^ Spiro quoted by Peñalosa (2011: 183).
  38. ^ Peñalosa (2011: 183).
  39. ^ Warden, Nolan (2006: 119) Cajón Los Muertos: Transculturation and Emergent Tradition in Afro-Cuban Ritual Drumming and Song. M.A. Thesis, Tufts University.
  40. ^ Salazar, Max (1997) “La Descarga Cubana-The Beginning and Its Best” Latin Beat Magazine v. 7, n. 1. Feb.
  41. ^ “Night in Tunisia” (4:49), Monterey Concerts (Cal Tjader) Prestige CD 24026-2 (1959).
  42. ^ Pérez, Alain. Interview. (2000).

External links

  • Video clips of Cuban rumba and other Cuban folkloric music and dance
  • Video and binaural 3D audio recording of Cuban rumba
  • Cuban Rumba Instrument Builder
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