Rumba is an Afro-Cuban drum, chorus and dance tradition that is one of the deepest taproots of Latin music.
Rumba means “party.” The word is used for many things that aren’t rumba like the Latin dance craze of the 1950s.
Traditional Cuban Rumba is only percussion and chorus. The center of the tradition is Matanzas near Havana in western Cuba. It’s where Africans landed in colonial times.
Rumba from the west blends with Son from the east into Cuban dance music.
In New York City this mixes with 1940s swing into Latin Jazz (Cub0p) and evolves into Salsa in the 1970s.
David Oquendo & Friends play Afro-Cuban rumba in the Bronx Music Hall Plaza outdoors at Bronx Commons on Sun, Oct 17 at 1pm. Free. Facebook @bxmusic 🇨🇺
Pedrito Martinez plays Cuban rumba at Drom in the East Village on Thu, Oct 28 at 8pm (7pm doors). Tickets $30. 🇨🇺
Pedrito Martinez and Roman Díaz are among NYC’s leading rumberos.
The Deepest Roots
Colonizers claim everything as their own, but rumba doesn’t come from Spain. It’s easy to say that rumba is African, but it is one step removed from Mother Africa. The oldest drums in Cuba were indeed made by Africans, but rumba is the music of their children. It is Cuban.
A lot of human culture originates at home in traditions of faith, family, community and love. Rumba derives from beautiful Afro-Cuban religions such as Santería, but is purely secular. Many rumba musicians are also priests, but a rumba is just a party. Watch though, many drummers pray in private before they perform, and even secular dancers consider the dance circle (the “batey” in Puerto Rico) to be sacred space.
Today we associate congas (tumbadores) with rumba and Latin music, but rumba was originally played on boxes (cajones) or whatever was at hand, including the wall. The tradition appears in the 1880s after the end of human slavery, but before it was done at home in secret. Congas only appear in the early 1900s.
Cuban rumba has many traditions, but the three main arcs are guaguancó, yambú and columbia.
Guaguancó is a playful couples dance in which the man tries to “vacunao” (inject) the woman with his movements, while she avoids him. He mesmerizes her with slick dancing to provide cover for a hip thrust, flick of his hand or pointing of his toe. She jumps out of the way or covers herself with her hands or clothes. It’s good natured fun.
Yambú is a gentle couples dance that is very sensual, but danced with the slow moves of old people. You may see the man dancing with a cane.
Columbia is a dancer’s competition. There is a lot of shoulder movement and the dancer challenges the quinto, the lead drum, to match their movements. Dancers can get very expressive. Bomba Puertorriqueña is similar and somehow related.