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Havana rumba

Havana rumba

¡Zumba, mamá, la rumba y tambó!
¡Mabimba, mabomba, mabomba y bombó!
Repican los palos,
suena la maraca,
zumba la botija,
se rompe el bongó.

José Z. Tallet
“La rumba”

Rumba is one of the most famous and well–known genres of popular Cuban music. Born, according to the majority of scholars, in the poor neighbourhoods of the province of Matanzas—approx 100 km away from Havana—it is characterized by the sensual movement of hips and shoulders while dancing, with an aggressive attitude on the part of the man and a defensive attitude on the part of the woman, and by the chanting of one or several soloists who sing melodies of 8 bars in 2/4 meters, repeated over and over again even if the lyrics change, which alternates with a chorus. At first, it was accompanied by everyday utensils turned into musical instruments such as wooden boxes, spoons and bottles, and later on by a percussion set made up of congas, cowbells, claves and bongos, or three congas with low, medium and high registers and a wooden box beat with sticks, among other variations.

Rumba can be broken down into three types: yambú, columbia and guaguancó:
Yambú, which has fallen into disuse, is the oldest, going back to the mid 19th century. Although the dance represents the flirting of the female with the male dancer, it uses a slow beat, the movements are soft and unhurried, and there is no pelvic movement that is meant as the erotic possession called vacunao, thus the repeated warning in the chants that ‘there is no vaccination in the yambú´.

Another more recent style is the columbia, originated in the rural areas and essentially for solo male dancers, although there have been women famous for their interpretation of this dance. The music follows the pattern of a ‘dialogue´ between a soloist and a chorus where two distinct parts are clearly identified—one part for singing and the other for dancing, the latter being called capetillo.

The city–born guaguancó is basically the pursuit of the woman by the man, she trying to evade him and he trying to ‘vaccinate´ her, an action that has become so stylized that it may be even suggested with the flip of a handkerchief, and is an opportunity for the dancers to shine. Groups that specialized in playing guaguancó—called ‘choruses´—originated in the late 19th century, creating their own chants whose narrative lyrics have come down to the present day. As customary, the different styles have combined, and it is not strange in a guaguancó for a man to put on a display of talent incorporating movements from columbia or for the couple to pay homage to their ancestors evoking the ceremonious airs of the old yambús. Therefore, rumba is a generic term covering a variety of musical rhythms.

Around the 1920s and 30s, rumba began to spread out from its humble surroundings, the tenement houses and poor neighbourhoods, and became popular in another style yet, the stage or ballroom rumba, which was accompanied not only by percussion instruments, but by wind and even string instruments. Rumba was introduced in Europe, and traveled all the way to the United States by way of Xavier Cugat´s orchestra, playing first in Los Angeles and later at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. The rhythms and melodies of rumba were present in the birth of Afro–Cuban jazz.

This style of somewhat sophisticated rumba is the one that one finds at Cuban cabaret shows, with the women wearing dresses of endless flounces and ribbons and a long train. But to those who want to get acquainted with in a setting that resembles its popular and humble beginnings, the place to go is the Callejón de Hamel (Hamel Alley) in the neighbourhood of Cayo Hueso in the municipality of Central Havana.
March 2008

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