Cuba's digital destination
by Ricardo Pérez and Rubén Padrón
Without rumba there is no Cuba, and without Cuba there is no 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—approximately 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 yambú. 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 you find 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 it 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.
Callejón de Hamel is one of the shortest streets in the city, barely 200 meters long, delimited by Aramburu and Espada streets. It owes its name to Fernando Belleau Hamel, of French-German descent, who smuggled weapons during the American Civil War and who in the early 20th century, settled down in Havana in this dead-end street that now bears his name. He opened a foundry and built houses for his workers. The alley’s first fame came during the 1940s and 50s when the home of trovador Tirso Díaz became the gathering place for a group of singers and composers—friends of Ángel Díaz, Tirso’s son—who constituted the founding members of filin, a renovating movement in Cuban song, which introduced novel harmonies from jazz (which had at the same time assimilated them from French impressionism) and gave a deliberate colloquial character to the lyrics.
Since then, Callejón de Hamel, especially the stretch between Hospital and Aramburu streets has a new lease on life: sculptures and installations made of scrap material take onlookers by surprise; multicoloured paintings with íremes y orishas—deities of Afro-Cuban religions—lighten up the once bare walls; the herb peddler installs himself ready to offer his herbs for curing colds and lovesickness alike; Salvador’s studio-workshop pays tribute, with its name, to the legendary singer of Afro-Cuban ritual melodies Merceditas Valdés, who was born a few blocks away; and as in all popular merrymaking in Havana, rumba regains its dominance, singing and dancing, uniting neighbours and visitors, recalling old customs and making up, along the way, the traditions of the future.
Every Sunday at noon, a get-together known as “La rumba de Cayo Hueso” takes place at Callejón de Hamel. Made up of a group predominantly of women, it has been baptized as the Rumba Morena. This is the best place to dance or simply to enjoy watching a good rumba. Deep in the heart of the Cayo Hueso neighborhood, you are surrounded by art and ancestral urges, witness to a surfeit of identity and intensity.
Rumba, a dance that is so full of symbolic content, goes for around three straight hours. It is so powerful that it is able to drag anyone in, no matter where in the world they come from. This event has become a meeting place for people from diverse cultures, all of whom add color and enrich the meaning of the get-together.
This fusion occurring among the neighbors of Cayo Hueso and other districts in the city, flooded by visitors who need to be actively involved in what is happening there, creates an interesting level of energy that practically forces everyone to be dancer-participants. These encounters on the Callejón de Hamel are intoxicating events moving in an upward spiral of increasing heat. The rumberos want to tell us a story that needs to flow through our imaginations.
It is wonderful to watch the girls of the Rumba Morena passionately playing the percussion instruments in a very unique manner. The beat of the cajón, congas and cencerro presents a greater challenge for the dancers, forcing them to interpret the language of these instruments. A strong spirit and will is needed to dance to these percussive rhythms. The senses join with the body in a surging rush of excitement.
Rumba is a big part of the daily lives of Cubans, especially of those living in neighborhoods like Cayo Hueso, preserving the historical memory of their roles and evolution. The most beautiful thing is the ability to express how you live, what you aspire to and where you have come from, through dance. That is where the true value of the rumba lies.