Traditional Cuban Music: Cut a Rug to Rumba

November 12, 2012
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Imagine you're walking through the thoroughfares of Havana, gazing over tobacco crops in Vinales valley, rumbling along in a vehicle on the way to Topes de Collantes. In any of these scenarios, you're likely to hear the traditional music of Cuba. The sounds may prompt you to move your feet to the beat, or bring you to a performance of a traditional dance group. There are many different kinds of music in Cuba, but one of the most popular is Rumba.

Rumba's roots lie in the 19th century, when the form of music and dance was born in Matanzas and Havana. The sounds of Rumba proved to be infectious, because it wasn't long before the genre had spread across the country.

The music consists of a blend of two previous genres of music — Spanish flamenco and Congolese drumming styles. You can imagine the unique sounds these two very different cultures create when mixed together. But imagining is nothing compared to seeing the beautiful dances that accompany the Rumba style.

One form of dance, the columbia, involves solitary male dancers who synchronize their movements exactly to the beat of the drum. The other form, and perhaps one with which you may be familiar, is the guaguanco, performed by a couple. The couple form of Rumba was once a marriage dance, and the sensual movements between the man and woman are reminiscent of a courtship.

There is also an older style of Rumba music, known as the yambu. This was first played on various rhythmic instruments, including drums, metal shakers, spoons and wooden sticks. The beat is slower than the more modern forms of Rumba, and can be danced either solo (typically by women) or as a couple.

Though the genre has changed over time, the structure of Rumba songs has remained relatively the same. It still consists of repetitive patterns overlapping one another, played on percussion instruments. The lead singer of the song will typically do a form of vocalized "scat," known as the diana, to start off the song, and then the verses begin. Both males and females can perform as lead singer.

Rumba is still popular today — in fact, some of the current leading bands in Cuba perform the music. It's also made the leap from the island nation, and has experienced popularity here in the U.S.

Read more: A Beginner's Guide to the Language in the Cuba