¡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
Rumba was born, according to the majority of scholars, in the poor neighbourhoods of the province of Matanzas—approximately 100 km away from Havana. characterized by the sensual movement of hips and shoulders , with an aggressive attitude on the part of the man and a defensive attitude on the part of the woman, rumba was first accompanied by everyday utensils such as wooden boxes, spoons and bottles turned into musical instruments , and later on by a percussion set made up of congas, cowbells, claves and bongos, or congas.
Rumba can be broken down into three types: yambú, columbia and guaguancó:
Yambú, which has fallen into disuse, is the oldest, dating to the mid 19th century. 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 originally for solo male dancers. The music follows the pattern of a ‘dialogue´ between a soloist and chorus —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 (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.
The different styles have combined so now rumba is a generic term covering a variety of musical rhythms.
Around the 1920s and 30s, rumba began to spread out from the tenement houses and poor neighbourhoods and became popular as stage or ballroom rumba accompanied by percussion plus wind and even string instruments. Rumba was introduced in Europe and traveled to the United States by way of Xavier Cugat´s orchestra, first in Los Angeles then at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. The rhythms and melodies of rumba were present in the birth of Afro–Cuban jazz.
For 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 Central Havana.
Callejón de Hamel is barely 200 meters long, delimited by Aramburu and Espada streets. 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.
In time, the ‘boys´—today venerable elderly gentlemen, and some deceased—stopped meeting at the Díaz´s and the alley seemed to languish until 1990, when muralist and sculptor Salvador González started a mural devoted to Afro–Cuban culture there.
Since then, Callejón de Hamel, 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. As in all popular merrymaking in Havana, rumba regains its dominance, singing and dancing, uniting neighbours and visitors, recalling old customs and making up the traditions of the future.