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When you’re at a party in Cuba and you want to dance, you might want to know about the rumba. This lesson will explore the musical style and songs of this distinctly Cuban influenced genre.

Introduction

If there’s a party in Cuba, there’s going to be rumba dancing and music. It’s only natural, given that the word rumba used to be used as Cuban slang for party. Nowadays it’s used more to describe a secular music (that’s music not for church) genre that accompanies a specific type of dance. You might think of it like a Cuban version of other countries’ traditional dances, like the Charleston in the United States or Cossack dance in Russia.

History of the Rumba

The rumba as we know it formed in Cuba in the late 1800s as a mixture of various musical genres, like how grunge formed in Seattle from punk and metal. The rumba is a mixture of African dance and drum genres, abaku; and yuka, and Spanish coros de clave. From this mixture you get a very energetic, often polyrhythmic (multiple rhythmic patterns layered atop one another) musical form.

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The African influence on the rumba cannot be overlooked. Much like the slave songs in the United States, the Cuban slave trade directly influenced the rumba’s development. Some ethnomusicologists argue that the rumba came from the urbanization of rural slave songs, much the same way the urbanization of rural blues eventually became the blues we know in America today.Like the blues spreading from the United States’ rural South to its urban northern cities, rumba began as a mostly working class street music that eventually became the national musical style of Cuba. As it became more commercialized in the 1930s it spread from the island to the United States, where it is stylized as rhumba, a Cuban influenced ballroom dance. Funny thing about the rhumba in America: it doesn’t even really sound like the original Cuban rumba.

Instead it’s more like a jazz, big-band reinterpretation of the genre. It’s like the music you hear in The Godfather Part II whenever they’re in the Miami scenes.

Musical Form

The basis of the rumba is the rhythmic pattern.

Rumba Rhythm
Rumba rhythm

It’s a binary meter, a time signature of either 2/4 or 4/4, though uncommonly you could find a triple meter (9/8, 12/4).

The important part is the syncopation of the meter. Syncopation is where you emphasize the off-beat parts of the meter, like the half beat. Look at all those rests in the above image.

Most of them come on the downbeat. By resting on the downbeat and playing on the off-beat you get syncopation, which gives excitement and energy to the music.Instrumentation is dependent on what instruments people have. It’s like the blues in that regard; you use what you have on hand. Typical instrumentation includes clave, conga drums, various other percussion (shakers, bells, etc.), and one or more singers. Notice the absence of any specifically melodic/harmonic instruments, save for the vocalist.

It’s not until the 1940s when the American rhumba and son cubana, another Cuban national style, began to influence the rumba. Now we see the inclusion of the guitar, bass, and piano trio, as well as melodic instruments like the trumpet.

Representative Songs of the Rumba

Here’s what’s tricky about the rumba: it’s a street and party music first, so any commercialized versions are necessarily lacking.

To that point, after the Cuban Revolution in the 1950s there became two forms of the rumba: the authentic, living version; and the version established by the state for tourist performances. That’s not to say the state-sponsored versions are necessarily inaccurate musically, but rather that a genre born from and performed on the street for the enjoyment of dancing loses some of its inherent vitality.That being said, the first commercially successful recording acts were Carlos Vidial Bolado and Chano Pozo in the 1940s and Alberto Zayas and his Conjunto Afrocubano Lulú Yonkori in the 1950s. Perhaps the two most influential rumba groups are Los Muñequitos de Matanzas and Los Papines.

Lesson Summary

Rumba is a quintessentially Cuban secular, or not used in church, musical genre, derived from African slave songs and dance, and Spanish coros de clave. The music is characteristically upbeat, fast, and syncopated, with emphasis on the off-beats, and features complex polyrhythms, or multiple rhythmic patterns. The rumba is a dance and party music; it’s highly percussion based, with primarily a duple meter. When the rumba came to America its name was changed to rhumba; it became less rhythmically complex, and moved from the streets and backyard parties to the ballroom. Commercialized versions of the genre include Los Mu;equitos de Matanzas and Los Papines.

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