When we hear the beat of those drums, all of our senses become activated; rumba is a tradition that has been popular in Cuba since the 1940s.
Some specialists have gone so far as to say that anyone who is in the presence of that infectious rhythm and does not feel the need to move and shake is not 100 percent Cuban through and through.
Many groups on the island cultivate this genre, including the Conjunto Folclórico Nacional, Yoruba Andabo, Clave y Guaguancó, Rumbatá, Afrocuba and the legendary Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary. These are just some of a long list of bands that perform rumba music and dance in its many forms, such as the Yambú and the Columbia, which are thought to be originally from Matanzas, and the Guaguancó, which originated in Havana.
“Because of the band Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, we have been able to say that rumba is a genre that is beloved, understood and in demand among many people,” said Cary Diez, vice president of the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC). Diez, who is a musicologist, explained that many who cultivate this Afro-Cuban music view it as a way of finding themselves in a world that has become globalized.
“All of their work helped rumba to be declared as National Cultural Heritage. Now we are preparing our application for it to be declared as Cultural Heritage of Humanity,” she said. One important contributor to rumba was Gregorio “El Goyo” Hernández, “a real institution, who took rumba to the most respected settings, academic forums and spaces for reflection; he was a man of great patience and knowledge,” Diez commented.
“In the face of attempts to homogenize the world's sentiments with Western criteria, our cultures in Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa have the rumba, a manifestation that is truly authentic,” she said.
Many Africans also appreciate the Cuban rumba as a participatory event, one that brings people together. “It is an association of brotherhood that forms through the rhythm of the music,” Diez commented.
A number of different projects are underway to promote Cuba's rumba groups in Europe (in Italy) and in North America (in Mexico), such as the recent International Rumba Festival, Timbalaye— named with an African word that is full of meaning and sentiment, she said.
“This year we held an international forum on the Cuban rumba in Italy, and it was attended by performers and prestigious academics, such as anthropologist Miguel Barnet, who is president of UNEAC; journalist Pedro de la Hoz; and Jesús Guanche, director of the Fernando Ortiz Foundation,” Diez noted. And in New York, rumba brings together a number of Latinos of African descent, Puerto Ricans and Caribbean people in general at Central Park, an experience that is being studied by researchers.
In Cuba, a number of places have become points of reference or Cuban and foreign admirers of the rumba. These include the peñas, or clubs/jam sessions, of groups like Ambia, Obini Batá and Yoruba Andabo, as well as two very popular spots in Havana: the Callejón de Hamel and the Palacio de la Rumba, among others.
One of the most important ways to promote rumba is albums, Diez noted. “Many rumba albums have been produced in recent years, based on the desire by recording labels to enrich their catalogs,” she added. Recent evidence of that was the fact that the Cubadisco Prize committee has just awarded the CD Las estrellas del folclor, by the group Los Hermanos Arango.
Especially important are efforts to include the new generations in projects for keeping rumba alive, Diez said.
For example, Moldella y Sus Raíces is a children's rumba performance group led by Ana Pérez, a singer with Los Muñequitos de Matanzas. The project has gone beyond Cubans, involving children from Mali, Diez said. “It is interesting to see how children first imitate their elders, and then they want to be more independent, eventually seeking their own language for finding themselves,” she commented. As Miguel Barnet said, rumba, in all of its diversity, has been a genre that has maintained its hegemony and validity over and above many others in the rich armory of Cuban music.