A Brief History of the Rumba

Born out of slavery in 19th-century Cuba, the lively music and dance form takes many shapes

Rumba callejera. Santiago de Cuba

On Sunday afternoons in Havana and nearby Matanzas, it’s not unusual to see Cubans make drums out of stools, domino tables, and glass bottles—and erupt into a spontaneous gathering of song and dance. After all, rumba means “party.” The lively music and dance form emerged in the mid-19th century, when the drumming of enslaved Africans blended with the melodies of Spanish colonizers—“a Spanish legacy Africanized in the Cuban crucible,” explains music historian Maya Roy.

It was a protest of sorts, a vital form of self-expression for people denied other freedoms. Slavery was abolished in Cuba by 1886, yet the rumba continued to evolve. Dancers developed different styles: the primarily male columbia, the sensual yambú, and the pelvis-thrusting guaguancó, Cuba’s most popular form. The rumba’s place in society also shifted. In 1925, President Gerardo Machado banned “bodily contortions” and drums “of African nature” in public. But the revolutionary government of Fidel Castro later embraced the rumba as an Afro-Latin creation of the working class. By then, the syncopated rhythms had already made their way into the jazz scenes of New Orleans and New York. Today’s international, ballroom-style rumba bears little resemblance to its namesake, which some say is still best learned on the streets.

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