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Origin of the rumba and other terms

Article: Why Is It Called Rumba and Is it What it Seems?

by Oliver Berliner

It always amazes me that the many fine articles, in this publication and others, on the history of Cuban rhythms tend to omit salient facts that would clarify some ambiguities that have existed for decades. Take the word rumba, for example.

This word is the feminine version of the Spanish word rumbo, which means direction in English. Why was it created? Well, in flamenco dancing there is a point where the female dances off in a direction away from her male partner. When flamenco dancing came to Cuba from Spain and was embraced by the Afro-Cubans as a dance performed almost solely by country people outdoors — as an exhibition dance, not social dancing — it took on the generalized name, rumba flamenca, for in the guaguancó, the lady would dance away from her partner, just as in Spain, although in Cuba the dance was to the rhythm of one or more drums, including tumbadoras (called conga drums in North America as a result of the conga - the word, itself, the feminization of the African Congo - a dance where a musician beating a tumbadora leads dancers in serpentine fashion around the dance floor). Today it's simply called rumba.

But what is the rumba as we Americans know it? Is it what it seems? Well, not exactly. Our story begins in Oriente, or Eastern, province in Cuba. (Fidel renamed it Granma.) In 1926 an obscure guitar player from the Sierra Maestra, Miguel Matamoros, literally shook the Cuban music world by creating a rhythm that was to become the basis of virtually every popular Cuban dance rhythm ever since. He called it son-oriental. Now, the son had been around in Cuba and Mexico since the previous century. But he crystalized the rhythm pattern into a specific, identifiable, consistent form.

Enter Ignacio Piñeiro two years later. He obtained a rare booking at Habana's already legendary Hotel Nacional. His was the first band to break the "color barrier" by playing in a salon reserved for white bands (mainly danzón for la gente del solar (the poor street people). But more than breaking the color barrier, his contribution was a rhythm that would for more than a score of years be the world's mainstay tropical ballroom dance rumba — the marriage of rumba flamenca and son oriental. So now we have four kinds of rumba: yambú, guaguancó, colúmbia, and rumba-del-salon. After the advent of salon rumba, Matamoros' son became the basis of conga, mambo, pachanga, mozambique, songo, bolero, guaracha, to name a few. All Cuba recognized Matamoros' contribution and throngs turned out for this funeral.

The guaguancó is actually a twentieth century rhythm, having been introduced in Matanzas province (just east of Havana) in 1936. It was at this point that the three rhythms could collectively be designated as rumba, because the guaguancó provided for a female dancer who could adopt an "aggressive" position versus the male (the creole version of the sophisticated French apache dancing), thus initiating the rumba (dancing off in a direction away from the male, then returning to confront him). Although the three forms of rumba (but not salon rumba) are folk dances where onlookers and participants alike amuse themselves for simple fun, the group Los Muñequitos de Matanzas (where else would they be from, eh?) has achieved worldwide renown as professional exhibition dancers interpreting the three folk rumbas, music that is not melodic except for the chanting backed by the drums and other percussion instruments, some of which have been improvised from commercial or household items.

Piñeiro named his group the Septeto Nacional, after the hotel, and it was one of the earliest conjunto (ensemble) style groups, featuring a trumpet and incorporating a bongo, the latter instrument had been banned from the fine salons as an instrumento del solar that diminished the dignity of the establishment. This instrumentation was the forerunner of the great conjuntos like Sonora Matancera and Conjunto Casino. Today, conjuntos utilize two or more trumpets. Dance bands utilizing American swing-band instrumentations of brass and saxophones are called jazz bands in Cuba, while we often refer to the Stateside aggregations as "big bands."

Prior to the introduction of the conjuntos, the society orchestras were danzón bands, based upon the rhythm they principally played - the national dance of Cuba. The danzón, popular both in Mexico and Cuba, was brought by the Spaniards and came from the danza, which had roots in France, as well. In fact, these danzoneras incorporated a French instrumentation of violins, clarinet, trap drums (bateria, battery) and tympani (kettle drums). The danzón is a stately rhythm where the couples often form a circle and dance while the man "waxes romantic" in his lady's ear. This took the place of a vocal in the danzón, however a danzón that has lyrics is called a danzonete. The tympani was a very effective rhythm instrument, particularly when struck on the side with the drumstick, rather than on its head with a mallet as was customary in the European symphony orchestras where tympani originated. So it was not long before the inventive Cubans created a portable form of tympani, the timbales, which could be played with a light dowel instead of a heavy and costly drumstick, on both the head and the sides, and even by the beat of the timbalero's hand. Alberto Calderon, a Puerto Rican who was Xavier Cugat's drummer for more than three decades, used both timbales, traps and tympani very tastefully and effectively, contributing in no small way to Cugat's domination of the rumba era. Today, most Cuban bands have replaced the timbales with the paila, which is identical in style but larger and produces a more mello sound.

The French instrumentation was officially designated an orquesta típica cubana. But the black musicians, who quickly came to dominate the musical scene, found the clarinet too difficult as well as not African enough in sabor (flavor). So they replaced the clarinet with a more creole instrument, the wooden flute (as contrasted to the metal European "concert flute"), often utilizing two flautists. But with the advent of the popular flute solos, the típicas went to the single flute that you hear in every one of today's típicas...Original de Manzanillo, Orq. Ritmo Oriental, Aragon, etc.

In 1951 maestro Enrique Jorrin popularized the staid danzón with his offshoot, the cha-cha-cha, a name derived from the swish of the güiro or the sliding of the dancers' feet...take your choice (I opt for the güiro), and the típicas were the ideal instrumentation for playing this "light" rhythm as contrasted to the mambo's heaviness that's more appropriate for brass bands. From chacha came guapachá which brought chacha, of the danzón genre, towards the són genre. Many stateside arrangers take mambos and introduce a particular piano riff, calling the result guaguancó (one of the three form of rumba flamenca, you'll recall), but it's still mambo when you go to dance it.

Which brings us to that most nagging of of questions ­ who invented the mambo and when did he do it? I haven't the answer but I can say this: When Damaso Pérez Prado introduced his mambo in 1950, like Matamoros had done with són, Pérez crystallized the beat (via a rhythm pattern created by his "conguero", Modesto Duran). Did he coin the word, mambo? Probably not, and before it came to be known as mambo it was called montunete. Is the latter derived from the son-montuno ("mounted" or "bouncy" són, not són-from-the-mountains, as one album annotator incorrectly put it)? If it is, then Modesto's tumbadora pattern, used by all tumberos today — even though they don't realize it — has its basis in rumba flamenca; in particular, the guaguancó. When the national ballroom dance contests were broadcast over PBS in May the winners of the rumba competition danced to ­ you guessed it ­ a mambo-guaguancó.

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