10 things we learnt about rumba from Gilles Peterson & Charlie Inman

Last week we had the pleasure of going to The ICA to check out Havana Club Rumba Sessions – La Clave a new documentary about the history of Cuban rumba. Narrated by Gilles Peterson and directed by Charlie Inman, it was a comprehensive look into the rich history of the musical / dance ritual, and where it’s heading. Here’s 10 things we learnt from the film and following Q&A.

Rumba is the heart of Cuban music.

The beating heart of Cuban music is the rhythmic sensibilities of Rumba. The son, for example, merges colonial Spanish guitar traditions with Afro – Cuban percussion and rhythm, taken from rumba.

If you want to find Rumba’s soul, leave Havana and go to Matanzas.

Matanzas, 100 km east of Havana, is where to head to discover the epicentre of the rumba tradition. It was the biggest slave port in Cuba during Spanish imperialism.

Rumba is a manifestation of many different folkloric African cultures.

The reason you’ll find Rhumba’s home in Matanzas is because it’s an amalgamation of several folkloric African cultures such as Abakua and Yuka. Due to these humble origins, the impact of the genre on wider Cuban culture has been systematically obscured.

“Rumba is just a good party”

A striking feature of the film was the party atmosphere surrounding every session. Though there are some heavy religious undertones to rumba, it’s also clearly a chance for dancers, drummers and singers to get loose!

The ‘Clave’ is the foundation rumba is built on.

Claves are a pair of short wooden dowels, struck together to create a high pitched click. They form the basic rhythmic pattern which the 3 other percussionists then build from to create dense and complicated metrical structures.

Rumba can be played any place, any time, on anything.

Though there are cultural and practical norms associated with rumba, it’s as much a feeling as anything else. As such, they’ve been known to break out in the most unlikely of situations. At one Rumbero’s funeral, a spontaneous rumba broke out, and the casket was used in place of actual drums!

The drums in rumba are considered sacred and alive.

Explaining the process of making a bata drum, a revered craftsman explained to us that the procedure is more a religious one than an artistic one. The drums are considered alive and their ability to pray to deities makes them sacred.

Rumba is a forbearer of rap.

One Rumberos made the interesting point that Rumba has been putting lyricism over beats for centuries. Step aside Langston Hughes!

Rumba is a dance as much as a music.

There are three different styles which make up the vital dancing element of rumba: Yambú, Guaguancó and Columbia. Each have their own distinct set of rules and intentions. The Guaguancó for example, is a sexual competition where the male attempts to vaccinate his female counterpart with a pelvic thrust!

Rumba isn’t stuck in the past.

This message was perhaps the biggest takeaway from the documentary. Rumba clearly has a rich history, yet it’s by no means hindered by the past. Young Rumberos are propelling the culture to the present day whilst showing careful consideration and dues to past masters. These parties looked especially riotous!

La Clave’s female protagonist Dayme Arocene will be playing at The Forge on the 27th


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