The rumba is a music genre that originated in Cuba but based on African styles. The rumba consists of eight bars played in 2/4 time, without variation and danced with often exaggerated dance movements.
Rumba's development in Cuba dates back to the middle of the 19th century, during the Spanish colonial period. The original meaning of rumba refers to a community party, usually outdoors. Neighbors would gather to dance at such parties. In this sense, many claim that rumba refers as much to a festive atmosphere as it does to a specific dance music genre.
As is the case with all those music genres derived from Africa, the participants would play instruments like drums or maracas, or use common artifacts as percussion instruments. This would be accompanied by hand clapping, singing, and of course, dancing. The occasions for these rumba parties, or "rumbones", would be events like birthday or baptism, a holiday, wedding or welcome home party. This tradition still persists in Cuba.
Rumba was introduced to the United States during World War I although many insist it was as late as the early 1930's. Over time it became quite popular, as it had in many other countries around the world.
Initially, the Americanized term "rhumba" was used to refer to many different styles or genres of music that had been imported from Cuba by the late 1920's. These styles and genres included the pregón, the canción, and the bolero. The true rumba, as well as other styles from Cuba were popularized by Latin dance bands such the Xavier Cugat Orchestra.
It has only been recently that most people have learned to distinguish the rumba from other, similar musical styles; acknowledging the original meaning it has always had for Cubans and others that were truly familiar with Latin music genres.
The rumba can be classified as having three distinct styles: guaguancó, columbia, and yambú. The guaguanco is the better know of these and is more popular in Havana than the countryside. The lyrics are usually in Spanish instead of using African terms and expressions. The columbia and yambú styles are livlier.
The instruments typically used for any of these styles consists of conga drums, sticks or "palitos". Three different sizes of conga drums are used. Two larger drums; a "tumbadora" and a "segundo", are used for the base rhythm, while the third drum, a "quinto", is higher pitched and used to play an improvisational rhythm for the dancers.
The guaguancó style is made up of three sections: the "diana", a main section, and the chorus. In the first, diana section, are melodic phrases where the lead vocalist improvises with expressions such as "la la la", with no particular meaning. In the main section, the vocalist sings the theme of the song, usually some event in everyday life. The singing might be in the form of prose, two-line stanzas, called "paradeos", or in the form of ten-line stanzas, called "decimas". In the last, or choral section, the rumba participants would join the lead vocalist as chorus in a call-repsonse pattern, with the chorus singing a set pattern while the lead vocalist improvises. It is this style of rumba that most influenced the development of salsa as we know that genre today.
In modern versions of the guaguancó, the lyrical performance has predominated over the dance and the ballroom version has little resemblance to the original performance of this genre. To confuse matters further, modern performers have taken great liberties in the manipulating the musical structure of this and other genres such as son, guaracha, and others, such that they no longer distinct retain their distinctive features. For example, here is an example of a guaracha, entitled La Negra Tomasa that contrasts with the rumba genre but is part of the fusion of genres has helped create a Latin sound that is more synthesis than faithful to its origins.
Some notable rumba composers are Agustín Pina, Roberto Leyva, Silvestre Méndez, and Pablo Milanés. Perhaps the best known guaguancó composer is Gonzalo Asencio "Tío Tom" who is referred to as "The King of Guaguancó".