Music Rumba
Rebecca Bodenheimer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 February 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0170


Along with the traditional dance genre son, the African-derived music and dance genre called rumba is widely considered to be the foundation of contemporary Cuban popular music. During the late 19th century it was the primary secular party music for poor black and racially mixed Cubans in western Cuba, and during the 20th century its musical features were incorporated into numerous popular genres, such as son, mambo, and salsa. Nonetheless, the literature on rumba does not include many in-depth studies, in Spanish or English. None of the pioneering scholars of Afro-Cuban culture gave much attention to rumba, as Fernando Ortiz and Lydia Cabrera focused primarily on Afro-Cuban sacred music. The little that has been written by these scholars, namely Ortiz and Alejo Carpentier, tends to overemphasize the “erotic” nature of the dance, thus reinforcing stereotypes about black culture. Nonetheless, as a member of Grupo Minorista—a group of poets, artists and composers founded in the 1920s who sought to valorize Afro-Cuban vernacular culture—Carpentier did view rumba as an important popular tradition. Among Cuban scholars writing after the Cuban Revolution, the primary in-depth studies of rumba have consisted of bachelor’s theses based on ethnographic research with rumba groups and one biography of important rumba musicians (see Musicians and Groups). There have also been articles on various aspects of rumba, and many Cuban scholars include discussions of the genre within sources on broader topics; the most significant examples of the latter are León 1984 (cited under History, Musical Features, and Musicians: History) and Urfé 1984 (cited under General Overviews and Reference Works). Because sources such as these are considered to be important within rumba literature in Cuba, the first section of this bibliography is dedicated to discussions of the genre within general overviews. Most of these works were originally published in the 1970s and 1980s and are historical and descriptive in nature. The rumba literature in English is at least as significant as the Cuban sources. Dance scholar Yvonne Daniel’s book (cited under Dance) is still a prominent source that provides a close look at rumba performance within the context of socialist Cuba. While not in-depth studies, North American music scholars have written articles analyzing rumba music (see Musical Features). In addition, three English-language dissertations constitute in-depth ethnographic studies on rumba performance (see Contemporary Performance). Lastly, because the term “rumba” took on so many different meanings throughout the 20th century, several of the sections within this bibliography relate to literature on nontraditional/stylized forms of rumba and on global musical styles that have been inspired by the term.

General Overviews and Reference Works

Within Cuban music scholarship, while there have not been many in-depth studies of rumba, the genre has been discussed within books and articles that have a broader scope, such as those that concern Cuban folkloric or popular music or African-derived music more generally. Alén Rodríguez 1998, Esquenazi Pérez 2001, León 1991, and Urfé 1984 are good examples of this type of source: all provide broad historical and descriptive narratives about rumba music and dance. The latter two have been important sources for later publications on rumba and Afro-Cuban music, and, correspondingly, the first two (written by second-generation Cuban revolutionary scholars) rely heavily on the work of León and Urfé. Reference works that include encyclopedia-style entries include Elí Rodríguez 1997, which focuses on rumba instrumentation; Frías 2014, a broad survey of all aspects of rumba performance; and Orovio 2004, which includes entries on rumba musicians and groups. Finally, within the sources discussed are two English-language works, Frías 2014 and Sublette 2004, with the latter constituting an in-depth and journalistic narrative about the genre’s history and general features.

  • Alén Rodríguez, Olavo. From Afrocuban Music to Salsa. Berlin: Piranha Records, 1998.

    A lengthy booklet (roughly 180 pages) that accompanies a CD presenting examples of various Cuban folkloric and popular genres, in which the author presents a broad overview of rumba’s history, musical features, instrumentation, and different styles. One unique aspect is the description of colonial rumba dances, the so-called rumbas de tiempo España (rumbas from the time of Spain, or the colonial period), which are rarely performed anymore.

  • Elí Rodríguez, Victoria. Instrumentos de la música folklórico-popular de Cuba. 2 vols. Havana: Centro de Investigación y Desarollo de la Música Cubana, 1997.

    A comprehensive two-volume encyclopedia that details the history and construction of each instrument used in Cuban folkloric and popular music, including all the instruments associated with rumba: the tumbadora (conga drum), the cajón (wooden box fashioned into a percussion instrument), the claves (wooden sticks beat against each other), and the catá (a hollowed-out piece of sugarcane on which drumsticks are beaten).

  • Esquenazi Pérez, Martha. Del areíto y otros sones. Havana: Editorial Letras Cubanas, 2001.

    Extensive ethnographic overview of Cuban music that includes a section on rumba. Like León 1984 (cited under History, Musical Features, and Musicians: History), this source includes a fairly detailed discussion of the coro de clave/coro de guaguancó tradition thought to be a main predecessor of rumba guaguancó.

  • Frías, Johnny. “Rumba.” In The Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World. Vol. 9, Genres: Caribbean and Latin America. Edited by David Horn, Heidi Feldman, Mona-Lynn Courteau, Pamela Narbona Jerez, and Hettie Malcomson, 715–726. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

    In-depth encyclopedia entry on rumba that details its origins and antecedents, its evolving instrumentation, various styles, musical features, and important groups. The article also takes a historical approach by discussing the changes in rumba performance throughout the 20th century and its influence beyond Cuba. Includes a detailed bibliography and discography.

  • León, Argeliers. “Notes toward a Panorama of Popular and Folk Musics.” In Essays on Cuban Music: North American and Cuban Perspectives. Edited and translated by Peter Manuel, 1–23. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1991.

    Originally published in Spanish in 1982, this essay presents a classification of popular and folkloric musics into three categories: urban popular music, urban folk music, and archaic peasant or ritual genres; rumba is placed in the second category. Discussed are rumba’s instrumentation, the dance steps of the three main styles, and the stylized “cabaret rumba” that emerged within the early 20th-century vernacular theater tradition.

  • Orovio, Helio. Cuban Music from A to Z. Translated by Ricardo Bardo Portilla and Lucy Davies. Revised by Sue Steward. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822385219

    Originally published in Spanish as Diccionario de la música cubana: Biográfico y técnico (Havana: Editorial Letras Cubanas, 1992), this encyclopedia has a particularly broad scope in that it includes entries on instruments, important musical figures, genres, national music institutions, and music scholars. Included are entries on rumba as a genre, major rumba groups and musicians, and art music composers (such as Guido López Gavilán) who wrote classical pieces inspired by rumba.

  • Sublette, Ned. “Rumba.” In Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo. By Ned Sublette, 257–272. Chicago: Chicago Review, 2004.

    Book chapter within a comprehensive overview of Cuban music that draws on a variety of sources, both primary and secondary, and is written in a journalistic style meant to be accessible to the general public. The author reproduces historical accounts related to rumba’s musical antecedents and details its instrumentation, form, and main styles.

  • Urfé, Odilio. “Music and Dance in Cuba.” In Africa in Latin America: Essays on History, Culture, and Socialization. Translated by Leonor Blum. Edited by Manuel Moreno Fraginals, 170–188. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1984.

    Originally published in Spanish, this essay details all of the major Afro-Cuban practices, both sacred and secular. It presents a brief outline of rumba, similar to León 1991, but, unlike most other sources, this one presents a list of nine distinct types of rumba, including the three primary styles still performed and more stylized versions like rumba del teatro bufo or rumba as performed in the comic theater tradition.

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