Callejon De Hamel in Habana, Cuba
We wandered the backstreets of La Rampa, semi-lost. It’s Sunday afternoon, and it’s hot. I’ve been here before, but each street looks the same. A jacked cubano wearing a tank top and shorts waves us down and points down a street. He knows where we’re heading. The street narrows before opening into a colorful, bohemian barrio: porcelain tiles dotting the asphalt, bathtub benches, a continuous collage of murals, industrial art; and further inside, food carts, bead vendors, throngs of people, foreigners and Cubans. Live music blasts somewhere within the mob, edgy and over-amplified. No one is without refreshment: Cristal, Tu-Kola, or juice boxes of ron. This is Callejón de Hamel.
The jinateros eye us and flock. We know the hustle by now. ¿Quiere? A CD appears in my hand. Da le, venga chico. ¿Toma algo? What country you’re from, my friend? (The go-to English icebreaker). Tranquilo, mae, I casually say. Mira, ya lo tengo todo. A quick response with an accento cubano helps. This friendliness would normally be inviting, but we know the real intention ($). In a country iconic for socialism, its people seem natural capitalists.
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But enough, we came for the party, I mean, la rumba—a party, Afro-Cuban music tradition and dance. Plus it’s Sunday. Cuba has been spared the American Sunday-isms of football and mega churches. Instead, they have rumba (and baseball). We split up, each finding a nook in the crowd. Dancers bounce around, personifying deities of Santería, such as Oggún (Santerías personification of Saint John), clad in green and black, a (dull) machete in hand, puffing a fat cigar butt. Whether or not you’re a dancer, you’re dancing. A lead singer stands amidst the dancers. A choir stands behind, against a wall. To the side sit the tumbadores.
For a foreigner, rumba is all sorts of complicated. Its five-stroke clave functions in 4/4 and 6/8 time simultaneously (seemingly a combination of the Afro-Cuban 6/8 clave and 4/4 son clave)—one feel is usually given more emphasis than the other, which can change as rhythm develops. Only after internalizing the clave (not so easy) do you realize you’re still perpetually off. The clave-ist (almost always the oldest dude) isn’t starting on beat one (beat three, of course). The complexities don’t stop there. Bottom line, it’s all about establishing a hip, sophisticated groove. Anything less would be the Western classical equivalent of playing “hot cross buns” over and over again, with no variation, vibrato… you get it.
¡Es la pinga!
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If you’re not a music nerd, it’s enough to dig on the singing and dancing. Of the three main types of rumba, guaguancó is most popular. Apart from its unique rhythmic sound, you can identify guaguancó from its lyrics (“soy cu-bana, y me gust-a gua-guan-có”—easy enough) and its sexual competition of a dance between male and female. It goes down like this (as seen in the video above): the male dancer impresses and distracts the female with some fancy footwork in order to catch her off guard with what’s called a vacunao—a pelvis thrust, or sudden flick of the hand or foot towards the female’s groin. The female dances seductively to the man’s side, rhythmically opening and closing her skirt to tempt the man, only to block (batao) any attempted vacunao by turning away, closing her skirt or batting the man away with her hand. Colorful scarves are often used for both the vacunao and batao. All movements are interwoven with song and coordinated to certain percussion instruments; thus, there are specific rules of engagement. The blatantly sexual dance is really a good-humored, playful competition—an incredibly blunt version of an age-old dance. And when it comes to such matters, Cubans are always blunt.
Salsa, son or reggae-ton may be more straightforward for most listeners, but rumba is the secret treasure of Cuba. The Cuban Minister of Culture has said what I’m sure many have said before him: “Rumba without Cuba is not rumba, and Cuba without rumba is not Cuba.” There seems to be something deeper in rumba, which isn’t to say that other Cuban music lacks depth. Rumba has never been popular music. It was freedom music. It thrived in time of slavery under the guise of religion. It wasn’t even “discovered” by a second party until slavery ended in Cuba. It is still a stronghold of Santería. It is party music. It speaks on an individual and collective level. It involves all, regardless of race or creed. It mirrors everyday life, the struggles and delights.
Can you tell? This kid $%#@ loves dancing to rumba!
The sound guy comes equipped with bling