On a private rooftop in central Havana, a radiant Afro-Cuban woman is dancing a hypnotising rumba. Today, she’s Oshun, goddess of the river, of fecundity, beauty and love, whose colour is bright yellow. The waves of her gilded skirts rise and fall and twirl against the overcast sky as she moves with graceful elegance. Alongside her is a male dancer, playing the role of Eleggua — a mischievous boy-child who wears red and black.
Rumba is more than just music and dance — it’s an expression of the island’s identity. It’s pure Cuba — a pure hybrid. The music blends Congolese-style percussion and Andalusia-style flamenco soul-baring singing to forge one of Cuba’s defining sounds. The dance’s fluidity derives from Africa’s most beautiful traditional dances. Rumba has many faces but it’s always rhythmic, intense and transfixing. It can be light and comical, and dark, overwhelming and confronting by turns. This is sound and movement that has changed little since the colonial era. It’s one of the practices at the core of Afro-Cuban culture and identity. One can holiday in Cuba and leave blissfully unaware of the island’s rich seam of Afro-Cuban culture. But this is what affects the way Cubans dream, act, talk and form friendships.
These two dancers — whose real names are Adriana and Toto — are pure maestros in the art of Cuban rumba. They were important participants in one of the island’s most eminent rumba troupes, Clave y Guaguancó. But their choice to perform privately is born of a desire to communicate to outsiders — as part of an intimate encounter — rumba’s wider meaning and its African roots.
I ask Adriana if there’s any point in a visitor having a rumba lesson, given the complexity and cultural identity of the dance. “For fun, maybe, though nothing will be learned in one lesson,” she tells me. But, she adds, there are plenty of Cubans of European origin who start dancing rumba and become equally as skilled and passionate as those who were born into Afro-Cuban families. And the vast majority of those people, she adds, end up embracing Afro-Cuban religions as well.
Toto was born into a household that embraced an Afro-centric group of diverse practices such as spiritism and Abakuá (a closed-to-outsiders masculine religion that originated in Nigeria and Cameroon), as well as freemasonry. Although he never embraced the religious aspect of Abakuá that his male relatives espoused, Toto says he loved its dance rituals. “It’s preferable for the visitor to see the dance close up,” he tells me. “To actually talk to the person who’s doing it.” For a ceremonial dance, Toto changes into another red-and-black costume, representing an ireme (sprit). It includes a conical headpiece that covers his face, and a broom, staff and a belt studded with giant metal squares that clash as he shakes his hips. The Abakuá dancer moves towards the other men in the group, ignoring the females. This is a dance by men, for men.
During the 400 years of Spanish rule, African practices were banned, so Afro-Cubans drummed on the cajones of flamenco instead of tambors and congas. They worshipped African gods that were dressed and named as Spanish saints. Suppressed — feared even — by the Spanish, and even by Castro and his revolutionaries, rumba has only been allowed free expression since the 1980s. Now, some argue, it’s become overly commercialised for tourists.
Sue Herrod, a British composer who’s lived in Havana for almost 20 years, has organised my experience as part of a series of encounters with aspects of Afro-Cuban culture, politics and religion. All of Sue’s small, personalised tours exist principally to counter this commercialisation and folklorisation of Afro-Cuba. “We are here to bring context,” she says, bringing out the maps that depict slave trade routes that radiated out of West Africa towards the American continent over four centuries, explaining the historical roots of rumba.
To immerse oneself in Cuban music’s mystical, potent source, travel east. The island’s second city, Santiago de Cuba, is set between the wilderness of the Sierra Maestra and the Caribbean, world’s away from Havana’s more jaded streets. Here, you sway to African rhythms before you learn to walk, because this is the birthplace of most Cuban musical genres, from the old-style son of the Buena Vista Social Club to the age-old call of rumba. Santiago is Africa-slanted, a place that wore the colonial yoke lightly, not taking it to its heart. Jamaican, Haitian, West African and, of course, Spanish blood course through Santiago’s veins. Its musical traditions combine to produce a creative powerhouse, of sorts. Here you’re likely to stumble onto a street-corner rumba that comes unadulterated from the precolonial fields of West Africa. There’s nothing ‘made for tourists’ about these traditions. In Santiago, as with every place on the island, music and dance remains exuberantly alive in the contemporary age.
If you can’t get to Santiago, Callejon de Hammel, in Havana, is the place to experience fiery street rumba. The graffiti-plastered alleyway is the work of local painter Salvador González Escalona; he started painting its walls with vivid murals in 1990, bringing a sacred space to this poor part of town. At noon on Sundays, Havana’s Afro-Cuban community worships its gods here with fevered dance and song. As you approach through the decrepit back streets of central Havana, your senses quickly become alive to the presence of rumba. It’s in the clave: the distinctive sound of the 12/8 slap of a palm on the Cuban batá and cajones that tells you you’re in Cuba. Here, the rumba often starts with a man and a woman doing a rooster-hen dance. Other dancers join, then sometimes enthusiastic tourists. The experience ends as a drum-fuelled marathon, with more and more bodies piling into the alleyway. The tropical air turns thick and soupy, the dance and the beat become relentless, and sweat builds on skin. Then you really know you’re in Cuba. Lydia Bell
La Rumba Que No Termina, Clave y Guaguancó
Published in the September 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)