The seed of all Cuban music can be found in rumba, a combination of textures that interlock and play out through polyrhythmic percussion, dance, and song. The distinct sound, anchored by clave sticks, a wooden cylindrical hi-hat of sorts called the catá, and a trio of conga drums of different pitches, has not only molded genres within the country but also fanned out worldwide to touch everything from jazz, to disco, to funk. To rumberos—Cuban street drummers—rumba is as all-encompassing as life itself.
“It’s an expression of Cuban style,” says Geovani del Pino, the 73-year-old director of Yoruba Andabo, the Latin Grammy-winning 15-piece band that has been fundamental in representing rumba internationally. “I don’t think that someone who calls themselves Cuban feels a conga without his feet moving.”
Although considered to be secular music, rumba retains a significant overlap with elements of Afro-Cuban religions such as Santeria, Palo, and Abukuá, born from traditions and rituals brought over by slaves on ships from Africa centuries ago. And similarly to spoken language, rumba doesn’t stand still. It evolves, reflecting moments through time as it progresses. More traditional musicians stay closer to its form and ritualistic uses, leaving younger artists to experiment, twist, and pull the rhythms.