What do Cuba and Catalonia have in common besides the letter “C”? We’ll take you on a journey across another kind of “C”—or “sea,” in the form of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean—where enslaved Africans, Catalan sailors, and Spanish Romani cast a sound that sweeps the Atlantic for centuries to come. This is the story of rumba.
We begin in the late eighteenth century, sailing into Cuba. “The sugar boom in Cuba happens roughly from 1780 to 1820, and so there’s this huge need for labor, which leads to a huge influx of people being enslaved and brought to Cuba,” says Michael Atwood Mason, director of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and scholar of Afro-Cuban religion. These enslaved Africans form their own cultures and communities, preserving their African heritage in song and dance. They also take influence from indigenous traditions and Spanish imports, like guaracha, a musical style that evolves in Cuban theaters and sailor saloons throughout the sugar boom.
Now, fast forward a few decades to the late nineteenth century in the urban areas of Havana and Matanzas, where Afro-Cubans are dancing to a new beat: a style called rumba. Like guaracha, rumba is a fusion of cultures. But unlike guaracha, rumba is rooted in African identity. There is no guitar, but a clear stream of vocals and a visceral percussive set.
“For me, rumba is part of the folkloric evolution of my country,” musician Gato Gatell says. Afro-Cubans perform rumba not within the posh settings of the theaters but in their own communities. For a time, Cuba outlaws it for being too African.
The journey of rumba catalana is a little more complex. In fact, with its funky energy tethered by the guitar, it hardly sounds at all like rumba cubana.
Rumba catalana is part of the Spanish branch of music labeled ida y vuelta, meaning “round trip” in Spanish. The idea is that music from Spain gets exported to the Caribbean, blends with existing cultures there to form something new, and then ships back to Spain where it is further changed. Ida y vuelta pulls from both sonic ends of the Atlantic like a rope that coils into a complicated sailor’s knot. And with so many music styles developing in Cuba and Spain at once, terminology is simply not enough to trace the journey of any one genre.
So, let’s get this boat rocking, again. We’re in the middle of the Cuban War of Independence against Spain, which started in 1895 and will end in 1898. Many Catalans are called to fight in the war. When they return, they take their guitars to sing about the Cuban lovers they left behind and the nostalgia they felt for their homeland while abroad. They coin a new genre of ida y vuelta called havaneres.
“I think that with havaneres, it’s not about depicting Cuban culture,” Tona Gafarot from the Catalan band Les Anxovetes wrote in an email interview. “In fact, the havaneres are not well known in Cuba, but we know Cuban culture through its native rhythms.” Havaneres infuse Spanish stories with Cuban sounds, and it is this idea that informs a second, knottier extension of ida y vuelta.
At the same time that the Afro-Cubans are cooking up rumba in the late nineteenth century and that the Cuban War of Independence takes hold of both countries, Spanish and Catalan sailors are returning home to the golden age flamenco. Its origins are somewhat murky, but what’s clear is that flamenco emerged in the early nineteenth century and is the cultural production of the gitanos—southern Spain’s Romani community. In its own fashion of ida y vuelta, flamenco may have taken influence from India (where the gitanos likely emigrated from in the fifteenth century). North Africa (by way of Arabs who conquered Spain from the eighth to fifteenth centuries), and Spain’s Jewish communities.
Traditionally, gitanos are a marginalized community in Spain, so music becomes a way to establish themselves and earn money. Gitanos perform flamenco in taverns, theaters, and tablaos, or taverns. I would like to think that, over the course of many a jam session, Catalan musicians conflated the emerging genre of rumba with the guaracha of the sailors’ taverns in Cuba. And as we sail into the twentieth century, Spaniards call this fusion rumba flamenca.
Anchoring our boat in mid-twentieth-century Catalonia, we see that this conflation is not entirely inaccurate. “Rumba”literally means “party,” an idea that bubbles to the surface in the 1950s, when Barcelona’s Romani community adapts rumba flamenco for themselves. They liven the beat, spruce up the guitar. They glitter up flamenco’s typical brooding sound. They call it rumba catalana—directly translated, “Catalan party.”
“There’s a bit of truth in that flamenco is all about sorrow, about weeping, but the Catalan gitanos, in contrast, experience music like a party,” says Joan Garriga, front man of rumba catalana group Joan Garriga & the Galàctic Mariatxis.
And now our boat threatens to capsize. We are in 1960s Spain. Francisco Franco is dictator, as he has been since 1939. Worried that the dictatorship threatens global perception of the country, he strategically markets rumba catalana, party music, as its sonic face. In 1963, Los Tarantos, a musical drama about gitanos in Barcelona, is released in theaters. This spectacle of rumba catalana stars flamenco icon Carmen Amaya and actor Daniel Martín. Meanwhile, Pedro Pubill “Peret” Calaf emerges as a legendary figure of the genre, as well as Antonio González “El Pescaílla” Batista. On the side of rumba flamenco, Paco de Lucía, one of the most influential figures in flamenco history, releases “Entre Dos Aguas” (“Between Two Waters”) in 1973, and sounds a lot like its cousin rumba catalana in more ways than one. And so, rumba catalana becomes the soundtrack of a dictatorship. When Franco dies in 1975, some Spaniards want little to do with the music.
Others, especially the gitanos of Barcelona, continue to play it. In these communities, rumba still means “party.” Young people like Garriga grow up with the music and continue in the tradition. Despite the confusing, transatlantic twists and turns, that’s what rumba catalana is: tradition.
“Its way of being, its character is absolutely gitano,” Garriga says.
And so, the boat of rumba catalana continues to sail into the twenty-first century.
Perhaps you jumped on board at last year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival, moving along with Garriga and his Galáctic Mariatxis. Would you be surprised to know that the Galáctic Mariatxis are a fusion band, mixing rumba catalana with contemporary music from Latin America and the Caribbean?
Maybe surprised isn’t the word. After all, ida y vuelta is a sailor’s knot, stretching and connecting both sides of the Atlantic. And the story of rumba is very knotty, indeed. It begins with slavery in Cuba, pit stops at a war, and detours at a dictatorship. On either side of the ocean, oppressed communities—the Afro-descendants in Cuba and the gitanos in Spain—devise rumba into something that reflects their heritage. The way I “C” it, this story is about the resiliency of peoples, of music, and the strange ways that migration, forced and voluntary, bends old traditions into new ones.
As Garriga says, “In Cuba, rumba remains, and when you go back to the records, it’s as if, here in Catalonia, you were listening to your great-grandparents sing.”
Aidan Keys is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a recent graduate of Howard University, where she studied English and Spanish. The quotes in this article were translated and adapted from Spanish.
In 2019 we are celebrating the Smithsonian Year of Music, with 365 days of performances, exhibitions, and other music-related programming around the institution. Learn more at music.si.edu.