History of Rumba Catalana

3. What Music Would You Hear in Cuba in the 19th and the Early 20th Centuries ?

Home » History of Catalan Rumba » What Music Would You Hear in Cuba in the 19th and the Early 20th Centuries ?

A Progressive and Inevitable Musical Crossbreeding

The era was certainly not one of rumberos on every corner.

Cuba was the last Spanish colony to abolish slavery, in 1880. It was not definitively eradicated until 1898. It is the territory where slavery has lasted the longest, since 1511. Integration was out of the question. An apartheid regime was imposed at the beginning of the 20th century, which lasted for more than a decade.

The practice of drumming was forbidden in the suburbs of Havana, inhabited almost exclusively by freed blacks coming from the sugar region of Oriente and poor blacks coming down from the mountains.

However, just as it had not been able to avoid the interbreeding of peoples, essential to compensate for the lack of women in the colonies, the dominant class had not been able to avoid the interbreeding of musical genres.

Until the end of the 19th century, the musical context was marked by European tunes (Spain, Italy, France) supported by African rhythms. These were mixed with bolero, a Spanish ballroom and theater music from the 17th century, minuet, sarabande, contredanse, guaracha, which would have come from Spain a few centuries earlier, to be reinvented in the form of music for shows played in taverns, known as teatro vernáculo.

Gradually, Cuban music got rid of its multiple European influences and acquired its own characteristics.

Birth of the Cuban Trova

At the beginning of the 20th century, this musical melting pot gave birth to the Cuban trova, a popular genre whose texts and cadence are imbued with a certain Cubanity, sung and accompanied on the guitar.

Two historical examples, interpreted by María Teresa Vera, a slave’s granddaughter and a leading Cuban artist, are two Cuban “rumbas” from the 1910s and 1920s. The term rumba was attached to the songs by the Columbia record company. It is indeed Cuban trova. If the second song evokes two styles of rumba, the yambu and the guaguanco, and borrows some rhythms and percussion patterns from them, it is simply a song about the traditional rumba associated with slave dances.

Considered as vulgar with a dance with strong sexual connotation by the high society, Cuban rumba was banned in public places, cafés or cabarets until the 1940s. Only in the 1960s, after the Cuban revolution did it get official recognition, to preserve the preserve the authenticity of a rumba that was sometimes distorted and threatened by its own success as a show.

María Teresa Vera y Rafael Zequeira
“Óyelo Bien, Rubén” – 1913
María Teresa Vera and Manuel Corona
“El yambú guaguancó” – 1920

The rumba we all have in mind, dates from the 1930s. It was invented by … a musician of Catalan origins, from Gerona, Xavier Cugat, known as the “king of rumba“, who had moved to California in the late 1920s. His rumba was in essence nothing else than son or conga, and has absolutely no connection with Cuban rumba. It is a commercial exploitation of the music played in Cuba. And a very good one.

In the West the term is still often used as a generic name, in no way related to the original rumba genre.

Xavier Cugat, the Catalan who Invented Rhumba (even Gipsy Conga)

These tunes below surely ring a bell, and you probably feel like dancing. Xavier Cugat was a true musician, an exceptionnal arranger with a keen sense of what would please and make people dance. He worked with the best Cuban musicians of the era, such as Machito, Chano Pozo and Miguelito Valdes, collaborated with Perez Prado, the Cuban king of mambo, and left his mark on orchestral Cuban music. He loved to experiment. Rhumba, with an “h” was a joke – he had called one song Rumba-cardi -, which he turned into a brandname, less generic than ballroom rumba (the official name of the genre). After a hugely succesfull international career, he retired and returned to Spain, in Barcelona, where he died in 1990.

Xavier Cugat & Miguelito Valdes- Rumba Rumbero
Perez Prado & Xavier Cugat – Carioca Rumba
Xavier Cugat – Cuban Mambo
Xavier Cugat – Gipsy Conga

And now some Real Cuban Rumba

Clave y Guaguancó de Mario Alán: “Coco Mondansere”
Rumba columbia
“El Matador”, Frank Oropesa, “El Goyo” and others
Rumba abakua
Miguel Angel,
Rumba Columbia.
Bernabé Hernández,
Rumba abakuá

You probably never danced to that kind of music, it is not the rumba you have in mind. No Spanish traveller from the 19th century ever did either.

Nor any from the ’60s. With Perez Prado, Xavier Cugat was actually the main source of inspiration for the future founders of the rumba Catalana, bands from Cuba and Puerto-Rico came second. If he had done it with an orchestra, surely there was a way to do it with a few guitars, a bongo, a pair of maracas and some palmas. This will be the topic of the next chapter.

To conclude :

It is more probable that in the last years of the 19th century, some Spanish musicians were exposed to the teatro vernáculo (the most popular form of theater in Cuba for decades, a political satire, based on humor interspersed with guaracha songs, composed of white actors who wore masks representing black faces). In Cuba any work of the teatro vernáculo ended with an “end of party” sung by one, two singers or the entire company. When these performances were recorded by the record companies, this final guaracha was labeled Final rumba, although it was not a final rumba. It is called Rumba del teatro bufo. The first example goes back to 1899 with “Los rumberos” by Arturo B. Adamini.

And indeed, in those times, flamenco musicians did borrow from the guaracha.

Contrary to popular belief, we can safely conclude that no Spanish musician could have been influenced by Cuban rumba either during the 19th century or the early years of the 20th century.


During the 1950 and the 1960s, did the Catalan Gypsies from Barcelona get their inspiration from Cuban rumba ? … Popular genres never ask the musicology experts for approval. Branding the new genre as a rumba was a safe and smart decision, however. Find out how it all happened.