History of Rumba Catalana

2. The Difference Between Rumba Catalana & Rumba Flamenca

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Rumba Flamenca was Born in Cadiz at the End of the 19th Century

Music travelled back and forth between the Spanish colonies and the homeland

The confusion is frequent, the Catalan rumba sharing with the flamenco rumba a common origin, the flamenco, and a label, the rumba. The flamenco rumba, Andalusian, dates from the nineteenth century.

Music, or the Permanent Mixing of Cultures

For Spanish musicologists, it is part of the “cantes de ida y vuelta“, songs of “going and returning“, taken by Andalusian sailors from Cadiz on merchant ships bound for Latin America, returning to Spain impregnated with Latin American and Afro-American sounds and rhythms..

Flamenco rumba is considered by musicologists as a subgenre of Andalusian guajira, referring to the Cuban guajira, unrelated to rumba. Most of the forms of the Andalusian guajira are based on the compás of the tangos, of various tempo, and with some characteristic syncopations, unrelated to the Argentinean tango. In short, one gets lost.

The pioneer of the genre was Pepa de Oro (1871 – 1918), from Cadiz, famous for her milongas, rumbas – and Cuban cigars. Her stay in Argentina gave her a certain legitimacy with her public.

Pepa de Oro - Rumba Flamenca - History of Rumba Catalana
Pepa de Oro

A Wide Variety of Borrowings and Styles

The first known recordings of rumba flamenca, by Antonio Chacon in 1913 and La Nina de los Peines, in 1917, show that this style has little to do with the Cuban rumba of the time, strictly speaking.

Simply put, the Sevillians grouped together under the generic term of “rumba flamenca” various borrowings from the popular Latin American music of the time. There are often motifs that refer to the Argentinean milonga (which itself is inspired by the habanera and candombe), as well as to the Cuban trova and guaracha, among others.

A recording of flamenco rumba, performed by Pepe de la Matrona, who stayed in Cuba from 1914 to 1917, gives us something entirely different.

In the 20th century, the Andalusian rumba flamenco was revived in the 1960s, performed by Gaditano singers such as Beni de Cadiz or Chano Lobato. Below are two examples of modern rumba flamenca.

Beni de Cadiz
“Un Cubano llego a cai”
Chano Lobato et Chano Ramírez

The difference in style from the rumba Catalana, which appeared in the same years as these two last recordings, seems clear.

Rumba flamenca is a popular, catch-all genre, as such it never had strict guidelines, nor any kind of “purity”. It can’t be defined, tagged with precision, and it does not really matter. Of course the musicologists won’t necessarily agree.

The difference seems clear, but the reality touches another topic

Rumba flamenca is very often used by the Gypsies themselves to describe any tune easier to dance and less demanding than traditional flamenco styles.

Yet it is often used to qualify a genre like the rumba catalana which, according to them, is not part of flamenco. So why the use of the “flamenca” adjective ?

A Political Issue, Dating From the Franco Era

Let’s not forget that rumba catalana was originally simply called “rumba“, or “rumba flamenca“. The Catalan culture was strictly prohibited in public space during the Franco regime. It took a foreign musician, the Argentinean Gato Pérez, to add the “catalana” label, in the late 70s, after Franco’s death.

The Franco regime, ever the schizophrenic one, for forty years never ceased to harass the Gypsies, yet encouraged the flamenco genre for touristic purposes, lauding its most famous artists. For further reading : about “nacional-flamenquismo

So it was safe to use “rumba flamenca“, which had a positive connotation for the Franco regime. “Rumba catalana” was prohibited.

It became the common expression to define the rumba of Barcelona, from its beginnings in the late 1950s until the end of its golden age, in 1975.

And then the “catalana” label came along. It did provide a temporary boost, and the label stuck to this day.

Some Gipsy musicians do not quite agree with the usefulness of the “catalana” mark of identity, noting that the traditional rumba from Barcelona went downhill ever since and turned into a genre for tourists. There are other factors at play, the local government has used it to promote tourism, yet genuine institutional support of Gipsy culture and bands has been scarce. Do we have a case of “regional-rumbismo” ?

Barcelona ’92 : Capitalizing on the Catalan Identity

Following the international success of the Gipsy Kings in the late 80s, the city of Barcelona invested heavily in the cultural identity of the rumba catalana, making it a major component of the 1992 Olympics, with Peret and Los Manolos on stage in front of a billion viewers. The idea being to boost the local tourism industry. It should be noted, however, that the repertoire chosen for the Barcelona Olympics did not include any genuine musical reference to Catalan Gypsy culture.

It eventually backfired, at least for the local musicians. From then on Barcelona would indeed be identified as the world’s capital of rumba catalana. That goal had been brilliantly achieved. However, the French Gipsy Kings had simultaneously established themselves as the standard of the genre. Tourists did came back, but they now wanted to hear Gipsy Kings tunes, not the repertoire of local bands. To this day, the local scene has had to comply in order to survive.

Los Manolos‘s cover of the Beatles song “All my loving”, had perhaps not been a smart idea, if the original intention was to promote a strong musical identity.

Los Manolos singing the Beatles in front of a billion viewers

The French Gitanos’s Point of View

While also suffering from discrimination, the French Gypsies were living in a democratic state and were free to express themselves. Yet they did not bother to give the style a specific name and picked their Spanish cousins’ choice of “rumba“, although the way they played had even less to do with the Cuban rumba genre. And, in their case, more with flamenco.

So, they called it rumba flamenca. A natural fit, since rumba flamenca had always been a catch-all genre for everything festive and easy going.

Territorial claims are more recent. For the musicians of French Catalonia (Northern Catalonia, to be precise, the southern part being in Spain), it is now rumba catalana. Yet the most famous of them all, the Gipsy Kings, call it rumba flamenca .

To paraphrase Henry Ford, you are free to choose any name, as long as you call it rumba.

Under the Rumba Catalana Label There Are Quite a Few Completely Unrelated Styles

Here are two Catalan rumba, from the same period. “Borriquito“, an international hit in 1971, is from Peret, one of the founding fathers of rumba catalana. The other rumba – the title seems to have been lost, if it ever had any as it was mostly improvisation – is played by Manitas de Plata on the guitar, sung by his son Manero Baliardo and Jose Reyes. (The Reyes and the Baliardo would later create the Gipsy Kings, and you can hear where their sound came from.)

Manitas de plata, Jose Reyes

To Conclude : Crediting Gypsy Culture

Catalan rumba has always been fusion from the very start, just like you can make a good paella in many different ways, meat, seafood, etc., so you can make a good rumba in many different ways.Peret

Rumba flamenca is the popular expression of flamenco – burning and passionate – an expression of our happiness and our sensual attitudes – how we face up to life. I believe that each generation has its own interpretation of how to play the rumba flamenca.” Nicolas Reyes – Gypsy Kings

That pretty much sums it up. Rumba catalana is an ever evolving, catch-all genre, just like the rumba flamenca ever was. Both were open to experimentation from the start, embracing a variety of different styles over the decades. Both genres are basically the same thing. The only difference being a matter of cultural identity based on a territory, due to the sedentary lifestyle of Spanish Catalan Gypsies.

From a personal point of view, the common denominator being the fact that it is popular festive music played by Gypsies, which they call rumba, I would say that the expression Gypsy rumba seems to me to be the one that best encompasses all styles associating the term “rumba” and Gypsy culture. Too broad a definition, some say. But don’t we say Gypsy jazz ?


What were the musical sources of inspiration of the rumba flamenca at the turn of the 20th century, if it wasn’t rumba, strictly speaking ? What could an Andalusian Gypsy have listened to in those times ? To find out we shall go to Cuba and travel back in time, at the turn of the early 20th century. From there we will travel forth into the 1930s and find out that the King of Rumba of the era was … a Catalan.