Here on Flamenco Explained, we’re diving into the palo Rumba and its right-hand patterns. But what is Rumba? Rumba is a flamenco-adjacent state of mind, but also a part of flamenco. It’s the pop music of the Spanish Gypsies. It’s 4/4 time. It’s very common for ‘legit’ flamenco guitarists and singers to have a rumba on their records. Check out the Rumba right-hand pattern tutorial and learn how to play along!
Rumba everywhere in the US!
In the early 1990’s you couldn’t walk into any restaurant in the US without hearing either Ottmar Liebert or the Gypsy Kings. Both acts had had multiple-platinum selling records around that time. Somehow it was determined that this was what restaurant music needed to sound like, no matter how humble or fancy the joint was. This led to thousands of guitarists becoming interested in flamenco, or at least in rumba, and many of those guitarists (though not by any means all) eventually found their way to Paco de Lucia’s ‘Entre Dos Aguas’.
The thing, as I see it, is this: neither the Gypsy Kings, nor Ottmar Liebert nor even Paco (as amazing as that tune is) represented what was really going on in Spain in terms of rumba, which has a pretty amazing history. I learn more about this history all the time, and I’ve come to really appreciate (ok, I love it) this corner of flamenco I used to sneer at.
Rumba in Spain was even more exciting.
My introduction to how great and varied rumba could be happened when I walked into a shop in Granada one day in 1989 and heard Pata Negra for the first time. It was so clearly gypsy and flamenco and yet it was also blues and something else. Basically it was flamenco-infused blues rock. Or something. They called it ‘Bluesleria’, but a lot of it was Rumba, and I loved it all. Soon after that I discovered Ketama. Around the same time that the Gypsy Kings were conquering the rest of the world, Ketama was changing the Rumba scene in Spain. Ketama started out as a Rumba band whose members were all from serious flamenco families, so their authenticity was never in question. The lineup changed a bit over the years, but they brought salsa and other Latin and Afro-Cuban and Carribean influences into their Rumbas. Some hated them for breaking tradition, but they were and are hugely popular.
Ketama probably influenced rumba in Spain more than any other group after the 70’s Rumberos. [I’m working backwards here because my introduction to rumba was roughly in this order.] At some point in the 90’s, a friend gave me a mix tape that had a bunch of tunes on it by Los Chungitos. It seemed to me to be really cheesy pop but there was definitely something flamenco about it. And I loved this, too.
The Caño Roto neighborhood influence.
Turns out that in the 70’s in Spain, a bunch of amazing Rumba groups came out of the Caño Roto neighborhood of Madrid (Caño Roto is currently home to an insane concentration of amazing flamenco guitarists). I’ve come to think of this as the real sound of Rumba. It’s a combination of Disco, Pop and Flamenco that sounds really really cheesy until you fall in love with it. Some of the best acts include Los Chichos, Los Chungitos and Manzanita, but there are lots more. Check out this article that asks whether Coño Roto was the Motown of Spain – even if you don’t read Spanish the videos are priceless. When you look at the evolution of rumba in this light, what Ketama and Pata Negra were doing was sort of bringing it back to its flamenco roots, then adding in other stuff. It was more raw and more acoustic, but it was fusion-y in other ways that the Caño Roto stuff hadn’t been. And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that what Ketama and Pata Negra and others brought into rumba had an impact on the sound of the rest of flamenco, too.
There is a lot more history.
There is way more to rumba history than what I’ve presented here – it’s sung by French Gypsies, which is where the Gypsy Kings come in, there’s a whole Rumba Catalana scene, and there are tons of groups I’d probably know more about if I had grown up in Spain. Weirdly, Rumba is one of the hardest Palos to define in flamenco. Or maybe it’s the easiest. Either way, Rumba encompasses all sorts of stuff in flamenco, and in a way it’s the basket into which we throw everything that is otherwise impossible to categorize. It’s also the closest thing flamenco has to pop music. The easy answer is that Rumba is another Palo in flamenco, it’s in 4/4 time, and it generally has an accent on the 2+ (or you can think of it as being a 4/4 meter that’s subdivided into 3+3+2). And that’s it! It can be fast, slow or in between, it can be in any key you can think of and the lyrics can be about anything. It’s generally recognized as one of the Cantes de Ida y Vuelta, which are the songs the sailors brought back from the New World when they went off to discover and colonize the Americas.
But what is Rumba?
As I thought about a definition for Rumba, one of the best things I could come up with was this – Rumba is anything in flamenco that’s in 4/4 and that is not specifically another 4/4 flamenco Palo (like Tangos, Farruca, Colombiana, etc…). That kind of covers it. And of course this would include all of the stuff I’ve mentioned above. I think that Rumba is sort of a flamenco-adjacent state of mind, but also a part of flamenco. And also the pop music of the Spanish Gypsies. And of course it’s very common for ‘legit’ flamenco guitarists and singers to have a rumba on their records, and some of the instrumental rumbas have helped guitarists gain national and international attention outside of the flamenco scene.
Listen to these rumbas and rumberos!
I’ve made a playlist of some of my favorite rumbas and rumberos. As with all of my playlists it’s very personal and in no way meant to be comprehensive. Since I didn’t grow up with this music I’ve been learning about it all after the fact, and I keep discovering great new rumberos from the 70’s and 80’s even now!