What Is Rumba? - Definition, History & Songs

Instructor: Chris Chouiniere

Chris has taught music and has a master's degree in music education.

When you're at a party in Cuba and you want to dance, you might want to know about the rumba. This lesson will explore the musical style and songs of this distinctly Cuban influenced genre.


If there's a party in Cuba, there's going to be rumba dancing and music. It's only natural, given that the word rumba used to be used as Cuban slang for party. Nowadays it's used more to describe a secular music (that's music not for church) genre that accompanies a specific type of dance. You might think of it like a Cuban version of other countries' traditional dances, like the Charleston in the United States or Cossack dance in Russia.

History of the Rumba

The rumba as we know it formed in Cuba in the late 1800s as a mixture of various musical genres, like how grunge formed in Seattle from punk and metal. The rumba is a mixture of African dance and drum genres, abakuá and yuka, and Spanish coros de clave. From this mixture you get a very energetic, often polyrhythmic (multiple rhythmic patterns layered atop one another) musical form.

The African influence on the rumba cannot be overlooked. Much like the slave songs in the United States, the Cuban slave trade directly influenced the rumba's development. Some ethnomusicologists argue that the rumba came from the urbanization of rural slave songs, much the same way the urbanization of rural blues eventually became the blues we know in America today.

Like the blues spreading from the United States' rural South to its urban northern cities, rumba began as a mostly working class street music that eventually became the national musical style of Cuba. As it became more commercialized in the 1930s it spread from the island to the United States, where it is stylized as rhumba, a Cuban influenced ballroom dance. Funny thing about the rhumba in America: it doesn't even really sound like the original Cuban rumba. Instead it's more like a jazz, big-band reinterpretation of the genre. It's like the music you hear in The Godfather Part II whenever they're in the Miami scenes.

Musical Form

The basis of the rumba is the rhythmic pattern.

Rumba Rhythm
Rumba rhythm

It's a binary meter, a time signature of either 2/4 or 4/4, though uncommonly you could find a triple meter (9/8, 12/4). The important part is the syncopation of the meter. Syncopation is where you emphasize the off-beat parts of the meter, like the half beat. Look at all those rests in the above image. Most of them come on the downbeat. By resting on the downbeat and playing on the off-beat you get syncopation, which gives excitement and energy to the music.

Instrumentation is dependent on what instruments people have. It's like the blues in that regard; you use what you have on hand. Typical instrumentation includes clave, conga drums, various other percussion (shakers, bells, etc.), and one or more singers. Notice the absence of any specifically melodic/harmonic instruments, save for the vocalist. It's not until the 1940s when the American rhumba and son cubana, another Cuban national style, began to influence the rumba. Now we see the inclusion of the guitar, bass, and piano trio, as well as melodic instruments like the trumpet.

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