UNESCO declares Cuban rumba a World "Intangible" Heritage

Posted: 02-Dec-16 10:22

Yesterday marked a triumphant day for Cuban music as one of its most popular Afro-Caribbean rhythms and dance forms, the Rumba, was listed a UNESCO World "Intangible" Heritage. During UNESCO's annual meeting in Addis Ababa, the committee, made up of 24 different countries decided to include Cuban Rumba in its list of humankind's protected goods as it deemed it a symbol of Cuban society, defending the right of cultural diversity based on mutual respect.

UNESCO declares Cuban rumba a World "Intangible" Heritage

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, more commonly referred to as UNESCO, made an important addition to its list of World Intangible Heritage when it decided to include Cuban Rumba as a unique contribution to universal music and dance. UNESCO explained its decision by describing it thus:

“Cuban rumba is an expression of oral and intangible heritage, where harmony, tradition and contemporariness meet”

The highly-evocative rumba dancing, at times fierce in fight-like motion and at others sublimely sensual, tells the story of Cuba’s enslaved past in the most flamboyant and emotionally captivating of ways. The music is made up of incessant, harmonious drum beats accompanied by the relentless sound of “claves” and the emotional chants of “coros de clave”, adding lyrics to the whole ensemble. Their voices typically carry a melancholic timbre and tone that tells of longing, the longing African slaves in Cuba would once have felt for their homeland.

After meeting in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, the UN body concluded on protecting the Cuban Rumba as one of the world’s most exceptional intangible assets, one that they said evokes “grace, sensuality and joy” while adding its dance form was an “expression of resistance and self-esteem

Even though this music genre (which involves dancing, percussion and song and which comprises the subgenres of “guaganco”, “yumba” and “columbia”) is deemed secular, it has clear syncretic origins and is the result of the merging of two cultures and two very different spiritual beliefs that over time became almost one, with many lines blurred along the way.

Thus, rumba music and dancing can be said to be the artistic result of Cuba’s unique mix of beliefs: the Catholicism imposed by the Spanish conquerors and the Abakua, Yoruba and Bantu religions brought over by the African slaves. Both fused and merged over the centuries to create Cuba’s peculiar syncretic spiritualism. Cuban rumba is an inevitable and highly aesthetic result of that, which most Cubans are incredibly proud of.

In its origins, it was the slaves who created the rumba movement, as a way of staying true to their roots and remaining in touch with home, as well as pay respect to their African deities. Over time these deities would be given Catholic saint equivalents so that Cuba’s patron saint, Our Lady of Charity is associated with “Oshun” in the Yoruba religion. During their free time African slaves in Cuba were allowed to practice their religion and the rumbas started in their barracks as a way of self-expressing their fears, hopes, daily hardships but also their faith, resilience and pride.

This is why Cuban rumba dancing can be perceived as highly spiritual and self-redeeming at times, and it can be clearly seen in the way dancers sometimes elevate their hands to the sky in a prayer-like form and at other times make frantic slashing movements with the hand to signify the hard labours they were forced to perform (like the cutting of sugar cane with a machete).

Cuban rumba, whose most popular subgenre is the "guaguanco", and which comprises two other subgenres “yambu” and “columbia”, evolved over time in Cuba’s poorest communities. Despite being closely linked to African culture, it also has elements of Spanish flamenco and Caribbean influence. This is why UNESCO hailed for its inclusive nature with the following statement:

“Because of its integrative nature and cultural diversity, it becomes an expression of great social reach”

The rumba dance itself and its various variations of it are about the slaves’ fight for keeping their self-esteem intact, but grace, sensuality and are a great part of it, and what makes it so uniquely enjoyable to watch and listen to.

As UNESCO rightly puts it:

“The richness of the rhythm, the grace and sensuality of the singing and dancing and the joy it transmits, connects a lot of people, regardless of sex, phenotype, social or geographical situation”

If you want to see live Cuban rumba being performed there are numerous places in Havana, Matanzas and Santiago where you can go. It’s just a case of asking around, but most of these cities have a "Casa de la Musica", where at least once a week, a group of “rumberos” will typically perform. The "Callejon de Hamel" is another popular spot for enjoying some street rumba dancing, or you could always befriend a local and be invited to a rumba house party or a "Toque de Santo".


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