Vaya con dios Isla Percussions

California has had several excellent drum makers. Recently a newer company, Isla Percussions run by the indubious Mario Punchard is relocating to Belize.

Isla Percussions

I have had 2 requinto drums made by Isla, both of them fantastic sounding drums. I also recently acquired a set of bata from them as well. Isla has always been committed to the Afro-Cuban tradition and only makes Afro-Cuban drums; congas and bata.

Isla has always adhered to 2 philosophical ideas which has caused them to stand out. One is innovation. From Isla's first drums they have never been afraid to experiment, trying new and different designs in a quest for something better and unique.

Second is practicality. Isla drums are meant to be played. They are not such highly polished instruments nor are they so expensive that players are afraid of playing them, to get marks on them. They are rough and ready drums meant to be played anywhere at anytime.

It was nice having Mario in California, good luck in Belize.


Europe and Africa in Rumba

Rumba is often described as a mixture of European and African musical traditions. While probably an accurate description, I think it leaves out a lot. This sounds like a nice little collaboration with white and black musicians taking little pieces of  each others music and making something new. I don't really see it going down like that. That sounds much too benign. I think more accurately rumba should be described as having  compulsorily adaptated elements of European music into African traditions in order to survive.

Other African musical traditions have survived in Cuba fairly intact. Iyesa, Arara, Abakua; these musics still use African style drums and African or African based language lyrics. The element that these styles have in common is that they are more private than rumba, belonging to secret societies or requiring initiations.

Rumba is a public music. It's origins are the docks of a city, the solar of a housing tenement or the barracks of a sugar plantation. Here it was also under the eyes of the white European authority. Rumbas were periodically outlawed and it's participants jailed and prosecuted. My feeling is it eventually evolved through necessity into something less African and more palatable to the European dominant class until it was finally tolerable to the authorities.

In rumba the drums change. No longer are these African drums carved from a single tree, outlawed and banned. The instruments are pieces of a ship, cast off crates and boxes, broken barrels patched up and made into a drum, bottles, spoons, dresser drawers, etc. Junk and trash from the dominant culture scavenged by the exploited.

The older African rhythms use the lowest pitched drum for improvising and marking dancers. The new rumba changes this to the highest pitched drum. The role and function is still there, it just sounds a little different. This not only drastically changes the character of the rumba's sound from the African styles, but I have heard it described as conforming more to a European perspective of music where the higher pitched instruments tend to carry the lead in music.

Rumba lyrics are in Spanish; the authorities can understand what is being sung. The adopted form is a poetic style called decima, a venerable Spanish, having evolved in the 17th century. Rumba also adopts a device referred to as the diana, which is prevalent in the flamenco, a familiar Spanish musical form. My assumption is the European poetic styles combined with the typically non sequitur nature of rumba lyrics combine for songs that must have appeared quaint, humorous and childlike to the authorities.

So here we have a scene of oppressed and exploited workers singing nonsense songs with Spanish lyrics in a European style, playing non-African sounding rhythms with pieces of trash and refuse. Surely nothing threatening here officers, move along, move along.


Styles of Rumba

There are many styles of rumba, some are very popular and others relatively obscure. For some reason I have always been interested in the obscure ones. Rumba music in America is a fairly esoteric genre, and here I am interested in the esoteric of the esoteric.

The styles one expects to here attending a rumba are Guaguanco and Columbia. Sometimes one will hear a Yambu if the rumberos are so inclined, and often Guarapachangeo. Rumberos are usually also experienced with other Afro-Cuban musical traditions and you can usually here a few examples played at a rumba, in my experience the most commonly heard is Bembe. It is also not uncommon to hear a Comparsa being played. Of course, I am speaking from my own personal experience here in California. I'm only moderately aware of other American scenes and I haven't been to Cuba yet.
However I often read about or come across mention of other styles of rumba, that I never hear played, except maybe on recordings. Why are these rhythms not heard or talked about as much. What caused them to become relegated to obscurity? Existing mostly as footnotes in books?

I've compiled a list of rumbas styles and as this blog progresses and I've learnt a little more I will be writing articles on each style. I'm curious to know what makes a Reseda different than a Guaguanco, is it the rhythm? the instrumentation? the songs? the dances? Anyways it is bound to be interesting research. Maybe some of these styles are due for a comeback.

  1. Batarumba
  2. Columbia
  3. Guaguanco
  4. Guarapachangeo
  5. Jiribilla
  6. Papalote
  7. Reseda
  8. Rumba de Cabaret
  9. Rumba Son
  10. Rumba del Tiemp de Espana
  11. Rumba Teatral
  12. Rumba Tonada
  13. Tahona
  14. Yambu


The Tumba

The tumba is the lowest pitched drum in a rumba. Right now the drum manufacturers are labeling this drum as "tumba", but it can actually be called by several names. Salidor, tumba, tumbadora, hembra and la conga. The last one, "la conga" is what my teacher Sandy Perez refers to this drum as, which of course translates into "the conga", which was confusing at first.

So this drum is the largest of the conga drums used for rumba. It generally has the most steady beat of all the drums, typically playing bass notes on the pulse along with the open notes for the melody. This role contrasts with the role of the low drum in other folkloric music traditions where the lowest drum (usually referred to as the caja) is the drum that improvises; marking the dancers and playing solos. In rumba this role is usually reserved for the quinto.

I am very lucky to have two of the best tumbas money can buy. I have one 12 1/4 " tumba made by Resolution drums here in California. In the photo this drum is on the left. It is made from oak and is a fantastic drum. There is a long history behind this particular company which I won't get into here. Ralph Flores, who makes these drums is an incredible craftsman and a very nice guy.

My other tumba is a 12 3/4" Skin on Skin tumba (SOS) and is made from cherry. Jay Bereck who makes these drums in New York is the most experienced drum maker in America. His drums have an incredible reputation and of course are just absolutely wonderful drums. Jay and his apprentice Josh don't have a website, but you can contact them here.
1618 State Hwy. 41 
Afton, NY 13730
(607) 639-2417



Bells are a big part of Afro-Cuban music and rumba. Traditionally it is rumba columbia that uses the bell to play what most people call the "6/8" bell. However it is not unusual to hear a bell playing clave for guaguanco. Sometimes you will even hear people play the upbeats in a guaguanco on a bell. That's not strictly traditional, but the part fits and sometimes people just have to play something.

There are several styles and sizes of bells, including the guataca, which is a hoe blade. Choosing a bell, and even more, finding a bell that you like is very subjective. Most important is the sound, but also very important is the weight. What you hit the bell with also makes a big difference. Usually the striker tends to be a drums stick, as these are so commonly available. However the guataca and the "double bells'' called agogos you see in the photo are commonly struck with a thin metal rod, or even a "8 penny" nail, or some other piece of metal.

Just like the claves, make sure you get a bell you like, and that is not too heavy. You might be hearing it and holding it for a long time.

The bell goes by different names. Most common is campana, though you hear cencerro used. Agogo is the name for the double bell, and I believe in Abakua the bell is referred to as Ekon.



Shekeres are a great instrument. The instrument goes by a couple of different spellings: chekere, shekere, agbe and I think calabash in some places.

This instrument has evolved to be the main shaker in rumba nowadays. Early rumba recordings show maracas and nkembi (wrist shakers) being used. Today the shekere seems to be the most common shaker.

Usually you will see one shekere player, though it's not unusual to see two shekere players alternating.

The typical patter is for the shekere to play the downbeats with a pick-up just before the downbeat. For example; a1   a2   a3  a4. I personally like to start with just playing on the 1, and then later adding the 3 and then finally later in a song maybe moving on to playing all 4 downbeats. For some sections it is even fun to play all the 16th notes for a portion of the song to get things cooking, but you really should not over do that, save it for something special.

In my experience rumba shekere is different than that for guiro and bembe, where the shekere takes a more prominent role in the ensemble; creating melodies between three shekeres. However it's not unusual to see guiro shekere patterns adapted to a rumba rhythm, particularly a columbia.

The following are some pictures of shekeres I have made. I really enjoy making the instrument and receive a lot of satisfaction watching people make music with instruments I have made.


Origins of the Claves

I had read somewhere that claves were pieces of wood used in shipbuilding; pegs to hold the ship together before treated metal fasteners. These pegs were adopted by the dockworkers as instruments.
This idea incidentally lends more support to the theory of rumba coming from the Abakua tradition, as the docks were controlled by the Abakua societies. In addition, many believe that the clave rhythmic pattern comes from Abakua as well.

This is the source of the shipmaking clave connection:

"In the beginning was the clave. In Spanish, code or key; in music notation, clef or signature. For black slaves and freedmen working the docks in late 17th century Havanaclaves were the hardwood pegs used in shipbuilding. Clapping a pair of claves makes a sharp click loud enough to cut through the brassiest Latin big band. Crucially, the clave is the basic rhythm traceable to ancient African rites, the building block of all Cuban music: a cell of two measures—one syncopated, one on the beat—around which every song, variation, and improvisation revolves."   Ned Sublette



Claves play the clave. The first is the name of the instrument and the second is the name of the rhythm. Not all claves are played by claves. Clave as a rhythm is applicable to several different rhythms throughout Afro-Cuban folklore and rumba in particular.  This blog is mainly about rumba instruments (at least at present).

Rumba is primarily 4 rhythms; yambu, guaguanco, columbia and guarapachangeo. All of these rhythms, except columbia use a pair of claves to play the clave. Columbia traditionally uses a bell to play the clave for that rhythm. Columbia's clave pattern is usually referred to as "the bell" or "la campana" in spanish and more technically as the 6/8 bell, or "seis por ocho".

Guaguanco and guarapachangeo use the rumba clave. Yambu is special as there are 3 different claves that can be played with the rhythm; son clave, rumba clave and "yambu" clave.
"Yambu" clave is similar to rumba clave with additional strikes occuring on the downbeats after the 2nd and 3rd strike of rumba clave.

Anyways, back to the instrument; claves. Usually these are made of wood, but practically anything with a cutting enough sound will work. Currently solid claves made of rosewood or other dense heavy woods are highly available. This kind of clave gives a very high and bright tone. I don't really like it. I prefer hollow claves. LP and other companies refer to these as African claves, for some reason known only to them.

To get the best sound from a set of claves the hand holding the piece that is struck should be cupped and hollow to allow the sound to resonate.

For the best musical results, I like it when the claves and the gua gua or cata have different pitches. My guaguas are pitched a little high, because my claves are hollow and a little lower pitch. The reverse approach is just as acceptable, low guagua and higher claves. You can hear examples of both approached on rumba recordings. If these two instruments have the same pitch it can become a little confusing in my opinion, so my approach is to have the two instruments vary in their pitch.

All of my claves are imported, one from Cuba. I don't know what wood they are from. They take a beating for sure. To prolong their life, I coat them in Danish Oil every now and then and sand the splinters out. The dark ones on the left are my favorite, they have a crisp and hollow sound. Make sure whatever claves you get are not too heavy and sound good, you will probably end up playing them and hearing them for a long time.

For some really detailed information on clave as a rhythm visit my friend's blog: