The Lost Art of Yambu.

(photo Thomas Altmann)

   The other day  I was practicing Yambu in the park on a beautiful fall day and I was reflecting on the style of Yambu and how it is not played in the original way anymore. Yambu is the oldest rhythm in Rumba. The origins of Yambu are the docks of Cuba, Yambu was created by black workers playing the rhythm on the crates and boxes to be found there.

   You can see in the photo a modern interpretation of these original crate instruments as created by Thomas Altmann at Oche music. He has written an excellent article on the subject.

   What was striking me was how in modern times Yambu is often simply approached as a slower form of Guaguanco. However as I was playing the low drum at a nice easy tempo, I was struck by how complete a rhythm that part was all on it's own.

  This is a Matanzas style Yambu. It is a very rich version, a good range of tones, and a lot of space. Also the way it moves across the clave, one side answers the other. I realized as I was practicing that this rhythm did not need another drum like the Tres Dos to complete it. Actually, the earliest forms of Yambu did not have a Tres Dos (conga). The early versions of Yambu were played with just a low drum, a quinto, palitos and claves.

  This was made more apparent to me when I switched and was practicing the Tres Dos, middle drum part to this Matanzas style Yambu.

   You can see here that the open tones for the Tres Dos land exactly in the same spot as the Tumbadora. The addition of the Tres Dos does not really change the melody much at all, and in a way it is not really integral to the rhythm. I will say it does add a lot though, mainly in the muff (M) tones, as they "answer" the muff tones from the Tumba. In actual play those muff tones on the Tres Golpes can be switched with the three slap (S) tones as well, where they would occur before, or "call" the muff tones for the Tumba.

  When approached this way, Yambu actually sounds and feels much different that Guaguanco. In the older recordings you can also hear different claves being used. Son clave, Rumba clave and "Yambu" clave are all present. The "Yambu" clave is what I learned to use with this version of Yambu. It is basically rumba clave with the addition of a strike on the beat right after both the second and third strokes of rumba clave. I have even learned a palitos pattern that goes with the Yambu and not guaguanco. It is similar to the standard guaguanco, but with a few strokes left out. I suspect there are less strokes in the Yambu palitos because there are more strokes in the Yambu clave.

  Anyways, nowadays at rumba, when Yambu is played, it is played on the modern congas instead of cajons, the rhythm is almost always Guaguanco, and the main thing that differentiates Yambu from Guaguanco is that the rumberos are just playing it more slowly. Which brings me to the last observation I have. The art of playing slowly. It is very difficult to do and maintain a nice feel, more often than not it tends to drag or speed up.
  The older Carlos Embale records are such great examples of Yambu. It seems the authentic Yambu played gives Carlos Embale the chance to really stretch out and sing these beautiful melodies. Sometimes I think it might be nice to add a little more variety to the Guaguancos and Rumba Columbias and bring back the low, slow and sweet sounds of Yambu.


Improvisation in Rumba

Rumba is an improvisational music, much like Jazz and Blues. Just like Jazz and Blues, Rumba has it’s own structure regarding how the instruments and vocals improvise, when the improvisation occurs and which instruments improvise.

Instruments that do not improvise in Rumba.
  1. Claves.
  2. Palitos.
  3. Shekere.
  4. Chorus (Coro).
  5. Bell (La Campana).

Instruments that improvise in rumba
  1. Lead singer (Gallo).
  2. Quinto.
  3. Tres Dos.
  4. Tumba.

Instruments that do not improvise in Rumba.

Claves, palitos, la campana and the shekere are the timekeepers in a rumba. They repeat a non-changing pattern throughout the length of the song or rhythm, or at least they should. Which pattern depends on the rhythm. The exception is the shekere. The shekere can begin playing on just the first beat of the song including the pickup just before the beat, then add the third beat, playing on the one and the three. Finally the shekere can progress to playing all four beats and their pick up strokes in the montuno or upbeat portion of the song. A further exception to this occurs sometimes in Rumba Columbia, which is a 6/8 rhythm. Sometimes an adept shekere player may adapt a 6/8 shekere pattern used for guiro or bembe.

            The chorus or coro, is typically set by the gallo (lead singer). I’m not a gallo myself, but I’ve been told the gallo chooses the coro based upon a few things. One is the coro goes with the song he is singing, another is the amount of time he wants or needs to make up improvisational verses between repetitions of the coro and lastly is to determine the overall energy or groove of the song.

Instruments that improvise in Rumba.

            The gallo not only sings a composed song, but they also improvise lyrics and sounds.  I know of two areas where the gallo improvises lyrics. The first is the gallo singing by himself with the percussion, either an improvised extension of a composed song, or possibly be the whole song itself being improvised. Secondly, the gallo begins a section of call and response improvisations with the coro. The gallo calls an improvised refrain of a determined length, followed by a set coro response of a determined length.

            The quinto is probably the most apparent improviser. On rhythm charts you often see the quinto part described as free. However, the quinto is not really free to improvise like a jazz soloists, it has guidelines. I think a better description for the quinto would be responding instead of improvising. The quinto responds. The quinto will play differently depending on what is happening in the song. When the singer is singing the quinto plays so as not to play over the singer. When it is just percussion playing the quinto player should leave room for the other drums to to be heard. When there is a dancer or dancers the quinto is meant to mark their steps and interact with them. Finally, when the gallo cries out “Quinto!”, it is time for the quinto to play a solo with passion and afinique.

            The tres dos (middle drum) and the tumba (low drum) also improvise. However they also maintain the melody of the song and the groove. The extent of improvisation versus playing straight depends on the musicians and their talent and creativity. Playing the whole rhythm totally straight can feel a little stiff, however too much improvisation can lead to overplaying; playing over the singer and losing the groove and melody.  When and how much to improvise is an art. Typically in a rumba the improvisations between these two drums takes the form of call and response: one drum initiates with an improvisation and the other one responds. However a drum is free to not respond or improvise alone as well.

            So improvisation in Rumba is different than it is for other great improvisational musics, like Jazz for example. In rumba some instruments improvise and others do not. Furthermore, in Rumba all the improvising instruments improvise at the same time, they don’t take turns doing improvised solos. However there are guidelines and limits to the extent and nature of each instruments improvisation. It is this tension of the instruments shifting between improvised and set rhythms in Rumba that makes it such a dynamic and emotionally charged music.


Current Practice

   Don't worry bloggers I'm not trading in the tumbadoras for the drum kit!  Mainly this is just practice to sharpen my counting and music reading skills. I remember many years ago when I was in Junior High School and I played orchestral percussion I could read music very quickly; dotted eight notes, flams, eighth note rests, all that stuff was just what you did in a music score. Well, things nowadays are much more sluggish.

   So here we are. I picked this method book for its emphasis on syncopation:
Syncopation occurs when a temporary displacement of the regular metrical accent occurs, causing the emphasis to shift from a strong accent to a weak accent.
   Obviously syncopation is very important in Afro-Cuban music and rumba. Clave, pallitos, quinto are all very syncopated.

   I'm not going to be a snare drummer anytime soon, so I stayed away from the snare rudiments with all their 5 and seven stroke rolls and all that. Also a friend of mine who is a great quinto player rcommended this book. He adapted the excercises for congas. Actually, he is the one who bought it for me as a way to repay a favor I did for him, changing the skin on one of his drums.

  So the practice pad is there for the obvious reasons; it's quiet and portable. I can tap away on this thing anywhere at anytime, almost. Well I just got the whole kit put together yesterday, so I guess I'll be seeing how I get on with it soon.