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.

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