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.

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