By Elaine Correa:
Rumba beats stereotypes
Wednesday 06 March 2013
Spontaneous dance sessions on the streets of Havana which defy facile interpretation
The worlds of holiday dreamland and raw reality collide in the Callejon de Hamel in Havana on Sunday afternoons.
This is no ordinary alley. On those afternoons the whole place breathes rumba as the weekly Afro-Cuban cultural pena – social gathering – takes place and anyone can wander in and take part.
It’s a tight fit – musicians and their percussion instruments, singers throwing their hands up in the air and dancers moving fast as they flick their skirts and handkerchiefs with their pint-sized offspring trying to follow.
The audience is sandwiched around the invisible lines and spread out in all directions, especially where there’s a bit of shade. In the co-ordinated mayhem nobody shoves their elbow in their neighbour’s ribs. A young couple are dancing to an impossibly fast-paced piece. She’s wearing flip-flops and a pair of denim hotpants that don’t leave much to the imagination. He has a beer can in his hand, with which he gestures toward her crotch every once in a while as they dance, sweat dripping, tongues out and gold teeth gleaming.
Both are full of sexual energy. “That’s a bit vulgar, isn’t it?” says a foreign voice. Like many of the 2.5 million tourists that come to Cuba every year, the speaker is perhaps taken aback by the reality of some aspects of Cuban culture compared to what is often packaged and sold to tourists.
In the port city of Matanzas, one of Cuba’s main trade hubs in times of slavery, rumba was born from the secularisation of a whole range of rhythms taken from African and African-derived religions.
Imagine the sheer complexity of it. Men who worked in the docks began dancing to rumba competitively, as a display of their skills and attitude. This style became known as rumba columbia. Today there is also yambu – a slow dance for couples intended for the older generation – and guaguanco, a fast-paced dance full of sexual connotation and competitive tension between man and woman.
Cuba has changed since the 19th century, and spontaneous rumba sessions are becoming scarce as its official recognition increases. There’s a rumba module in the dance department of the University of the Arts, where it is dissected and choreographed, and going to a rumba often involves more watching a show than dancing. This may be the price to pay for rumba to shake off its “marginal” status in the eyes of many white Cubans.
Since the guidebooks began trumpeting the existence of this free Sunday rumba, it has almost been taken over by tourism. Almost. There is a bar that sells overpriced mojitos and a seating space under the shade of a canopy only for those ready to fork out hard currency. There’s a core of handsome young men fishing for foreign amigas and also a slightly pushy pass-the-hat policy. But there is no unintimidating and smiley presenter who takes the microphone before the show to explain the programme in three languages – “What you’re about to see, ladies and gentlemen…”
Plenty of Cubans from the neighbourhood go to the pena simply to enjoy the music and the vibe, graciously ignoring the tourist presence.
Anecdotes, love stories, confrontations, criticisms and much more are the many themes of rumba. But the one point in common is dignity and respect. Don’t talk behind people’s backs. Don’t even think of hitting a woman. Rumba teaches people values. Its rhythms are so complex they drive non-Cuban musicians up the walls. You won’t learn rumba at your local pub’s weekly salsa class, not to mention by watching Strictly Come Dancing.
Either you grow up in the right marinade or you can’t claim it. Unless you know what you’re watching, all you will see is the sweaty skin, tongues out, hips thrusting and gyrating.
Unless you know what you’re watching, remember not to judge.