A Brooklyn rumba is breathing new life into New York City’s music scene

A Brooklyn rumba is breathing new life into New York City’s music scene
La Rumba de la Musa. Photo: Juan Caballero.

A unique community within a longstanding NYC musical tradition develops with La Rumba de La Musa

A dozen or so people gathered in a secluded section of Prospect Park at the height of summer, bringing with them a variety of percussive instruments and wine. The energetic circle undulated as the crowd beat drums and sang, clapping and dancing while the sun went down and well into the night.

This weekly event, dubbed La Rumba de La Musa, is a serious undertaking and part of a decades-long musical tradition, with roots that stretch from Central Park to the Antilles. In a city with a diverse Caribbean population and many musicians studied in its varied art forms, rumbas are among the most democratic, accessible avenues of performance and study. And while rumbas have been a feature of New York’s musical milieu for decades — as well as the site of confrontation between musicians and the NYPD — Rumba de La Musa is the nexus of a new generation of rumberos.

Rumba is a social, folkloric tradition that traces back to the marginalized communities of 19th-century Havana and Matanzas, Cuba. While the sound has evolved over generations and varies based on the players involved, rumba generally mixes the drumming styles of enslaved Africans with Spanish melodies. Rumbas can vary in size but have a minimum of three drummers, a gallo (lead singer) and a coro (chorus), though others may play instruments like the clave or shekere — a beaded gourd with percussive roots in West Africa. Guaguancó, columbia and yambú are the three principal rhythms of rumba; and though broadly secular, rumbas may groove their way into orisha music, or spirituals. In 2016, UNESCO deemed Cuban rumba an intangible cultural heritage.

Popularized by Cuban groups like Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, rumba was brought to the United States by Cuban immigrants, then nurtured by Puerto Ricans. In the 1940s and 1950s, it was popularized in nightclubs by artists such as Chano Pozo, Miguelito Valdés and Mongo Santamaría before going back out to the streets of New York City. Groups such as Raíces Habaneras and artists like Pedrito Martinez continue to carry the torch in the NYC.

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Although its origins are in the Caribbean, rumba is as quintessentially NYC as salsa. “I like to think of rumba as New York-Havana jam rock,” said Luis Carlos Rincón Alba, a musician, performing arts Ph.D candidate and organizer of La Rumba de La Musa. Alba’s is the latest in a long line of New York City rumbas held in the Bronx, El Barrio and Tompkins Square Park — though the most famous rumba has taken place every Sunday (inclement weather notwithstanding) in Central Park for decades. In 1999, master percussionist Eddie Bobé put the legendary sounds of the Sunday rumba on wax, preserving it as the record “Central Park Rumba.” And while rumbas have long encompassed community building for Nuyoricans and Afro-Cubans, the newly established Rumba de La Musa stands out for the lifeline it provided Brooklyn musicians during the pandemic.

Rumba “is not a jam in that these are rhythmic formulas … but that doesn’t mean there’s not innovation,” said Giancarlo Luiggi, a shekere player, producer, founding member of Afrobeat group Antibalas and co-organizer of the Prospect Park gatherings. Rumba is graceful and joyous, an expression of “resistance and self-esteem,” its lyrics poetic storytelling.

“There’s something about rumba that is so attuned to the, like, barometric pressure of the day, the energy that everybody brings,” Luiggi said.

Alba and Luiggi’s Rumba de La Musa was born out of a particular energy. The longtime friends organized a drumming event in support of Black Lives Matter at the Poseidon statue in Grand Army Plaza on June 8, 2020 (World Oceans Day). About 100 drummers, as well as people with bells and tambourines, showed up; a samba contingent rolled through. The gathering was reminiscent of the Carnival celebrations Alba witnessed growing up in Colombia. The next weekend, they decided to continue the energy with a handful of friends at a rumba in the park. They gathered at least once a week for the rest of the summer, mostly in Prospect Park but occasionally at the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Fort Greene Park and community space Salon on Kingston.

Luiggi had been hosting rumbas as Musa Music at Sisters, a bar and restaurant in Clinton Hill, since 2019, but these summer rumba sessions had a distinctly different vibe. Where much outdoor music over the summer was performed for onlookers and donations, the rumba asked for no money and instead provided food and drinks for performers or anyone interested enough to hang around for a while.

“There are no jobs, there are no gigs for musicians. They’re now like, ‘Let’s get together and take care of one another,’” Alba said. “In the process of doing that, in the open space, we can also give a little bit to those who want to join or pass by.” A 30-person strong collective of documentarians, dancers and musicians, including members of Maraca Bruja and Bulla en el Barrio have made appearances, coalescing a shared Caribbean identity centered on drums.

La Rumba de La Musa is also notable for being the only rumba to have a sizeable number of female-identifying and nonbinary players.

“A bunch of the scenes tend to have this male-centered aggressiveness that many of us never felt comfortable in,” Alba said. “For us, it was most important to avoid certain male toxicities, which sometimes tends to move in these circles, though not because they belong to the form itself.”

Carolina Oliveros is one of those women. The hypnotic and powerful singer is known for fronting popular tropical futurist band Combo Chimbita, but has become a serious rumbera through participating in this community. Oliveros is also crucial in bringing bullerengue (a female-centered folkloric tradition from Caribbean Colombia) to the rumba. While the two forms have similarities, the connection is unusual in the New York rumba scene.

“It sort of broadens our vision about this musical collective,” Luiggi said. “We’ll start with rumba, and we’ll take breaks, and we’ll shift and we’ll play bullerengue. That’s awesome because it brings new voices, other sounds, other kinds of musical conversation.”

“Rumba is not religious music, but if you’re playing it well, not only do you find yourself, your own personal voice, but you also feel a sense of solace and sense of community in the process.” – Román Díaz

And while other rumbas certainly have Colombian participants, de La Musa is unique in the way it’s centered and encouraged other folkloric traditions.

Such openness has allowed for an atmosphere of teaching and deep listening at La Rumba de La Musa — a rarity in some rumbas, where the precise nature of the format makes some less inclined to teach. “The rumbas are very open. They’ll pause and take the time to explain parts to whosoever is interested,” Luiggi said, adding that this education and openness extends to those who gather but aren’t expressly part of the rumba scene.

At a Fort Greene rumba, New York University dance professor Diane Duggan (an elder in her own right, though her work does not focus on Afro-Caribbean dance) hopped into an uptempo columbia — a dance of self-affirmation. “That’s a beautiful thing and key to making this grow, and open this door to many people and many, many cultures,” Luiggi said.

Arturo Riera — a writer, arts professional and translator — compared rumba to a basketball game: Someone will always show up to play.

“Rumba is not religious music, but if you’re playing it well, not only do you find yourself, your own personal voice, but you also feel a sense of solace and sense of community in the process,” said Román Díaz, a Yoruba priest, rumbero major and master musician who has been at the center of Afro-Cuban culture in New York for decades.

Díaz is one of several rumba elders — including Alfredito Viamonte, Victor Jaroslaw, Tito Sandoval, Anier Alonso del Valle and AB Rodriguez — who attended the Prospect Park rumba, playing alongside a cadre of younger musicians (among them Dylan Blanchard and Murphy Aucomp). Musicians of all ages can participate in a rumba, though players elsewhere tend to be older. “Being open to all ages is part of the open structure and space we provide,” Alba said, adding that Musa’s multi-generational atmosphere offers “a more fertile ground for transmission of knowledge and musical skills.”

La Rumba de La Musa has been on hiatus since late November when it became too cold to gather outside for extended periods; the absence of commune was a shock to Luiggi. “Until December 2020, I could not complain about my year. I had so much to be grateful for — this rumba, the community, the friendships that I made,” he said.

Luiggi and Alba plan to reconvene a small group of musicians in late February and open the event more widely as the weather warms. They also hope to find grants for some of the elder musicians, as well as connect with mutual aid groups and other activists in the city and Latin America to explore how rumba music can help celebrate their work. The organizers are also developing plans to record a rumba record with a local label.

“We’re going to keep gathering and holding that space,” Alba said. “And at the same time, we want to try to find ways that we can offer the wisdom in the performance structure that the rumba and the bullerengue offer to other people.”

Top Image: La Rumba de la Musa. Photo: Juan Caballero.