the rumba in cuba -- 4/2/21

Today's selection -- from I Wonder as I Wander by Langston Hughes. In 1931, Langston Hughes traveled to Cuba. One night his friends threw a party for him where the guests danced the rumba:

"Rumbas and sones are essentially hip-shaking music -- of Afro-Cuban folk derivation, which means a bit of Spain, therefore Arab, Moorish, mixed in. The tap of claves, the rattle of gourds, the dong of iron bells, the deep steady roll of drums speak of the earth, life bursting warm from the earth, and earth and sun moving in the steady rhythms of procreation and joy.

"A group of young business and professional men of Havana once gave a rumba party in my honor. It was not unlike an American fraternity or lodge smoker -- except that women were present, The women were not, however, wives or sweethearts of the gentlemen giving the rumba. Far from it. They were, on the whole, so a companion whispered to me, younger and prettier than most of their wives. They were ladies of the demimonde, playgirls, friends and mistresses of the hosts, their most choice females invited especially for zest and decorativeness.

"The party was held in a large old Spanish colonial house, pre­sided over by a stout woman with bold ways. It began about four in the afternoon. At dusk dinner was served; then the fiesta went on far into the night. It was what the Cubans call a cumbancha. Spree, I suppose, would be our best word.

"When I arrived a Negro rumba band was playing in the court­yard, beating it out gaily, with maracas beneath the melody like the soft undertow of sea waves. Several kegs of wine sat on stools in the open air, and a big keg of beer decorated one end of the patio. Hidden in a rear court was a bar from which waiters emerged with Bacardi or whatever else one wished to drink that was not already in sight.

"A few lovely mulatto girls sat fanning in wicker chairs. One or two couples were dancing as I came in, but the sun still shone in the courtyard and it was not yet cool enough for much action. Gradually more and more people began to arrive, girls in groups, men in ones or twos, but no men and women together. These were the women men kept, but did not take out. I had become acquainted with this custom of the mistress in Mexico and other Latin lands, where every man who was anybody at all had both a wife and a pretty mistress.

"As the sun went down beyond the skyline, life began to throb in the cool enclosure. The taps on the wine kegs flowed freely. Lights were lighted in the patio, more chairs brought, and I was given a seat of honor near the orchestra. Most of the dancing pairs sat down, or disappeared inside the house. But the music seemed to take a new lease on life. Now various couples, one or two at a time, essayed the rumba in the center of the court as the rest of the party gathered to watch. I could not make out whether it was a dance contest or not, and my hosts were slightly tipsy by then so not very coherent in their explanations. But when the dancing couples seemed to tire, others took the floor. Sometimes a short burst of applause would greet an especially adept pair as the man swept around the woman like a cock about a hen, or the woman without losing a beat of the rhythm, went very slowly down to the floor on firm feet and un­dulated up again. Tirelessly the little Negro band played. Like a mighty dynamo deep in the bowels of the earth, the drums throbbed, beat, sobbed, grumbled, cried, and then laughed a staccato laugh. The dancing kept up until it was quite dark and the first stars came out. ...

"After supper -- delicious sea food served with boiled bananas and Spanish rice -- the general dancing began again. Several pretty girls did their best to teach me to rumba. Cuban dancing is not as easy as it looks, but I had a good time trying to learn, and I was interested in trying to understand the verses the musicians sang as they played. Some of the men who spoke English translated for me. Most of the songs were risqué in an ingenious folk way. One thing that struck me was that almost all the love lyrics were about the charms of mi negra my black girl, mi morena, my dark girl, my chocolate sweetie or my mulatto beauty, plainly described as such in racial terms. These dusky nuances, I notice, are quite lost in the translations that Broadway makes of Cuban songs for American consumption.

"As the night laughed on and big stars sparkled lazily over the festive courtyard, some of the men of the party explained to me that within the house there were rooms with big old-fashioned beds to which one might retire. 'And here are girls,' they said. 'You are the guest of honor. Take your choice from any. Our women are your women, tonight.'

"So it goes at a rumba party in Havana to which one does not invite one's wife, one's mother, or one's sweetheart."



Langston Hughes


I Wonder as I Wander


Hill and Wang


Copyright 1956 by Langston Hughes


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