The heart of Cuba beats to the rhythm of rumba

Journalist Gilles Peterson shows the roots and contemporary expressions of Cuban rumba in his new documentary La Clave.

Gilles Peterson, the DJ and BBC journalist who is interested the most in world music, has realised in collaboration with director Charlie Inman and Havana Cultura (the platform of Havana Club that promotes Cuban culture) La Clave, a documentary that explores the roots of rumba music, dance and culture.

The feature-length documentary is named after the core instrument of any rumba ensemble, claves, a percussion instrument made of two wooden cylinders that make the rhythm. “If you weren’t born with claves you can’t be a rumba player”, one of Rubén Blades’ verses reads.

La Clave starts with an introduction to Cuban music, from son – a genre that became popular with the Buena Vista Social Club – to rumba, the most significant musical expression in the Caribbean island. To realise the documentary Peterson interviewed different generations of key musicians, including Clave Y Guaguancó, Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, Osain del Monte, Timbalaye, Raíces Profundas, and dancers, including Jennyselt Galanta Calvo and Domingo Pau.


Osain del Monte  rumba
The rhythm of Osain del Monte’s rumba, one of the band included in the documentary


The documentary highlights the importance of rumba as something more than a music genre. The film traces the through lines running from the origins of rumba, from the spiritual drumming practices of slave communities coming from Western Africa (mostly from Congo, Nigeria, Benin and Cameroon), through to the younger dancers and musicians who have re-interpreted and “contaminated” traditional rumba.


Timbalaye hip hop
The Timbalaye band combines rumba and hip hop


In 2009 Peterson had already decided to embark on a trip to the Caribbean island in an attempt to find “the perfect beat”. During the trip he discovered a thriving independent scene: innovative artists mixed jazz, soul, electro music, hip pop and traditional rhythms. His trip culminated in a series of sessions with some of Cuba’s best artists and producers.


For La Clave, Peterson worked with the most esteemed percussionists to record the compositions in the three main styles of rumba: yambú, columbia and guaguancó. Then some producers of electro music including Débruit, Motor City Drum Ensemble and Daisuke Tanabe unpacked these different styles and created a remix album entitled Havana Club Rumba Sessions that will be released in March.


Clave Y Guaguancó
The legendary rumba band Clave Y Guaguancó eas formed in Habana over 50 years ago



Gilles Peterson said about the project:

Rumba is in every set that I play as a DJ. Being invited to take part in rumba culture, with some of its most influential players, couldn’t have made more clear what a vital force it still is in modern Cuba. From the homemade claves you find in most houses to the quinto drums driving Havana’s clubs, rumba influence is everywhere.


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