Rumba and Afro-Cuban religious music form part of a complex of songs, rhythms and dances that arose in Cuba out of the mixing of the cultures of African slaves and Spanish colonizers. They are particularly associated with port cities like Havana and Matanzas.
The music, which consists of percussion and voice, is traditionally learned by osmosis: older musicians usually claim never to have been taught, and sometimes never to have even rehearsed. Most learning takes place “in the heat of the battle.” Many of the children I met in Cuba had learnt primarily by sitting or listening in on performances and rehearsals, or attending domestic religious ceremonies in the homes of family and friends, where they absorbed the music and dance moves that went on around them.
Nevertheless, since the 1959 revolution Cuba has developed an extensive network of music and dance schools, and many young musicians were either studying at such schools or their parents intended to enroll them in due course. This was just as true in the case of very traditional families and parents who had learnt orally, who were often keen that their children should learn non-traditional skills such as classical music and contemporary dance. Most adults felt that the ideal preparation was a mixture of traditional informal learning “in the street” and more disciplined formal learning in schools, not least because the latter is the primary route to gaining the qualifications necessary to turn professional and make a living from music.