FROM THE SPRING 2018 ISSUE OF UKULELE | BY DANIEL WARD | VIDEO BY CHRIS FRANCIS
Rumba flamenca, often referred to as flamenco rumba, or just rumba, is a style that has its roots in both Spain and Cuba. The genre originated in the 19th century in Andalusia. Its primary influence comes from guaracha, a style of Cuban vocal music from Havana’s musical theater that can be traced back to a Spanish theatrical song style from the 19th century called jácaras. For this reason rumba is called one of the cantes de ida y vuelta or “roundtrip songs,” as it traveled from Spain, influenced a Cuban style, and then came back to Spain in a new form.
The Cuban rumba and the flamenco rumba share some minor elements, but are very different from each other musically. The flamenco rumba is well known in its modern form, and has become very popular thanks to artists like Paco de Lucía and more recently the Gypsy Kings’ style of pop Latin rumba. The very first recordings in this style were made by La Niña de los Peines in the 1910s.
What does all this mean for the ukulele?
Well, luckily for us, the rumba strum happens to be one of the most useful, fun, and great-sounding strums you can do on any song in 4/4 time. Songs that have a Latin flair to them will work nicely with it, but you can also use it on songs that are usually played in totally different styles. As ukers, we are no strangers to making things up for fun and mashing styles and lyrics together in new ways to make ourselves and our friends smile, so let’s get started!
There are hundreds of ways to play the rumba strum, with any number of techniques, accents, and patterns, from traditional styles to jazz-fusion. This lesson is going to focus on a basic and common way to play it that can easily be added to or modified as you gain more knowledge. This is in no way a lesser “starter version” of the rhythm, though. It’s easy to pick up—as long as you are patient in the beginning—and will serve you well.
GET READY TO RUMBA!
Begin by placing your strumming hand flat over all the strings and top of your ukulele around the area of the soundhole. This is the “tap” part of the strum and is the center of the groove. Then, from the flat-hand tap position, lift upward and play the strings with the upstroke of your index finger. Try Example 1 a few times, saying “tap-up-tap-up” and watch as you stop the strings with your flat hand and pull lightly up with your index.
The most important technique of this strum is keeping your hand flat against the body of the instrument without coming away or “bouncing off,” which would put you on the wrong part of the cycle for the next beat. So, imagine that when you tap, there’s a little magnet that holds your hand to the body, and then the index finger pulls up toward your face, strumming the strings right from the flat position.
Now try the tap, followed by the index up, and add another down-up with just your index finger (Example 2). This is a great strum in itself and is used widely in calypso music. Say “tap-up-down-up-tap-up-down-up” and repeat this many times slowly until it starts to feel natural and makes a rhythm. Remember your hand’s imaginary magnetic attraction to the top of the ukulele and avoid the impulse to pull away or bounce before you pull up.
Example 3 is where it all comes together. Adding two down-up strokes before the rhythm we just learned will complete the rhumba pattern. This time, the first down-up is with the index finger, and the second is with the thumb. It may take you many revolutions to get used to the feel of changing fingers, but this is well worth the time. Practice saying “down-up-down-up, tap-up-down-up” and slowly work on it until all the correct fingers and taps are in place. It can be very helpful to mute the strings with your fretting hand and just practice the strum with a scratching sound as well.
As you become used to the rhythm, and can play it a bit faster and lighter, try to play the up stroke with your thumb before the tap just a hair louder, giving it an accent that will nicely affect the sound for this style. Get into the feel of it by saying “down-up-down-UP-tap-up-down-up.” The faster the strum goes, the more you will feel the importance of this accent.
Try the short, Spanish-sounding Example 4, and get used to changing chords while holding the groove of the pattern down. Slow practice is key, but you will really begin to hear the magic of this strum after it gets a little faster. The key is to get clean first, then let go a bit and play lighter as you speed up. This method works with just about any technique to further master it and gain speed.
YOU ARE MY LUZ DEL SOL
Now let’s put the rumba to work on an old ukulele anthem and see how it sounds. Starting with something easy that you know well is a great way to get the strum under you and sing over it. In this case, I’ve changed the song to a minor key and will use the same Spanish-sounding chords as the previous example. Go as slow as you need to and see if you can sing, “You Are My Sunshine” with the minor melody. It’s a good time!