Having flourished as a Cuban-flavored commerical dance-music import in the Americas and Europe starting in the 1930s and continuing through the early 1960s, rumba on its native soil began as and continues to be an informal, street dance music popular in lower-class urban black neighborhoods. Unlike its famous offshoots outside of Cuba, traditional island rumba employs neither melodic nor harmonic instruments. Usually, three conga drums, a pair of palitos, a clave, and a lead vocalist and chorus (who sing in call-and-response fashion) accompany one or two dancers (the number depending on the style).

Although rumba shares formal features with the santería music of the island's Yorubá slave descendants -- namely, instrumentation, vocal performance style and use as dance accompaniment -- its performance context is never likewise religious. It apparently springs from secular dances that Congolese slaves invented on the island during the 18th and early 19th centuries, which leaves no question that it is a Cuban creation rather than a retention of an older African dance-music form. Rumba holds pride of place both as Cuba's national dance music and for its distinction of having spawned, in tandem with the Cuban son, countless Latin-influence music styles throughout the world since the 1950s, including salsa.

Several variations thrived in the early decades of its development, and briefly, in the 1950s, traditional rumba groups emerged in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods in New York City and Miami. However, in Cuba since the 1950s, only three traditional types have survived: yambú, guaguancó (the most popular form) and columbia. Today, folkloric groups perform rumba in Cuba but only infrequently do the music and dance transpire in their original context of spontaneous street gatherings.

For more details about rumba rhythms, performance and choreography, see guaguancó.