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RUMBA 3: The Three Wise Men of Rumba RUMBA 3: The Three Wise Men of Rumba

On how some styles of music don’t make it into the pages of music history books, yet have filled the pages of family history.
Miqui Otero
Miqui Otero
For a time they were the most famous trio in the country, way ahead of the Three Wise Men. Monarchs of the petrol station bargain cassette tape, of New Year’s Eve extravaganzas… we’re left with just the memories of the working class staple diet of the time (usually noodle stew), groupies’ bras (and the occasional free range hen) being flung toward the stage and the three charming wives of the band members. They haven’t made it into music history books, but they’ve filled the pages of family life.
“No se sabe, no se sabe, no se sabe que tenía...” sang Rumba 3: “I don’t know what it is about her”. And we don’t know what it is about Rumba 3 that drove half the World crazy. Maybe it was their personalities, or the way they saw the country’s sentiment, or their ability to understand, their thoughts. One of the band member’s wives insists on it not being so much a matter of what they were good at, more a matter of what they were horribly bad at: their dancing sucked, and it was that enthusiastic, cognac fuelled, cavorting around at a wedding that kinda worked (“You could really see they were giving it their all”, she says). Other family members and friends catch the fever and that’s when they start to hum one of their hits and here we have it: Rumba 3’s songs weren’t just chanted at recitals or at parties, they were part of everyday life: they sounded in the background as the house was being swept, whilst meals were being made, as workers tucked into a packed lunch, whilst a ladies’ bosom was being fondled over her jumper in the back of a Simca 1000 or whilst driving from Barcelona to Pamplona in a Danone yogurt delivery truck.
Rumba 3’s kids remember how strange it was to watch their Dads, donning the customary New Year’s Eve party hats and streamers at the Televisión Española extravaganzas towards the end of the seventies and the eighties. One of said offspring brings us De ida y vuelta (Back and Forth), a film that generates the euphoria of a bursting bottle of bubbly, of times gone by where the zinc lined bars were home to the merriment provided by glasses of “pacharán”. In line with this, the documentary follows the same logic as the music and lives of this great Rumba trio. De ida y vuelta starts out already in full swing, with the gods of gold and platinum, with the big Latin American tours, with all kinds of celebrities (such as Luis Cobos) commenting on their impact: Lolita, Ferran Martínez (the basketball player), José Mota, Estopa or Peret, among others. It’s down to the band member’s wives to explain what it was like to live with the guys who were lusted after by absolutely every young woman in the Spanish speaking world; the difference between the character seen clapping his hands on stage and the person who slurps his soup at home. And, following in the lines of Rumba 3’s songs, we find that he who sings and is happy generally has a fair few demons to dust down, and that’s what we’ll see in a last act, with a hanky in one hand and our heart in the other. This is where the bleak childhoods appear (and those watered down dishes of noodle stew) which will see their careers follow the path of “The Wizzard of Oz”: from black and white to make believe Technicolor.
For a long time rumba was dismissed as the popular happy-go-lucky soundtrack in some way contrived to dull the pain of a country that fought desperately to appear modern whilst fighting desperately with poverty. And because of this Catalan rumba would be doomed to disappear for a very long time. Well, because of that and because of how having fun is so harshly look down on. Flamenco would soon receive the blessing of cultural acolytes, but rumba was not granted dignity until it took the stage before hundreds of millions of people at the ceremony of the Barcelona Olympic games (where even the Russian athletes would take the stage, much to the Peret’s dissapproval who, worried for his granddaughters’ safety shouted: “Oju amb les nenes” – (“Watch out for the girls.”). But flamenco is to blues as Catalan rumba is to soul. It’s not a complaint; it’s a laugh that masks the tears - the Dyonisian instinct of the untamed animal that is expressed symbolically through the trembling that takes over the whole body. This is why the gypsies who descended to Barcelona’s Ramblas from Montjuic are like the Caribbeans who crossed the Brooklyn Bridge to take Manhattan, armed with trumpets and screaming Boogaloo! And this is why Peret enters the Padró cinema via the stalls as  Elvis did in Las Vegas and that’s why  “quinqui” (down and out) cinema takes its actors straight from the streets as in the times of blacksploitation and that’s why it’s something subcultural that became massive, enormous yet that sadly, maybe due to the hangover, few will remember. And because of this, because it was born on the streets, bastard child of the country and the times, many have turned their backs on the rumba for far too long. And because of this, when rumba’s King Peret died, the president of Cataluya announced that “rumba is Catalan culture too” (and with that “too” he gave himself away: he’d not said much but he’d said it all).
And this is one of the keys as to why it’s not usually included, for instance, in those accessible paperbacks that speak of our literary history (and I’m referring to those pulp easy-read booklets that were sold in huge amounts in kiosks). The same reason that the tale of the cultural industry, written on a daily basis by the media, bears absolutely no relation to what is really being listened to in people’s day to day lives (it happened with Rumba 3, but it’s also happening with pub-rock or the biggest reggaeton hits listened to on Spotify).
That’s why the passers-by interviewed in the film are still apprehensive when it comes to admitting that they loved Rumba 3. That they were part of their lives and there are parts of life that one edits, changing the filters and also the soundtrack. Although the characters may have faded from memory, the people themselves, the two Capdevila brothers and their friend José Sardaña, are still alive and kicking. And no matter what, they’ll never forget that watery dish of noodle stew they were force fed in the child protection centre-come-school where they were moulded into apparently strong yet fragile men, into seemingly rough gentlemen, into carefree dancers (in spite of their questionable talent) who danced to fight back the tears.
Rumba 3 were there when the Catholic Associations encouraged street parties to be held behind closed doors to keep young girls coming of age from crossing paths with ragged immigrants. They were there when the marines of the Sexta Flota smuggled awesome black music records via Barcelona’s port (the gypsies who stole both drinks and records from the marines in the slums of Ferran street would go on to produce tremendous records like the debut of  Los Amaya). They were there when youth culture with its growing hair waved in the days of political change. And they were winning prizes at international song festivals and playing at clubs on the coast and travelling by van along the infamous roads where many others of their trade had lost their lives. And also during the transition (“from a tragic country to a stupid country”, someone once wrote) that fancied itself as exemplary. And in the eighties’ medleys when couples who had been used to dancing three minute pasodobles’ were suddenly faced with dancing to eight head-to-head hits over twenty minutes without coming up for air.
Rumba 3 were there, as I was saying, in my uncle’s Danone delivery truck and on the cassette player in the guys from Estopa’s dad’s car. That’s why this film is small and important, light and deep, hilarious and tragic. Because Rumba 3 led the path: you can still find the odd C.D. of theirs in petrol stations, they still live and, thanks to films like this, they may still return someday to sing a beautiful song on the roof terrace of a building somewhere in the district of Bonpastor.