Travelin’ Playlist Essentials: Rukumbine


I don’t know if all grade school music classes are this way, but in public school in the Midwest where I grew up, the majority of our musical education consisted of 20-30 students standing on risers and singing songs, led by our teacher who accompanied the tunes on piano. Only gym class, with its hurtling projectiles and sweaty exertion, stood as a stranger contrast to the otherwise rote academic schedule. We’d file onto the risers, the teacher would talk to us about a song and perhaps play it once solo, and then we’d all sing together with the lyrics printed for us on paper or scrawled on a dry erase board.

My fourth grade teacher elevated this technique to a level that proved memorable for me. She went out of her way to select songs the students might actually enjoy singing, to keep us, or perhaps her, interested. So we sang catchy show tunes from the musical Oliver! or contemporary soft-rock hits like “That’s What Friends Are For” (this being the mid-80s). We crooned the words of campy TV themes to The Flintstones, The Jetsons, and Scooby-Doo, in a curious medley of Hanna-Barbera cartoon hits. Perhaps most bizarre was her selection of a song from Return of the Jedi. “Ewok Celebration” was a victory song sung near the end of the film by a race of teddy bear-like aliens, after their successful defense of their habitat against the evil Empire. The song moved in a staccato tribal dance tempo, and its lyrics, which we dutifully learned and sang, were written in whatever primitive language the furry creatures spoke. While other students were learning about Gershwin and Beethoven, we were celebrating the intergalactic equivalent of the expulsion of the Soviets from Afghanistan. This went beyond the classroom, as we had periodic evening concerts in the school gymnasium, wherein parents would sit and listen to their nine- and ten-year-olds bellow such lyrics as G’noop dock fling oh ah!

But that’s just background, and today’s installment of Travelin’ Playlist Essentials does not come from George Lucas’ space opera. Obviously, my teacher’s musical selections proved memorable, and Ewoks aside, there was no song that stuck in my brain better than a random Caribbean ditty called “Rukumbine.”

For this tune, our teacher provided us with lyrics written in pidgin English, and we sang them in a lively Jamaican creole fashion:

Train top a bridge jus-a run like a breeze
An’ a gal underneat’ it a wash her chemise
Oh Rookoombine eena Santa Fe,
Rookoombine eena Santa Fe,
Oh, rookoombine.

Went Kingston town
Just to have me look around’
But instead look aroun’
Oh, me spent every poun’.

Went yesterday
Just to buy conga drum
But instead of de drum,
Look, me drink up de rum.

She explained to us details like that a “chemise” was a shirt, Santa Fe was a town in Jamaica, and that the “Rookoombine” (spellings, among other details of the song, vary) was a train that supposedly took one there. The song’s catchy melody and other-worldly lyrics stuck with me beyond childhood. Ewoks I knew all about: Their forested moon home of Endor, their primitive weapons and attire, their singular hero Wicket W. Warrick. In fact it was about time we’d covered that in school, and I’d have aced any exam on the subject. But Jamaica – where and what in the hell was Jamaica?

For many years I never heard the song or any reference to it again. My musical interests expanded, including the requisite foray into Bob Marley’s venerable greatest hits compilation. My knowledge of Jamaica and the Caribbean grew as well. But not once did I hear the song on the radio, referenced in pop culture, or even its title ever spoken again. I’d begun to wonder how it ever wound up in a public school music class repertoire. Was my teacher the daughter of missionaries or members of the foreign service stationed in Kingston? Did she date a Rastafarian who played traditional folk songs on guitar for her? Perhaps the song was minstrelsy – written by whites for the soul purpose of inclusion in cheap songbooks, sandwiched between “Kumbaya” and “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore.”

But in the age of the internet search, few memories stay clouded long when one chooses to investigate. And so I found on iTunes a brassy, rollicking version of the song. Its title was not spelled as I remembered it, and depending on the album, it was credited either to Shenley Duffus (sometimes referred to as “Chandley Dussus”) or Bobby Aitken. Stranger still was the fact that the songs verses were nothing like I recalled. Gone were references to chemises and “Kingston town.” In their place were a salutation to “Mother Cuba” and not-so-subtle sexual verse:

Me seh the higher the hill
The greener the grass
The younger the gal
Is the sweeter she kiss

This ska version of the song seemed to have less to do with a train, as in the next verse a girl is picking an “ackee” fruit from a tree and a boy is washing khakis. Finally the song references an engine running on fire and coal, almost as an afterthought. At first I thought the song had made the rounds in Cuba as well as Jamaica. That would also explain the reference to Santa Fe; Jamaica was originally settled by the Spanish before the British took control, but I so far can find no reference to a Santa Fe on that island. There is, on the other hand, a Santa Fe town in Cuba, and a Santa Fe neighborhood in Havana. However, Duffus was Jamaican-born and bred, so I’m not sure why he’d take a Cuban angle on a traditional Jamaican folk song.

There are a few message boards discussing the song and parsing its lyrics, and it’s been suggested more than once that “rukumbine” is pidgin for “recombine,” meaning reuniting in sexual congress. I have not seen this confirmed by anyone, and it has been repeated so many times I wonder if it’s just an internet theory posing as truth.

In his dissertation, Mento, Jamaica’s original music: Development, tourism and the nationalist frame, Daniel Neely seems to have shed more light on the song than an army of internet keyboard jockeys could. Neely says that “Rukumbine” is a “nonsense word, sometimes having sexual overtones,” and that it was often used interchangeably in Jamaica with the more explicit “Soldering” to refer to intercourse. Neely identifies Rukumbine as a melodic style that may have first been laid on wax as far back as 1925, but the song of that title was first arranged and published in the early 1950s (in Tom Murray’s book Folk Songs of Jamaica). He identifies Duffus’ 1963 ska version (of the form, but also it seems the song), with backup by the Skatalites, among other versions. That recording may have been wrongly credited to Bobby Aitken by Treasure Isle Records at some point. According to the Jamaica Journal, the song was lyrically sanitized and performed in the ’50s by a traveling harmony group called the Frats Quintet.

Whatever its origins or lyrics, “Rukumbine” is an infectious song, something to cue on your flight to the warm waters of the Caribbean.

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9 Responses to Travelin’ Playlist Essentials: Rukumbine

  1. John Shaw says:

    Actually, “Rukumbine” is fairly recognizable as “Recombine”. The original song was in a Jamaican style called “Mento”, which had many characteristics in common with the Trinidadian Calypso. Supposedly, the original lyrics referred to making a soup or stew by combining (or “recombining”) the ingredients, but the song was a recognized double-entendre for sex. I have not found a source for those lyrics, but if true, this would put “Rukumbine” in the same territory as Jackie Opal’s “Put Wood On The Fire” as a song ostensibly about cooking that actually has sexual suggestiveness. That seems to have been a tendency in late Mento/early ska. As for “Mother Cuba”, Jamaicans often migrated to Cuba in search of work opportunities prior to the accession of Fidel Castro, so going and coming between the islands was common, but I’m not sure if the name has significance in this particular song. Clearly the woman here is being ridiculed, and the song is suggesting that she perhaps used sexual favors to gain her new wardrobe.

  2. John Shaw says:

    I might add that “Santa Fe” seems an effort on the part of, for lack of a better term, white people (probably Americans at that) to make sense of a patois expression in the lyrics that is usually rendered as “in-a santampee” or even “in yuh santampi.” As for what it means, I’ll confess I haven’t the foggiest, although I have read numerous explanations, from “nonsense syllables to fill out the line” (unlikely, in my opinion), to “nonsense syllables intended to bowdlerize a sexually explicit term” (far more likely). White mishearing of Jamaican patois (and even Spanish terms) in Jamaica is notorious. The British misheard the place name “Los Chorillos” (The Waterfalls) as “Ocho Rios” (Eight Rivers) even though there are only two rivers nearby!. “Bahia de Manteca” (Butter Bay) they misunderstood as “Montego Bay”, and “San Jago Villa de la Vega” they wouldn’t even attempt, renaming it “Spanish Town” instead. And while I can usually understand a fair amount of Jamaican patois and slang, it does contain some African words, and certain terms (such as “samfi” for a crook or confidence man) I cannot determine the reason for, unless it is borrowed from an African term. Such may well be the case with “in-a santampee.” Such words in Haiti are called “langage”, and occur like “speaking in tongues” during vodun ceremonies. The people know that the words are African, and they continue to recite them, though they no longer know their meaning.

  3. Daniel Finniss says:

    I was taught this song in the early 1960s in a classroom in Adelaide, South Australia. I think it was from a government school songbook of the time. We would hear them on a singing programme on the government radio station. I remember the first verse exactly as you set it out (Train top a bridge jus-a run like a breeze/An’ a gal underneat’ it a wash her chemise
    Oh Rookoombine eena Santa Fe, Rookoombine eena Santa Fe, Oh, rookoombine.) The second verse I remember less well, but your version does sound somewhat familiar.

    We were told it was from Jamaica, which would have been reasonably familiar to us as another Commonwealth country, with visits from cricketers such as Garfield (later Sir Garfield) Sobers, who played with the South Australian team in Adelaide. A few years later, the Commonwealth Games were held in Kingston.

    Imagine if the elderly teacher knew what the words meant, not to say the government administrators who developed the song list!

    I was just working on my computer and the words came into my head. When I searched, I didn’t originally have any luck (wrong spelling?), but with adjustments found only your page.

    At a more naive level, I remember the music having that sound used for steam train travel, even to the slowing down at the end (the final ‘rookoombine’) which was probably explained to us by the teacher or her background notes and I now realise is similar to Villa Lobos’ ‘Little Train of Caipira’ (the Brazilian experience!).

  4. Timothy says:

    These words were also going through my head. I decided to look up the lines that stick there since childhood, now some time ago: “Tree top, a bridge top, a run like a breeze, and a gal underneath is a wash her chemise, Oh Rukumbine in a Santa Fe, Rukumbine in a Santa Fe, oh Rukumbine.” The other lyrics you call up aren’t familiar at all, but I’m going back about 50 years here. Also, very strangely, I, too, like Daniel above, was taught them by an Australian teacher (ours was named Ancie Schindler). Mrs. Schindler ran our one-room school, and she had a widely varied curriculum that took into account that kids — maybe 15 of us – were in grades from 1 to 6, so everyone heard and learned everything. We did a lot of singing of folk songs. Mrs Schindler taught us this song, and somehow, I have to imagine it somehow got into some standard Australian music lessons. By the way, our school was in a primitive area, in the highlands of what has become Papua New Guinea, in the South Pacific, just north of Australia. My parents were from Canada, missionaries there. Mrs. Schindler said (if my memory serves me at all), that this was a French Creole song from the southern USA. She used the language to illustrate how a few words could draw a picture: “tree top, a bridge top, a run like a breeze” referred to a train blasting by on a trestle bridge. Through the window, the writer gets a tantalizing glimpse of a girl in the stream below, half naked, washing her blouse (chemise). I’m not sure any more, but I think the teacher said, “Santa Fe” was a reference to the railroad that ran through the southern USA (and elsewhere across the nation), back in the mid-19th Century onward. IF it seems strange that a teacher would talk about a lovely Creole girl with naked breasts, to children in the class, you have to put it in context. We lived in a place where all the native women walked around with breasts exposed — nothing new or shocking to us!

    I don’t remember if any explanation was offered for “rukumbine,” but if it was a term for “recombine” or intercourse, then, suddenly, a novel explanation occurs: “rukumbine in a Santa Fe” would be “sex on the train,” perhaps in a sleeper cabin. Maybe as with songs like “Kansas City,” and “Stagga Lee,” there have been numerous versions by many people over the years, with new verses/lyrics added to what amount to old folk songs?

    Interesting that for so many of us, those first lyrics remain embedded in our minds, even though we have not heard anyone sing the song for many, many years. Thanks for putting them up here, Adam.

  5. Timothy says:

    True enough! You, and those of us who found you, cannot forget the lovely girl washing her blouse in a stream, somewhere far below the train!

  6. Paris says:

    Can’t help but to wonder if you went to school in Toledo, Ohio by chance. More specifically I believe the school was called “Spring.” I did, and I recall learning this song there. Moreover, I still remember all the words. Came across your post stating you were from the mid/west and couldn’t help but wonder. Thought I’d be the only one haunted by (figuratively speaking) and later searching for the lyrics. Interesting!

    • Hi Paris. I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin. But considering all the comments on this thread, “Rukumbine” seems to have traveled around the world in grade school songbooks. Amazing.

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