To discover that Jean-Claude Ellena was co-nose for Rumba is akin to stumbling upon a photo of a chic movie star before she had a stylist, wearing some 80s getup with big shoulders, a profusion of ruffles, and huge 80s hair. She's beautiful, but she's also something of a hot mess.
Some may know that before Ellena had his Minimalist Phase (Bulgari's Eau Parfumée Au Thé Vert, Hermès's Un Jardin Sur Le Nil, etc.), he was in what could only be described as a Maximalist Phase.
Among his Maximalist creations: First by Van Cleef and Arpels (1976) with its huge floral bouquet, and the honeyed floral animalic Rumba, which starts out loud and fruity and dries down to a husky-throated woody-leather-musk affair.
A Rumba, derived from the Cuban-Spanish word rumbo meaning "party" or "spree," is a ballroom dance based on a folk dance in duple time of Cuban-Spanish-African origins. It’s heavy on the hip-swaying and passion, and Ellena does his best to translate this larger-than-life drama into perfume.
If you can get past the huge fruity-floral opening (usually my least favorite style, but maybe you love that sort of thing), you might find yourself liking parts of Rumba in spite of yourself. It has that Amarige/Poison like syrupy fruit-tuberose-honey opening that could put you into a diabetic coma, but then in a flash, Rumba gets incensey and a little rough.
Top notes: Peach, raspberry, green note, orange blossom
Heart notes: Tuberose, jasmine, rose, carnation, heliotrope, lily of the valley, honey
Base notes: Cedar, sandalwood, amber, tonka, vanilla, musk, styrax (Perfumer: Jean-Claude Ellena with Ron Winnegrad)
Rumba's dry down is in fact dry, and such a welcome counterpoint to its fruity treacle. Cedar, sandalwood, and styrax create an incense effect that's both mysterious and sexy.
Styrax is an interesting note often used to create leather scents. A gum-resin from the bark of a Styrax tree, it imparts a leathery, smoky, balsamic (powdery-ambery) effect that perfumer Olivier Polge in L'Herbier Parfumé says can give a chypre-like quality to perfumes. (Maybe this is why my Haarman & Reimer guide has categorized Rumba as a floral-chypre animalic, even though there is no bergamot or oakmoss — the usual chypre ingredients — listed in the notes?)
I think I would love Rumba, and not just its dry down, if it had had the restraint (or good taste) that Diva and La Nuit both have, balancing honeyed-florals and leather in a way that bring out the best in both. I read a description somewhere of Rumba that stuck with me, that its drydown is like the inside of an old cathedral during mass, the smell of dripping beeswax candles combined with burning frankincense. If this aspect of the perfume were foregrounded and just slightly sweetened with the other notes, what a completely different dance Rumba would be. But then, it wouldn't be the 80s fragrance that it is...
Maybe this is the perfume that sent Jean-Claude Ellena fleeing into the arms of Perfume Minimalism, like a drunk to rehab after a weekend bender? Rumba is so diametrically opposed to Jean-Claude Ellena perfumes that came after — in style, in name, in notes — that I have to ask the same question a commenter on Fragrantica does: "Mr. Ellena - Please tell me what possessed you to make this??"