Jul 052016
 

 

Cuba CongaAmericans think of the Conga as a kitchy dance done in a line.  It is a very different thing in Cuba.  During the weeks leading up to Carnival the streets fill with the Conga on any given day at any given time.

The Conga is both a drum (traditionally called a tambore or tambadora) and a dance.

The dance originated in Santiago de Cuba, exactly when and how, is not really known, although documentation traces it back to at least 1902.  It is said that the Conga was appropriated by politicians during the early years of republic in an attempt to appeal to the masses before election. During the Machado dictatorship citizens were forbidden to dance the conga, because rival groups would work themselves to high excitement and explode into street fighting, some things never change. When Batista became president in the 1940s, he permitted people to dance congas during elections, but a police permit was required.  Today police still accompany the Conga dances.

Cuban Conga

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The use of costumes or props is personal, and not necessarily representative of anything in particular

The use of costumes or props is personal, and not necessarily representative of anything in particular

The Santiago de Cuba Conga is slightly different than the Conga of Havana.

These differences are in the instruments.  The Santiago de Cuba Conga or Congas Santiagueras includes the Chinese cornet, an instrument in the oboe family introduced to Cuba by Chinese immigrants during the colonial period (specifically the late nineteenth century). .

The Chinese Coronet has a very distinct high pitched sound

The Chinese Coronet has a very distinct high pitched sound

The Congas of Havana or the Congas Habaneras do not have the Chinese coronet, but do have trumpets, trombones and saxophones with a few cowbells and frying pans thrown in for good measure.

The drums used can be complicated.  These are variations on African drums that have been altered over the years as to be unrecognizable from their original form.  This description is of the traditional Cuban tambores.

There are three tambores : one requinto and two galletas. The requinto is shaped somewhat like a snare drum- about 50% wider than it is tall. It is hung from the left shoulder with the top of the drum slightly skewed to the left and is played with a stick on the right-hand. The galletas are like bass drums, but flatter. They are both played with a stick in a manner similar to the requinto, except that they are hung from the shoulders in such a way that the skins are nearly horizontal to the ground. The higher pitched of the two is called a redoblante.  The lower-pitched galleta is called a pilón.

Cuban Drums

 

Quinto Drum

However, often the drums will be whatever form makes noise.

Cuba Conga

The Conga today is a mass of humanity and noise.  People pour into the streets and follow the music.  The Conga itself is just a few small steps, and a feeling of movement, so the street is not so much filled with dancing as with rhythm and energy.

If you are interested in getting a feel for the sounds of the Conga here is a short video.

Fights do break out on occasion

Fights do break out on occasion

Homemade alcohol can be the fuel for fights or for more relaxed dancing styles

Homemade alcohol can be the fuel for fights or for more relaxed dancing styles

The choice of clothing is as colorful as Cuba. This is a typical way for a Cuban to wear a shirt on a hot day.

The choice of clothing is as colorful as Cuba. This is a typical way for a Cuban to wear a shirt on a hot day.

Neighbors hang from balconies and sit on rooftops to watch the spectacle go by

Neighbors hang from balconies and sit on rooftops to watch the spectacle go by

Cuba Conga

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*Santiago de Cuba Conga

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Jul 312015
 

Carnaval SantiagoThe most famous of all Cuba festivals is the Carnaval of Santiago de Cuba. The festival is held annually from July 18 to 27.

CarnavalWhile there is quite a lot of history, I asked the Cubans themselves what Carnaval is to them, and the most common answer, after the obvious, one week off a year, was tradition. This tradition is similar to what one would expect of long holidays around the world; family, togetherness, dancing, music and great food.

The Totem of the Carnaval of Santiago de Cuba

The Totem of the Carnaval of Santiago de Cuba

Like many other Cuban festivals, the Santiago carnival began as a religious event: the saint day of Santiago (St. James) is July 25. The festivities became a time for celebration by Santiago’s slaves, who introduced some of the dance, music, and costumes still typical of the Santiago carnival. Over the years, the carnival incorporated elements of African, Spanish, French, and communist Cuban traditions and culture.

carnavalWhat is today called the Carnaval of Santiago de Cuba is not a manifestation of pre-Lenten carnival, which would be celebrated in February or March, but evolved out of the summer festivals formerly referred to as the Fiestas de Mamarrachos. Mamarrachos were held on June 24 (St. John’s Day), June 29 (St. Peter’s Day), July 24 (St. Christine’s Day), July 25 (St. James the Apostle’s Day) and July 26 (St. Anne’s Day).

A beer seller at Carnaval Santiago de Cuba

A beer seller at Carnaval Santiago de Cuba

This is where the beer comes from, it is home-made and you drink at your own risk

This is where the beer comes from, it is home-made and you drink at your own risk

The main activities were music, dancing and consumption of large quantities of alcoholic beverages, and nothing has changed.

CarnavalMamarrachos were held after the end of the sugar cane harvest, or zafra, which runs from January to May. This meant that unemployed sugar cane workers, most of whom were African and mulatto slaves and freedmen, were able to participate. Summer Carnival  originally was intended as a period of rest and fun for the laborers (the Blacks) and was eventually nicknamed ‘Carnaval de las classes bajas’ (or Carnival of the lower classes)…” It is said that the Spanish colonial authorities (in response to pressure from plantation owners) permitted the growth of the mamarrachos in order to distract the slaves (and freedmen, who were typically in sympathy with the slaves) from more subversive activities.

CarnavalThe festival underwent its biggest change in 1902 with the introduction of  floats sponsored by big-name companies like Cristal Beer and Tropicola.  At that time the celebration was transformed from a marginal black community event to a city wide popular extravaganza. This concept of sponsorship still exists, and while I asked many Santiagueros how that could occur during a communist regime, most said they had never even noticed, and had no idea.

2015 is the 500th anniversary of the city of Santiago, Raul was the guest speaker

2015 is the 500th anniversary of the city of Santiago, Raul was the guest speaker

Today in Santiago de Cuba, Carnaval is celebrated on July 18–27, in honor of the Revolution, with the final complete Carnaval parade held on the 26th. This date commemorates Castro’s assault on the Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba on July 26, 1953, which had been planned to coincide with traditional Carnaval in that city.

Carnaval

Perhaps the most distinctive element of modern-day carnaval in Santiago is the conga parade that takes place in each neighborhood on the first day of the celebrations. Led by the comparsas, almost everyone in the neighborhood leaves their houses as the performers lead them around the streets in a vigorous parade. Sadly, this occurred the week before I arrived, but here are some photos from outside the front of our house where it passed by.

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Further shots of the Parade of Carnaval

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While I can’t say enough about how noisy, colorful, crowded and fun, fun, fun, this entire experience is, one must also remember that the temperatures during the day were in the 90s Fahrenheit, and didn’t change but a tad during the evenings.
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When your eyes think you just can not take anymore in, fireworks go off

When your eyes think you just can not take anymore in, fireworks go off

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A very typical sight around Cuba are peanut sellers, but in Cuba they are called Mani

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While not the greatest, as it was very, very crowded, here is a little more with sound.

Jul 312015
 

DSC_5250The second night of Carnaval I headed out to the kids area to see the rides. This is worth every moment, it is a true step back in time.

Of course there is entertainment along the way.

DSC_5073Carnaval has moved this year, it is in a variety of places around town as usual but the parade moved to the Port area.  It is my belief that Santiago de Cuba is getting ready for Cruise ships to dock during Carnaval when things finally open up. We shall see.

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I caught Grandma's eye, but the little one was too enamored with the lights

I caught Grandma’s eye, but the little one was too enamored with the lights

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