Cuba's digital destination
by Margaret Atkins
Can anyone say they really came to Cuba if they never heard the unmistakable sound of batá drums reverberating through the Havana night? Can anybody say they know this Island if they have never felt the beating of the drums throbbing in their chest or watched believers frenetically dancing non-stop in an ancestral impulse that arises from the very roots of our national culture? None of todays dance or music manifestations can be understood without knowing about the folklore that was cooked up in that cauldron of the times, filled with the cultural elements of Africa, Spain, Haiti, France and Asia. Since it was created in 1962, the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional de Cuba has been responsible for the conservation and dissemination of our traditional legacies.
The company came into being as one of the most important cultural institutions in Cuba at the beginning of the Revolution and its ranks originally included such giant cultural figures as writer and poet Rogelio Martínez Furé and choreographer Adolfo Reyes. There were also some very talented singers and dancers who had never had any prior professional training such as Lázaro Ross, Nieves Fresneda and Zenaida Armenteros. Right from the start, the group had very clear goals: salvaging and claiming as their own the genuine traditional music and dance forms that, after being rigorously researched, could be recast into an artistic style that would fulfill all of the most stringent demands of contemporary theater. Over 2,000 performances in Cuba and around the world, awards and recognitions collected at important events, a strong presence over many years…these all point to the fact that this is a highly successful artistic enterprise.
Directed these days by Manolo Micler and with a young crop of singers and dancers who have graduated from Cuban arts schools, the Conjunto’s obvious prestige can be witnessed at the FolkCuba Workshops held twice a year, in January and June. Participants come to these workshops from all around the world to learn about the secrets of the mambo, cha-cha-chá, mozambique, pilón, rumba and all the other dances associated with Afro-Cuban ritual. They take dance classes, percussion lessons, train in Yoruba chants and delve into Cuban culture for an intense fortnight under the guidance of experienced teachers.
Especially striking in their appearance, the dances associated with Yoruba rituals and the practice of Santeria are the most visible and well-known numbers in the Conjunto repertoire. The Yoruba religion recognizes a supreme being named Olofi and secondary deities called Orishas who serve as intermediaries between the supreme being and humans. Orishas have characteristics that are close to human, with distinct personalities, virtues, defects, names, colors, typical clothing, objects and attributes that identify them. The dances dedicated to them are accompanied by the sound of traditional drums, the Batá, which create incredibly complicated rhythms. Conga, Carabalí and Abakuá traditions as well as the entire rumba group (Yambú, Columbia and Guaguancó), along with the comparsas that originated to accompany the slaves’ secular festivities during Spanish colonial times and survive to this day as ingredients of multitudes of popular fiestas throughout the Island, make up the company’s African repertoire. Of course, there are also traditional numbers originating in Spain such as the punto guajiro and the zapateo, or the French and very Creole version of contradanza, or the danzón (which continues to be Cuba’s National Dance) and all those other unique musical expressions that make up the essence of all that is Cuban.
Every show overflows with color, virtuosity and energy. Audiences are literally bewitched by their special way of expressing the rhythms. The drums are pounding away at our hearts, producing an effect much like the one affecting those who become enthralled and possessed during intense ceremonials. It is like the endless flow of Cuban rural improvisers’ poetry, rhyming décimas for hours on end. Everyone should see and hear the national folkloric group of Cuba, the Conjunto Folklórico Nacional, to experience the best in this music and dance genre.