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Conga is a popular rhythm born and developed in Cuba during the 18th and especially the 19th centuries when Cuba was still a colony of Spain. It originated within the population of slaves brought over from Africa, hence the strong influence of African rhythms and songs on the conga. By the historical context in which it was created, one might think that it served as a sort of hymn to freedom or song of lamentation. However, conga has been recognized since its beginnings as the rhythm of joy par excellence within the Cuban musical scene. On Sundays and festivities, the slaves would dance to the rhythm of a conga and the beat of the drums. The singular sound of a conga is achieved through different kinds of usually barrel-shaped, single-headed drums. Cowbells, frying pans, graters and different metal objects are other unconventional instruments that are also used. The famous corneta china, literally Chinese trumpet, is typical of the congas danced during the carnivals in eastern Cuba.
The conga was transmitted from generation to generation of black slaves to be later accepted and introduced into the circle of Creoles. Thus, conga was inserted permanently in the Cuban popular culture. It became a musical and social event that was danced during town festivities filling the streets with its songs, drumbeats and dance, in contrast to the ballroom dances of the bourgeoisie. In a conga, the musicians lead the way while the people follow to the rhythm of the drums, sometimes in a single line or forming choreographies, as in a comparsa.
In the 1930s, it began to be used by political candidates to attract supporters. Political campaign managers took advantage of the popular characteristics of conga to attract the working class as potential voters.
By this time, important Cuban composers and musicians, such as Ignacio Piñeiro and Eliseo Grenet, had immortalized the conga in recordings that are recognized as gems in the history of Cuban music—Noche de conga by Piñeiro and La comparsa de los congos by Grenet. The latter along with the Lecuona Cuban Boys Band have been acknowledged as having introduced this rhythm in the charts in the United States. Young Cuban musicians today have also used the theme in their compositions. Such is the case of David Torréns with his Conga Triste, or X Alfonso with his Conga Gospel, while pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba and flutist Orlando “Maraca” Valle have recognized that the rhythm of the conga has influenced a large part of their work.
Congas have not gone out of fashion and today there are countless conga groups, some of which stand out for their colorful attire as well as for their dance. La Conga de los Hoyos from Santiago de Cuba, Los Tambores de Bejucal from Artemisa, and Los Guaracheros de Regla from Havana are just three examples of congas that are alive and kicking.
The conga has merged with the identity of 21st-century Cubans. Although a conga is more frequent during the carnivals, it is very often seen at baseball games to cheer their favorite teams. The popular, now deceased, percussionist Tata Güines once said that “the conga shouts louder than the people” in allusion to the colorful and very often frenzied spectacle offered by congas from the stands and during the celebration of the winning team. No baseball game in Cuba is complete without the sounds of a conga. A popular phrase says that “all is lost when the conga stops” and at the end of a game, the winner is said to have led his opponent “at conga pace.” August 2012