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Perhaps less raucous than in the past since this 53rd Cuban baseball season, commissioner Higinio Velez has endorsed a measure that moderates the activities of the congueros in the stadiums. From this season there have been areas allocated for congas in the area of the right or left outfield, 35 meters away from the far end of the two dug-outs in the direction of the left and right out-fielders; as long as they remain in this area, they can play through the entire game. For those who don’t want to use the space in the outfield area must play only between innings.
In order to understand the raging discussion and controversy that this measure has set of we need to understand the role of the congueros who beat out one of the most favorite and loved rhythms in Cuba. When the drums and the horns are playing, people say it’s hard not to move your feet even if you are not a great dancer, although in Cuba, everyone has a least a little rhythm in their soul.
Traditionally there has always room in the audience of a baseball game for a section of “congueros”, mostly self-taught musicians who really only need a stick and a tin can to have the thousands of people who have come together to watch the baseball game dancing. It doesn’t matter if the local team is going through a dry spell or they’re making mistakes that will have them losing the game, the congueros are always in their place, playing music. The raison d’être of the Cuban conga is to support their teams from the stands, cheer on the players and, of course, liven up the fans.
You might think that the intense noise of the drums might distract the players on the field, but the contagious sound has the effect of getting rid of stress and removes the players’ tension; when someone hits a run and they are regaled with the frenzy of the crowd chanting their thanks to the accompaniment of the drum, players feel like they have received an award.
The provision was introduced to protect the ballplayers and makes communications between team managers and athletes on the diamond more effective; it also prevents interference to the TV and radio broadcasts. But here’s the rub for Cuba’s passionate baseball followeers: is there anyone out here who can keep their feet still when the congas start playing? Is there anyone who hasn’t enjoyed to the max a home-run, a decisive hit or a victory of their team to the catchy rhythm of the band’s percussion?
Cuban congas form a part of an identity and have become immortal. Each new generation knows how to hold on to that typically Cuban hallmark which distinguishes that fabulous rhythm. Transmitted from fathers to their sons and daughters, infectious, contagious, spontaneous.
Every Cuban province has its own distinctive sound to the congas that are represented in the baseball parks of the country. Santiago de Cuba and Guantanamo, are known for the most delicious musical flavor where the conga sound is differentiated primarily by the Chinese horn. The Cienfuegos Elefantes have a style all of their own which I won’t even begin to describe.
In Cuba, baseball is a party where the cling-clang-cling- calong-calang of the drums, brass drums and trumpets are the guests who stay forever. And to coin a popular Cuban phrase “all is lost when the conga stops” or “the conga shouts louder than the people”.