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The term “palenque” in Spanish means “palisade for the defense of a post or for enclosing a plot of land where a public festivity is to be held.” The word was used by runaway slaves in colonial Cuba to designate the place in the mountains where they created a kind of village that kept them safe from the cruel punishments of their masters, freed them from the potential danger of dying at the stocks and gave them the opportunity of practicing the culture and religions they brought with them from their African homeland. It’s no chance then that the courtyard attached to the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional’s home, located at 5th and Calzada streets in the Vedado district in Havana, is named El Palenque, given that African roots, their music and rituals, play here the leading role.
Arguably, the most popular and anticipated event at El Palenque is Saturday’s Sábado de la Rumba, where the drums beat continuously from 3 to 6 in the afternoon. It’s three full hours of rumba (¡not the ballroom dance, mind you!) guaguancó and yambú. Quickly, the atmosphere is energized and you feel your blood rushing through your veins and your heart racing. Inadvertently, your body begins to sway and your feet move to the rhythm of the congas. There’s no age limit here and the dance floor is open to all. Visitors, whether from the island or from overseas, who are introduced for the first time to Afro-Cuban rhythms are guided by members of the dance company. Passersby can’t avoid the sounds coming from within and, out of curiosity, come into El Palenque, unaware that they will stay until the end and most probably repeat their visit. January 2012