The origins of the Santiago Carnival go back to the end of the seventeenth century when processions would wind their way through the city streets celebrating the day of the patron Saint Santiago. During the colonial period, the Spanish authorities granted permission to the black slaves to have their festivities on the Epiphany, putting on their typical music and dances. At the end of the nineteenth century the festivities were extended to the months of June and July in order to celebrate the patron saint days for St. John (June 24), St. Peter (June 29), St. Christina (July 24), St. Santiago (July 25) and St. Anne (July 26).
In the early twentieth century, parading comparsas would represent the different neighborhoods; this tradition is still alive, just like the dances held in the main areas of the city. Although many Cuban cities hold carnival festivities, none of them attracts as many people as the Santiago Carnival; during the days of July, all the inhabitants of the city move to the contagious rhythm of the conga drums, the piercing shriek of the Chinese cornet and the dozens of improvised percussion instruments—oil drums, pots, pans, spoons…. With this musical background the dancers wind their way along steep streets that recall the ritualistic origins of the event.
The carnivals have always given the people of Santiago a means to release tension, to put aside their worries and dance to the rhythm of conga music. This year, like every year, locals and visitors will keep up the tradition and pour onto the streets in what is considered the most colorful carnival in Cuba. This is one of the most important cultural events in the city: many of its participants spend the whole year preparing their routines for the event. And don’t worry, it’s a family event. The entire family will either participate in the parade or at least help make costumes or embellish floats. One way or another, everyone will do their bit.
Carnival highlights include comparsas (neighborhood dance groups whose choreographies are generally related to Caribbean traditions and the daily life of the people of Santiago) and the processions of decorated floats that will parade, as usual, mainly down Avenida Garzón, where a jury will choose the best. The conga lines are perhaps the most popular element of the carnival, but they are meant to join, not watch.
Right at the end of the procession, mamarrachos (characters in flamboyant, colorful costumes), muñecones (huge papier mache figures) and enmascarados (men and women wearing elaborate masks), accompanied by parranderos who with their drums, congas, rattles, catchy choruses and cornetas chinas liven up the event—if that is even possible. Inserted into carnivals as early as 1916, the corneta china, or Chinese horn, was introduced in Cuba by Chinese immigrants, adding another layer to the festivities.
In recent years, the festivity has extended to other open areas in the city where live music with son, salsa, merengue as well as rock, pop, and disco being played by the most popular bands of the moment. Free of all commercialization, the Santiago Carnival is truly an opportunity to celebrate this nation’s unique history and culture in a riot of rhythms, drumming and color.
Although many Cuban towns hold their own carnivals, none attracts the crowds of the Santiago carnival, so don’t miss out as the whole city moves to the rhythm of conga lines, the sound of the corneta china, bass drums, congas and French drums as well as pots and pans turned into unconventional percussion instruments that lead dancing crowds down the steep roads of Santiago de Cuba.