International Writers Magazine: Cuba
African Heritage of Cuban Folklore
was late in the evening when we left our hotel on Varadero Beach
- Cuba's paragon of resorts for a half-hour trip to the city of
Matanzas where we were to witness the colourful singers and dancers
perform at the Tropicana Cabaret, a mini version of the Tropicana
in Havana, Cubas most famous showplace. It was a cabaret extravaganza
that brought to mind the world-renowned shows in Las Vegas.
Sitting in that
showcase of entertainment, surrounded by hundreds of Canadian and European
tourists, along with a sprinkling of Cubans, we waited for the performance
to begin. The audience was enjoying their drinks as they conversed in
a subdued fashion.
the curtains opened to the blare of an orchestra accompanied by
flashing lights that magically silenced the fascinated crowd.
Soon, singers and hip-swaying dancing girls filled the stage.
Their fantastic plumed hats, sprouting vegetation and other fantasies,
complemented the bright sparkling gold and silver of their skimpy
yet elaborate costumes - the epitome of fantasy sexy creatures.
It was one of the Rolls-Royces of Cubas rousing folkloric
The roots of this performance and the many others held in Cuba
go back to the days of slavery in Spanish colonial times. In that
era, slaves were imported in great numbers and the traces of their
heritage can be found in many facets of todays Cuban culture.
The music, singing and dance-steps in these songs and dances have
inherited much from the pagan religions and rituals of the African
tribes. African masks, music and dance rhythms, impregnated to some
extent with the melodies of Spain, form the true basis of these
folkloric concerts and carnivals - the most spectacular of which
is held yearly in Havana, Santiago de Cuba and Varadero, but there
are others in numerous cities.
When slaves were first brought into the island, for protection and
self-help, they formed secret tribal sects and fraternal societies
similar to those they knew in Africa like the Abakúa, Carabaló,
Conglo and Yoruba. These organizations, known as cabildos, looked
after the needs of their members, assisting them when they became
sick and paying for their funeral expenses. However, they had to
meet underground. The authorities, for many years, frowned on these
societies and often tried to break them up. Catholic priests, in
those years, the arm of the government, would ban them on an ongoing
basis, but they would always reappear.
Even though the
Spaniards forced all the slaves to become Christian, these abused souls
continued to practise their pagan religions under cover of these societies.
The Africans identified images of Catholic saints with their own gods
until, in the ensuing centuries, the two were hardly indistinguishable.
They celebrated Catholic festivals as a cover for the worship of their
own deities. Names of saints were adopted as a disguise for non-Christian
séances and rituals of worship, which included amulets, as well
as animal sacrifices, beating of drums, flagellations and the consuming
of food considered to have magical properties.
The celebrations of these associations, which in later years came to
be semi-officially accepted, were, to some extent, overlooked by most
of the owners who wanted their slaves to be content. Every year on January
6, the Feast of Epiphany, the cabildos from all over the island formed
a number of large contingents of masked musicians and absurdly dressed
dancers called, comparsas. These, led by their kings and queens, paraded
through Havana, the capital of the country, singing and dancing their
way to Plaza de Armas, the main square. Here, their kings and queens
received gifts from the governor of the island.
By the time slavery was abolished in 1886, some one million African
slaves had been brought to the island - about half of Cuba's population
at that time. In the meantime, these kidnapped Africans, besides the
carnivals, had left an indelible imprint on every other aspect of Cuban
life. The island's folk medicine, food, language and social life all
contain traces from the African lands. In a number of the eastern towns
and African sections of the large cities, ritual objects and images
of African gods are still sold. When the Cuban revolution came along,
it brought the once secret societies into the open and made them a proud
part of the country's culture.
comparsas with their fantastically imaginative costumes and ornaments
continued until our times. They outlived the age of slavery and
have become the bases of today's cabaret shows and carnivals. In
these joyous and uplifting performances rhythm, dance, colourful
costumes, traditions and symbols, the ways of Africa can be clearly
seen. The old slave dances rumbled in the modern tourist establishments
not only by Cubans but also by blond sun worshippers from the north
still imbue to the audience and performers alike with the African
feeling of care freeness and sociability. Their rousing beat, sensuous
movements and catchy melodies produce a collective aura of elation,
no doubt, felt by the African slaves for their comparsas.
For us that enjoyable evening, the dazzling outfits, emphasized by the
coloured lights created a magical atmosphere, while the singing and
the rousing dances on stage and in the aisles, seemed to overwhelm our
senses. It was truly an extravaganza of colour and splendour.
the climax of the performances, we were drunk with a feeling of
pure ecstasy. The melting pot of sound, movement, colour and overpowering
euphoria had staggered our minds. It was an explosion of Cuban folklore
that infected and excited us with a feeling of pure delight. This
air of happiness contaminated us as well as the other tourists as
we relished the performances accentuated by lavish costumes, throbbing
music and captivating dancers.
It was an explosion
of African influenced Cuban folklore, which infected us with an excitement
of pure delight. We had been seduced by Africa's gift to the New World
- a moving exhibition bequeathed by a people forcefully kidnapped from
Every tourist who journeys to Varadero should make at least one visit
to the splendid Tropicana in Havana or to this smaller version of that
nightclub where Cuban folklore can be seen at its best. It will be a
spectacular climax to a lazing vacation on one of the most renowned
beaches in the world.
Habeeb Salloum December 13th 2008
Freelance Writer and Author
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