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The International Writers Magazine: Cuba

The African Heritage of Cuban Folklore
Habeeb Salloum

It 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, Cuba’s 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.

Suddenly, 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 Cuba’s rousing folkloric entertainment.

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 today’s 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.

The 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.

At 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 their lands.

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
(Toronto), Ontario

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