After spending several weeks in Havana, I departed on a fourteen-hour bus ride to Santiago de Cuba, in the Orient. Santiago de Cuba, Cuba’s second-largest city, holds a special place in Cuban history, as it was the city where Fidel Castro proclaimed victory of the Revolution in 1959.
Santiago de Cuba has a very laid-back, relaxed feel to it: there is a notable absence of the daily hustle found in Havana. Aesthetically, Santiago almost looks as if it were a Cuban (mini) version of San Francisco: the city is set on a hill that overlooks a bay. The endless rows of pastel colored houses and overhanging telephone lines also radiate a “San Fran” feel.
Every mid-July since 1980, the city hosts la Festival del Caribe, the Festival of the Caribbean – it is also known as the Fiesta de Fuego, the Fire Festival. The festival showcases the music, dance, and other various cultural intricacies of each of the countries in the Caribbean. For one week, Santiago de Cuba is overflowing with people from all of the Caribbean: it is a wonderful means to bridge cultural gaps among the people from different Caribbean countries. Each year, the festival is “dedicated” to one country, and this year, Mexico was country of honor.
The week-long celebration includes countless activities, but the final day of the festival, which features an elaborate parade, is the true highlight of the week. Each country participates in the parade; showing off the country’s respective music and dance. Because Cuba is the host country, throughout the procession, there are representatives from all of the provinces of Cuba – compared to the singular group from every other country.
The procession commences in the late afternoon and stretches until just after sunset. The heart of the festival is located in the plaza in front of Catedral de Nuestra Señora de Asunción.
Most certainly, the music during the procession is outstanding: it is such a neat juxtaposition to hear all of the respective rhythms from each of the Caribbean countries. While each performance has a strong emphasis on dance (and the extravagant costumes that go with it!), the music truly is the focal point of the parade. As true with all parades, drums and percussion are the cornerstone of the musical ensemble.
While I will readily admit that the majority of the rhythms of Caribbean music do not greatly differ country to country, there are many notable differences in style and form among each country’s respective music. It is impossible to pinpoint my favorite performance, although I thoroughly enjoyed the cavalcades of Brazil, Trinidad & Tobago, and the Dominican Republic. The procession of Trinidad & Tobago was especially memorable, as there was a large truck with a full-kit drummer and steel drummer playing on the back.
On that note, I’m sure I will never forget the fire-breathing roller-skaters, or the cross-dressing drummers that played tin cans and boxes. (Words cannot describe; see pictures below…)
As the sun began to set, the streets became more packed and packed: it felt as if the entire city was partaking in the festivities. After the parade-portion of the festival ended, the festivities culminated with the Quemando del Diablo, the Burning of the Devil.
The march from the town hall in the center of the city to the effigy, located near one of the ports about a mile away, was epic, to say the least. Just before 9pm, a twenty-foot, wooden effigy of Lucifer was set ablaze. Drumming, singing, and dancing around the burning flames continued well into the night.
Below are just a handful of pictures from the Festival del Caribe/Fiesta del Fuego. Videos will be posted shortly.