On the sizzling streets of Santiago de Cuba, the reedy wail of a Chinese trumpet pierces the sultry air. Its distinctive sound heralds one of the most vibrant displays of music, colour, drumming and hip-swivelling in the Caribbean – the conga, performed at festivals throughout the year and at the city’s annual carnival.
“It’s the soul of Santiago de Cuba,” said Félix Bandera Ble, director of the city’s award-winning conga group, Los Hoyos. “For me, being a Santiaguero means the conga; it is pure and you carry it in your heart.”
In the summer months, locals writhe their way through the city’s ancient, narrow streets to the heart-jumping, rousing rhythm of hands beating taught animal skin and wooden sticks rapping on metal. My Anglo-Saxon reticence doesn’t dispose me well to the conga – or arrollar, as it is called in Santiago – but it is hard not to dance in this musical city, hypnotised by the pounding of drums and the thrashing of metal car wheels.
Set on a bay in eastern Cuba, Santiago is belted by the towering Big Stone, Sweet Potato, and Daiquiri mountains, which button in the Caribbean heat, causing the city to sweat year-round. It’s a climate that would have been familiar to the thousands of black slaves imported into Cuba by Spanish colonists in the 16th century. The first came from Haiti, later waves from their Bantu and Yoruba homelands in west Africa. Their wretched lives on the sugar plantations were sustained by music, spirituality and cabildos (brotherhoods) for mutual aid. The cabildos were the first groups to organise comparsas (choreographed dance parades) and sally forth in conga lines, activities that have always been underscored by religion.
At the House of Popular Religions, in Santiago’s Vista Alegre neighbourhood, I met researcher Dr Carlos Lloga, who explained the pick-and-mix attitude of Santiagueros towards spirituality. “Most Cubans feel at ease with all religions because here religion is a problem-solving thing,” he said. “So it’s easy to navigate through the beliefs that suit your needs.”
We sat in a yard between a temple of Cuban Vodú (a syncretic religion brought from Haiti, via Benin, in 1910) and a ceiba tree, said to be inhabited by the saints of the Santería religion – a colourful synthesis of Yoruba beliefs and Roman Catholicism. Such eclecticism is evident in the city’s cultural mix, too. A slave rebellion in Haiti in 1791 provoked a wave of immigration by French planters and their slaves. The planters not only scented the air with coffee, but brought painting schools and café concerts to Santiago, giving it a modern European sheen.
At Café la Isabelica, named after a ruined French coffee plantation in the mountains (now a Unesco World Heritage Site), the aroma of roasted beans filled the old tavern, which has been serving Cuban coffee since 1868. The black, bitter drink is sweetened with sugar and followed by a slug of canchánchara – the local brew, a blend of sugar-cane alcohol, lemon and honey, not unlike a caipirinha.
Rum is another celebrated local tipple. Don Facundo Bacardí Massó discovered the secret of ageing rum and opened his first factory in Santiago in 1862, but the Bacardís left Cuba when companies were nationalised by Castro’s new government around 100 years later. Today’s big brands are Ron Caney and Ron Santiago. Drunk in a mojito or a daiquiri, they help loosen the limbs and inhibitions when the call to the dance floor must be answered.
In the Casa de la Trova in downtown Santiago, I sat down simply to listen to a son cubano band, Septeto Cumbre, but before long I was up on my feet, responding to its African-Spanish-Cuban combo of double bass, güiro (a hollow gourd, played by rubbing a stick along the notches cut in one side), maracas, drums, campana (a bell), guitar and flute. A white-capped Cuban, Iván, beckoned me to join him. He led, twirling me in vueltas (laps) around a room lined with paintings of the greats of son under the whirr of the ceiling fan. The Cuban anthropologist and essayist Fernando Ortiz once described this heady music as “auditory rum”.
Learning about the conga and the comparsas with Félix Bandera Ble, I came to appreciate Santiago’s unique blend of cultural, patriotic and religious influences: African drums were used to carry arms, medicines and messages to the mambises (revolutionary fighters in Cuba’s War of Independence against Spain); a life-size model of a white horse, belonging to the Christian apostle Santiago, parades alongside Los Hoyos as they dance the conga; the colours of the conga in turn signify the Orishas (saints) of Santería – red for the warrior Changó, yellow for the feminine and sensual Ochún; and the “burning of the devil”, which takes place in early July each year, is not just an anachronistic ritual but an essential practice believed to exterminate evil.
“The devil effigy has to burn completely,” Félix Bandera Ble told me, “otherwise problems will arise in the city. In 2012, the devil did not burn completely and Hurricane Sandy later caused a lot of devastation.” This month, I am told, there was nothing left but ashes, heralding a more auspicious year.
Where to eat
El Palenquito: Enjoy Santiago’s best barbecue food in a beautiful garden setting (0053 22 64 5220; Av del Río 28 e/Calle 6 y Carretera del Caney, Reparto Pastorita).
St Pauli: Seafood and meat dishes at excellent prices (0053 22 65 2292; Enramada 605 between Calle Barnada y Plaza de Marte).
Cafés and bars
Café la Isabelica: Renowned for its coffee and rum (Calle Aguilera y Calvario, Plaza Dolores).
Café Rumba: Great for snacks, an icy daiquiri or a Bacardi rum, now back on the scene in Cuba (0053 5802 2153; Calle San Felix 455A, between San Francisco and San Gerónimo).
Casa del Pru: Santiagueros’ tipple of choice is pru: fermented sugar, spices, pepper leaf and roots (Calle Reloj, between Enramadas and Aguilera).