Why is Conga Santiaguera important?
Because conga is essential to carnival in Santiago de Cuba --“sin conga no hay carnaval. Santiago has Cuba’s biggest and best carnival (Just ask any Santiaguero!); it is legendary throughout Cuba. And Cuba is the biggest island in the Caribbean; Santiago is a truly Caribbean city, while Havana faces the straits of Florida. Santiago’s carnaval is among the Caribbean’s, and the world’s, major festivals.
Santiago is Cuba’s second most populous city, much smaller in population than Havana, but carnival is much more important to Santiagueros than it is to Habaneros, with a higher level of active participation. Since the 17th century, carnival in Santiago has consistently been in late July, centered around July 25, día De (day of) Santiago Apóstol, the patron saint of the city .
Carnival in Havana currently occurs in the summer but the date varies; before the 1959 revolution it took place in February or March to coincide with the last days before Lent. It was also associated with January 6: El Dia de Reyes or Three Kings’ Day, when slaves and free people of color were permitted to parade with their African drums and songs.
What is Conga?
The word conga has at least three meanings (not counting the “conga drum” which is known as tumbadora in Cuba).
It is a lively, drum-laden genre of Afro-Cuban music generally associated with carnival and street parades; regional variants include the conga Santiaguera, Camagüeyana, Habanera and Matancera.
Conga also refers to the ensemble which plays this style: for example, in Santiago: La Conga de Los Hoyos, La Conga San Agustin, etc. Throughout Cuba these groups can also be referred to as comparsas depending on the performance context and region.
In Santiago, a conga is also a sprawling, chaotic, mass of a few thousand people that surrounds the musicians in the streets. The expression “meterse en la conga” (literally “insert oneself in the conga”) means to become part of this mass, not necessarily to march amidst the musicians. The conga as an informal spontaneous street parade is an essential part of Santiago's culture. Conga for Santiagueros is much more than a rhythm or a band: it's an annual ritual, sweaty street party; it's rum, rebellion, Afro-Cubanidad, arrollando (a gyrating street dance), fights, and guapería (bravado).
Conga Santiaguera is not as well known as the Conga Habanera (which is often called “comparsa” by musicians). The famous (?infamous?) “1,2,3 kick!” of the “conga line” comes from the Conga Habanera. Even Trio Matamoros' famous tribute, “Los Carnavales de Oriente" is done to a Conga Habanera rhythm.
The Conga Habanera is more famous because Cuba's capital has always dominated its music and media industries, and therefore shaped perceptions of Cuban music and culture outside the island. Havana's Conga, like other Afro-Cuban styles from Western Cuba, is more familiar to musicians outside the island; it has been studied, taught and transcribed more.
We at laconga.us hope to change that: our primary mission is to spread the word about the conga santiaguera.
I'll close with a couple of quotes:
"La conga en Santiago de Cuba (Conga Santiaguera), es para los cubanos un acontecimiento trascendental con un significado muy bien definido. Cuando se menciona la palabra “Conga”, es como si se hubiera dicho ¡A Gozar!"
The conga santiaguera is, for Cubans, a transcendental event with a well defined meaning. The word ”conga” is synonymous with “party!!!”
"Cuando se ha hablado del Carnaval refiriéndose a Cuba se ha pensado siempre, primera y principalmente en los de Santiago de Cuba."
When people talk about Carnival in Cuba, they always remember, first and foremost, Santiago de Cuba.