The carnival of Santiago de Cuba is the largest, most famous, and most traditional carnival in all of Cuba, and is an explosion of colour, contagious drum rhythms, and dance. It is also a time for Cubans to re-gather themselves and remember their history, community, and culture, and is often punctuated by the Cuban national holiday of July 26th.
See this festival!
- See: Tour availability to find dates that coincide with these festivals
Click here to see the normal 15 day tour itinerary.
The second biggest city after Havana, Santiago is the most exotic city of Cuba with lots of different ethnic groups having settled here over the centuries, including African, Chinese, Indigenous, French Haitian, and Spanish.
The mixture of these cultures is shown in the richness of the music and dance, many forms of which originated in Santiago de Cuba, such as the Conga, Rumba, and Son (which later developed into what people call salsa today).
What most characterizes the carnival are the congas, which can be heard in many different areas around the city. Also popular orchestras make their way to Santiago for the festivities. For the city's inhabitants, as long as there is music to dance to, and plenty of beer, the carnival is a success.
To see more photos of the 2008 Santiago Carnival - click here!
History of the Carnival
In most Roman Catholic societies, Carnival is a festival held immediately before Lent, and celebrated in February or March.
However the Carnaval of Santiago de Cuba is held typically towards the end of July. Its known to have evolved from the summer festivals formerly referred to as the Mamarrachos. These Mamarrachos were held on June 24 (St. John’s Day), June 29 (St. Peter’s Day), July 24 (St. Christine’s Day), July 25 (St. James the Apostle’s Day) and July 26 (St. Anne’s Day).
In most cases, the way in which the Mamarrachos were celebrated actually had very little to do with the religion which gave the individual days their names. The locals used these dates of public holiday to celebrate in their own way, and the names of saints were maintained simply for convenience or perhaps to make it easier for the colonial government to continue to allow the style of celebration that was carried out.
Perhaps only in the case of St. James Day, is there any possible link to a religious meaning in the celebrations, as this Saint was adopted as the the patron saint of Santiago de Cuba, and the dates of the modern Carnival (towards the end of July) nearly always coincide with Saint James Day on July 25.
The exact age and origins of the Mamarrachos are unknown. The word “mamarrachos” itself does not appear in written records until 1757. The festivals themselves are known to have occurred as early as 1679.
It is recognized, however, that the Mamarrachos of the 1800's were even more intense and elaborate celebrations than they are today. They included throwing objects and liquids at other participants (as well as others not participating!), traditional foods -such as ajiaco, empanadas, omelets, fritters, fruits, fried or roast pork with boiled plantains, horse racing, performances by theatre groups, paseo (a parade of animal-drawn carriages), bonfires, carrying torches on pilgrimages to sanctuaries, consumption of the alcohol such as aguardiente and “Yara” rum, beer, the wearing of costumes and masks, masked balls (with live music and dancing in the styles of contradanza, danza, danzon, rigadoon and waltz), verse singing in the styles known as cantos de pullas, which were songs, that mock and insult others, the spontaneous parading of the comparsas, and the montompolo - which was a massive parade on the last day, that gathered together all the participating comparsas in one big rollicking performance to mark the end of the festivities for that year.
By the end of the 1800's, the bonfires, torch bearing pilgrimages, and horse-racing had pretty much died out.
The most important manifestations of the Mamarrachos and the present-day Carnival of Santiago are the parades or street performances known as comparsas. Comparsas generally have two categories: paseos and congas. Both involve a group of musicians and accompanying dancers with choreographed movements.
Traditionally the conga comparsas were composed mainly of lower class citizens; while the paseos tended to be more lavish and required more capital. The paseos had more of a modern european orchestra, and the congas were mostly percussion. The congas were also larger conglomerations of dancers. What the congueros lacked in material goods, they had to make up for in inventiveness, so it was through the conga that the unique characteristics of the music and dance of the Carnaval of Santiago de Cuba evolved.
Mamarrachos were held well after the end of the zafra (sugar cane harvest) which runs from January to May. This meant that unemployed sugar cane workers, most of whom were African and mulatto slaves and freed men, were able to participate.
Throughout its history, many Santiaguerans have called for regulation, reform or even abolition of the mamarrachos, which, until the 20th century, was a very spontaneous and unorganized celebration. They disapproved of the wild spontaneity, abuse of alcohol, noisy percussion ensembles, “indecorous” dancing, songs with offensive language, bustling, and general disorder. However, Spanish colonial authorities (with pressure from plantation owners) permitted the growth of the Mamarrachos partly to distract the slaves (and freedmen, who were typically in sympathy with the slaves) from more subversive activities.
In spite of the efforts of writers, journalists and many traditionalist citizens, the successive Mamarrachos of July 24-6 became referred to as “El Carnaval”.