Carnival Santiago de Cuba

When the carnival begins in Santiago de Cuba, the whole city turns into one big party!

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.

Carnival Santiago de Cuba

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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.

Carnival Santiago de CubaThe 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

Traditionally Carnival in most Roman Catholic societies, is a festival held immediately before Lent, and celebrated in February or March.

Carnival Santiago de CubaHowever the Carnaval of Santiago de Cuba evolved out of the summer festivals formerly referred to as the (Fiestas de) Mamarrachos. 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).

The actual content of the Mamarrachos had nothing to do with religion. It seems that the so-called Days of St. John, St. Peter, St. Christine, St. Anne and St. James the Apostle were merely generic names which stood for days of public jubilation and diversion, totally lacking in the theological or liturgical meaning which was convenient to feign, above all, during the days of the colonial government.

Perhaps the celebration of St. James the Apostle Day held more significance as today this Saint is known as the patron saint of Santiago de Cuba, and the dates of the modern carnival (July 22 - 26) coincide with St. James the Apostle Day (July 25).

The precise age and origins of the Mamarrachos are unknown. The word “mamarrachos” itself does not appear in records until 1757 and the festivals themselves are recorded as early as 1679.

Carnival Santiago de CubaA 19th century Mamarrachos was even more elaborate than today and included throwing of objects and liquids at other festival-goers, the preparation and consumption of traditional foods (such as ajiaco, empanadas, empanadillas, omelets, fritters, fruit of all types, fried or roast pork with boiled plantains), horse racing, performances by theatre groups, paseo (a parade of animal-drawn carriages), the building of bonfires, pilgrimage to sanctuaries while carrying torches, the consumption of beverages such as aguardiente, “Yara” rum, natural fruit juices, chocolate, soup, beer, and coffee, the wearing of costumes and masks, masked balls (with live music for dancing contradanzas, danzas, danzones, rigadoons and walzes), versification in the form of cantos de pullas (mocking songs, often quite insulting and mostly improvised by comparsas [see below]), the spontaneous parading of the comparsas, and montompolo, a grand parade on the last day of Mamarrachos, with all the comparsas participating in a farewell performance.

By the end of the 19th century the building of bonfires, visiting sanctuaries while carrying torches, and horse-racing had died out.


Carnival Santiago de CubaThe most important manifestations of the mamarrachos and the present-day carnival of Santiago are the parades or street performances of comparsas. Comparsas generally had two categories: paseos and congas. Both involved a group of musicians and accompanying dancers with choreographed movements.

The congas were composed mainly of humble folk of scanty means; 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. It was in the conga that the unique, characteristic music and dance of the Carnaval of Santiago de Cuba originated and 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 freedmen, 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”.