Santiago de Cuba was once a great port city, the original capital of Cuba and a strategic, economic jewel of the Spanish empire. Because of it’s geographical location, (the closest island port to Spain in the new world), the size and depth of it’s port, and natural defensive architecture, Santiago became the last debarkation point before the big trip across the Atlantic. And too, the first port of call in the Caribbean for a whole host of ships from round the world. A lot of resources and gold passed hands through the city, a center for economic growth with lucrative opportunities and work and thus people from everywhere with hopes and dreams arrived with an intent to make deals, make money, buy land, grow sugar, grow coffee, better themselves or wrests themselves free once again.
Albaca (basil) – people in the parade use the herb to cleanse the body and the spirit. Often used in Santeria rituals as a cleansing tool, people of the invasion parade use it to protect themselves from evil eyes because there are so many moving in the parade that folks say ‘ you’d better protect yourself against any evil spiritual force someone might throw your way,’ even if it’s just to avoid being caught in the path of one of these curses being hurled at someone else – Albaca helps keep the bad kind of funk from taking root on your person. Keeps the spirit clear and free to absorb the power of the drum.
In the late 19th century there was a little known but very successful large insurgent army in the 3rd and last war of independence from Spain. In 1895, this army consisting of slaves and Cuban creoles took to the battle field and swept all across the island, east to west till they ran the Spanish off, ended slavery, creating a fragile, separate peace. They called the operation, “The invasion”. A particular source of pride for the people of Santiago, for the massive slave army departed from the hills of the great port city with many of the army’s generals and chiefs hailing from the traditionally negro neighborhoods and environs of the bustling city. In honor of the rhythms forged during those tumultuous times and their ancestors who staged the only other known victorious slave uprising in the New World outside of Haiti, this, the biggest parade of the year, is now named “The Invasion”. On this special day, the most famous of the Conga groups, Conga Los Hoyos sets out one morning in July and over the course of 8 hours marches through the city to each of the 5 other Conga neighborhoods to drum battle in sound the other conga groups with 15 thousand to 20 thousand singing, dancing people in tow. A movable feast over 100 years old used to release, recover and remember through the sonic arts no matter whom is in political power.
It’s a friendly and organized way to get engaged, rehearse and fine tune a sound before the carnival. You have one month to get your drums in and out of the shop, organize your drummers, your cornetas and get the neighborhood pumped up and behind you for the carnival. 4 weeks before the carnival the 6 conga groups march through the streets, sometimes over 15 miles to do a drum battle in sound in another neighborhood. This is the first battle in the war for sonic supremacy decided during the Invasion Parade by the people of the parade and ultimately during carnival by way of an expert panel from the fraternity of this spiritual mother rhythm.
The chorus of the moving chanting crowd is one of the most important components of the Conga parades, providing a discourse between the past and present through sing-song call and response story as folks tap deep into the beat and chant out lout in a public space about anything they wanna say with impunity. A taboo luxury found only on these special days of the parade. The big drums strum the warrior spirits so you feel a joy in fearlessness, lighter and stronger, firmly rooted with your feet hardly touching the ground as you light step along with the parade people moving their feet and rolling their hips, bodies close all round you together as one clapping, laughing, singing to the rhythms everybody knows as the chants call to mind truths you’ve been once wary to say aloud. Release.
1) Those following the call of the corneta china – the trumpeter plays the rhythm of classic conga’ssongs known by everyone in the parades with the dancing chorus responding in chant. A kind of orchestra of the street under the direction of the horn, the percussion as the rhythm section to support the calls with the spontaneous singing of the people filled with a heady fever of the right of release. This occurs mainly near the central part of parade near the drums of the band.
2) The second kind of chants are found towards the very back of the conga parade where usually only the faint echoes of the band’s big drums can be heard from much further up in the middle section of the procession. It is here in the back of the parade that songs inspired by improvisation are created and find small groups of followers responding in kind to the call of the riffing singers directing the response. The groups repeat the songs of different improvisers or just one depending on the quality and grace of each new stanza. In the back, these impromptu sonnets are accompanied by instruments such as cowbells, claves, sticks, bottles, cans, spoons, anything, to hammer a sound, in imitation of the rhythms of the conga. Within this part of the parade is where you often hear the choir’s most innovative and ingenious performances, for here, in the back, away from the frenzy of the big sounds of the many drums, is where the most audible calm can be found – a calm most conducive to the expansion of sophisticated and varied songs that folks can hear and sing back into the sky.
The conga is divided into three main parts: the front, the center and the rear where one finds the ingeniously creative new chants. The front of the parade is led by the banner flags of the conga. In the front you have people cooling it drinking with just the waft of the sound of the drums, kids running round, babies with their mothers, older folks, and in the last ten years or so, in the big Invasion Parade, Santeria dancers and drummers honoring their Orisha gods and goddesses. There’s lots of space far up there and you can’t hardly see the drummers and only just about hear them when the wind blows right but though the thunk of conga drummers is thin in the air you can still feel it pierce the skin. Groups of practitioners and players of folk music and Afro-Cuban religions, from the Conga neighborhoods singing and dancing from the beginning to the end of the parade opening doorways and clearing the spiritual path for all always spearhead the procession for the entirety of the parade.
This area is the most lively, intense and violent during the dancing march. Paraders fighting to get as close as they can drawn to the deepest sounds of the drums being beaten back with Billy clubs with hundreds of others chanting in unison following the direction of the calling Corneta China. Near the drums you’ll find one of the most striking power dynamics in motion as several phenomena of anthropology, ethnography and sociology flow together in the same volatile space. Gender relations and power, swirling round the immediate vicinity of the police where women dance seductively within steps of this constant violence unleashed by the police (always men) as the women oppose or reward the police with sexual provocation or seduction.
In the middle of the parade, close to the band, you find body, dance, gestures, songs and violence come together in a unique public sexual ritual. Also, in this potent space, closest to the mesmerizing sounds of the big drums, right on the perimeter of fire set up by the police, it is common to find gay (usually male) and young of both sexes, where partying and violence are more tied to the passion level of the rotating musicians playing in that portion of the parade in that time. Different drummers call out different spirits, for the rhythms too are telling stories of space and time. As the band plays on you can see the waves and reverberations of the different rhythms echo through the spirit of the crowd.
In the very back of the parade, far away from the drums you have different kinds of sounds than the front. For here, in the back, you find the vocal dynamic which grew out of those seeking calmer waters and a different kind of rhythm and sound where they can hear the vocal call and vent and voice focusing on the songs and choruses led by the Grios rapping on current history and the histories from times long, long ago. Also, way in the back you’ll find more space with different singing groups with Grios, women with their children, friends laughing, talking and walking slowly drinking black market rum, (photo )older folks enjoying the call and response of the chants, those that have come late to the moving fete, and those who can no longer keep up with the pace of the 8 hour ordeal being left on the tail of what looks like a human train.