In the heart of the oldest black barrio in Santiago de Cuba, Conga los Hoyos gradually grew quietly off the roots of Tumba Francesca El In 1902 Los Hoyos was officially recognized as the first Conga in the city although Conga Paso Franco – the not so quiet heirs of the magnificent and defunct Haitian dominated Conga de Tivoli – always bristle and contest this point about whom was first to usher in this big sound into the city of Santiago. Conga Los Hoyos then had their first showing in the great carnaval of 1915 which again gives pause to the exact when of the drum troupes birth. After slavery was forcibly abolished in Cuba, the barrio los Hoyos began to swell up with almost 100% of free people of color, black warrior soldier fresh from the fight for Cuban independence, freed slaves and the Haitian descendents of that islands revolution; a good recipe for powerful rhythms.
With this deformed direction, Conga Los Hoyos soon lost it’s touch. Carnival after Carnival they lost in the competition with 3 years in a row finishing dead last. The best drummers protested and found a well connected, dedicated drummer and insightful director Andres Echevarria, who just turned 98 in February, 2011. But then, back in those years, Echevarria was electrico and friends with the Mayor of Santiago de Cuba Luis Casero – and asked him for a favor in support and money to buy Conga drums. Mayor Casero gave Echevarria 150 pesos and threw in all his resources behind the ambitious and communist Los Hoyos leader and soon Echevarria became director of La Conga Los Hoyos for ten years until he temporarily retired. Under his guidance La Conga Los Hoyos dominated the competition.
It is at this point in the 50’s with the fast black migration from all over Santiago into the growing Barrio of Los Hoyos for the call of the Bacardi Rum factory jobs that the ranks of great drummers in the barrio grew and grew. Some good drummers split from Los Hoyos eventually becoming La Conga San Pedrito because of the size of the Conga Los Hoyos and some quietly whispered Echevarria’s communist ties which, in these times, was certainly frowned upon (Los Hoyos was called the communist Conga which was then nothing nice to be called). Despite the loss of talent, Conga Los Hoyos soon became the venerable juggernaut of this wondrous fraternity of rhythm complete with a big bulls eye on their back (which is there to this day) as the other congas round the city planned and plotted and practice becoming become ingeniously inventive in creating new rhythms and sounds perfecting their sonic arts in a bid to dethrone Conga Los Hoyos from the pinnacle of the fraternal order of the ancient sound. Whenever Conga Los Hoyos roll out onto the street to play there are always hundreds to many thousands dancing behind them, in front of them, to the left, to the right surrounding their sound no matter morning, noon, or night. It is spectacular to witness.
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The Barrio Tivoli was an early destination of fleeing Frenchmen, the once regaled former Haitian plantation owners who got lucky and slipped out of a burning country hoping to dodge certain karmic destinies lurking round during the Haitian Slave revolt of 1812 for those of their ill conceived ilk. Ironically, soon after the uprising, the barrio of El Tivoli also became densely populated with freed Haitians slaves and their decedents who immigrated to the Cuban port neighborhood in search of jobs from their more affluent countrymen who spoke the same tongue. The same culture in a new world in a different way sewing the seeds of change and revolution in Cuba.
With their unusual roots, Conga de El Tivoli quickly became the most prestigious, innovative and famous band winning the competition of the Congas in the carnival year after year. Then in the Carnival of 1915 El Tivoli surprised everyone in the audience and jury when they arrived with this strange looking horn of Chinese origin. To this day no one is quite sure how this instrument found it’s way in-between the drums and frying pans. Regardless, the sound revolutionized the rhythm and immediately became an integral part of every Conga even in today’s modern sound – like a long lost piece of the sonic puzzle finally making it’s way home from China to take it’s place amongst its brethren big drums of Africa.
But all was not so well for Felicano Mesa and his Conga El Tivoli. Despite their long running dominance and success out on the streets, after twenty five years in the neighborhood with declining support and subpar performances by his drummers compared to the emerging new Conga Los Hoyos, Feliciano Mesa decided to change his groups name to Paso Franco and move la Conga right up the street to another neighborhood on Trocha Street where a burgeoning merchant class had begun to flourish. Mesa believed he could find more support and sponsorships for his group there – a decision that haunts Conga Paso Franca to this day. Now, when they do not do well during invasions or parading through carnival the second–guessing always arises; should Mesa have ever left their roots just a little ways down the street.
Today, out on the street, El Paso Franco drummers and leadership still consider themselves the original and unique El Tivoli. They claim the prestige and cache attached with being the proud successors of Mesa and his magnificent innovation with the Corneta China:
But the rest of the Conga Groups refuse to accept that notion and constantly remind El Paso Franco that they are only Paso Franco and El Tivoli no more.
In 1938 when Felicano Mesa moved his base and sound he probably didn’t imagine that people would still be arguing about his decision in the 21st century but with the fierce competition that prevails during carnival season, every Conga and it’s followers find ways to out stage and discredit their opponents.
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Located roughly between Alto Pino and San Agustin lay the mythic neighborhood of Guayabito – the Lazarus of the six congas. Inextricably interlaced within the titanic shifts of Santiago de Cuba’s profound history, when La Conga El Guayabito have actually formed to play, despite often drifting away from the drums to pick up the knives and guns of the battlefields, throughout a 150 years of existence in many different molds (as a tumba francessa, as a tahona, as a comparsa, as a conga), when La Conga El Guayabito rises out of the ether back into a consciousness of sound to make music out on the streets throughout the generations throughout time their sound has always been a crowd favorite.
Then in 1915 Arnaldo Cruz, a natural drummer and prestigious Conga leader, chose a selected group of musicians from his neighborhood and from the ashes once again La Conga El Guayabito rose from the roots to become an instant rival of Los Hoyos and the burgeoning Conga El Tivoli. Unfortunately, Arnoldo Cruz died suddenly in 1922. And with his death came a leadership vacuum resulting in a band of great drummers breaking off on their own and forming La Conga de San Agustin in a bordering neighborhood.
Once again La Conga El Guayabito drifted out of site off the street submerging back down deep into the mysteries of the collective subconscious. It would be this way, a tall tale, a great story, a myth of a fountain head of sound made by a band of warrior drummers who took the rhythm of la conga and focused it into a revolution; old folks’ yarns spun to spur the youth on to fight on to higher heights no matter what obstacles stood in the way. La Conga El Guayabito would lay within the land of dreams for nearly 40 years till the Cuban Communist Revolution of 1959, when among the main priorities for the new government was to develop a solid cultural program in all sectors of society. With these new reforms, the focus was on massive participation, rescue of endangered traditions, centralization and unification of talents. The new Marxist government knew of the power of La Conga to unify the masses of these marginalized Negros (Castro grew up only 50 miles outside of the city of Santiago and knew the power of the sound) and carry messages of hope and redemption and right through the inevitable free style call and response chants that always swept the deeper emotions in the Conga parades. This time, the chants could also be messages of social unity and change fomented by Castro and his new style of leadership. Under this novel hope the newly appointed carnival commission decided to reestablish La Conga El Guayabito in the early nineteen sixties. But big sounds need great rudders of personality to direct that flow of spirit in a positive direction or else, historically, these congas have imploded under the weight of their own force. You can’t make these personalities by way of want nor ideology no matter how good your hopes or intentions.
In the new millennium fate would deal El Guayabito a winning card; in early 2001 the Carnival commission decided to call on tete aka El Hombre Carnival (Carnival man). Tete has been given this distinction by the City’s Carnival Museum. Tete, a free spirited, strong willed, disciplinarian, has a reputation of an artistic general and already has directed two other congas – San Agustin and San Pedrito – demonstrating a propensity for taking struggling groups and making them into perennial contenders for the best conga of the year. Like he did with aforementioned Congas when they finished in the top three in the Carnival competition the three years that he was director.
Since El Hombre Carnival has been leading El Guayabito, La Conga has been a perennial top three in popularity during the Carnival street competitions. They have been a formidable challenger of Los Hoyos, dethroning them in several carnivals and even wining back to back first place in 05 and 06.
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After the sudden death of La Conga el Guayabito director, Arnaldo Cruz, and the subsequent internal mayhem, debilitating strife, and spiteful conflicts a seasoned group of drummers broke away on their own determined to make a better sound.
Armed with these artistic intentions, Conga San Agustin was officially founded in 1922 headed by Victoriano Palacios, (aka Vitue) a respected maverick and free thinker and under his suave direction from the very first slap of the drum, from all accounts, Conga San Agustin had a pleasing and yet most distinctive sound.
But Vitue wanted more; more rhythms, more cadence, bigger sound. By the late 1920s Vitue had pushed Conga San Agustin’s rhythm completely out the confining box by introducing a kitchen implement as a street instrument – los sartenes (frying pans) – used adroitly to cut across the thick layers of 15 congas in their big sound. The metal twang of the frying pans separated the San Agustin conga from all the others bands in Santiago de Cuba but not for long for adept musicians know a beautiful sound when they hear a beautiful sound no matter from whence it comes and so it was in the very next year’s street Carnival competitions all the other Congas in the city had imitated San Agustin’s use of the kitchen essential as a driving rhythmic instruments and just like that the sound of the island of Cuba had morphed onto a radically new plain. Frying pans: it’s not how something looks but what it sounds like in the hands of masters that creates the wonder and tension you feel inside. In this spirit, many years later the frying pans were traded in for automobile brake-drums they call Campana (Bell) and to this day San Agustin’s bell players strike different cadences than the other Congas. And despite the enduring and often heavy criticism from the other Congueros about the deviations from the classic Conga rhythms, San Agustin marches to a different drum honoring the peculiar rhythms found in the vast sonic frontiers of what if, what more, what else, as they move boldly into the unheard wilds of the untried.
In 1978 while the world festival of youth and students was celebrated in Havana, Cuba, the Santiago de Cuba Carnival commission asked San Agustin leadership to be the one Conga who represented Santiago province in the festivities. A coveted honor. Due to their storied success in Havana with their energy poured into their unique rhythms, Raul Lopez aka Tiburon, the current conga director of Conga San Agustin, convinced the commissioner that the band should be the Official Band of the Santiago de Cuba’s baseball team throughout the national championships.
The Congueros played so well raising so many spirits during the pitched baseball battles, Conga San Agustin became the official band of the baseball team in perpetuity. This watershed moment has reaped massive unforeseen benefits for the band’s sound. Unlike the other 5 conga groups, due to the frequency of the baseball games, San Agustin sound is always sharp for the group plays three, sometimes four, times a week in the home stadium during the six month season working hard on different ways to fire up the crowd both when the baseball team is down and certainly when the team is up and winning. They are also paid. By the time Carnival season comes around and the best band competition begins, San Agustin is a well oil machine flowing without missteps having already worked out the kinks in the demanding forum of the baseball stadium where they must play hard and loud with positive energy to create the right rise in the crowd. The clear advantage of being together for 6 months representing one of the best baseball teams in Cuba, the positive exposure and new fans they gain weekly by their performances in the stadium stands during the games makes the other congas burn with want. San Agustin is the most respected rival, to Conga los Hoyos – and their parades are followed by thousands. The drummers of San Agustin are very colorful during their parades and always the favorite of the youths because of the band’s continuous experimentation with some of the classic Cuban rhythms as well as the current popular sounds in Cuban music twisted up new into a great something else to dance to.
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Down the cobblestoned hill just outside one of the founding Barrio’s of Santiago De Cuba – Los Hoyos – the Bacardi Rum factory opened it’s doors in 1862. They had jobs. People desperately needed work. It’s an old tale one can tell anywhere in the industrialized world; desperate people do desperate things moving towards whatever direction will quickly dispel their woe and ameliorate their time. The starved people came from all over the city for the work in the factory and soon came from all over Santiago for the work at Bacardi and though the old neighborhood of Los Hoyos had long ago run out of room to house the Tsunami of new faces, the people still came and kept coming living wherever they could find space to lay their heads, building structures they called homes with whatever materials they could get their hands on to simply keep the rain out and the sun off till they could make something better.
Originally being a part of Barrio Los Hoyos, naturally the great drummers from all around the state of Santiago living in the environs gravitated to the venerable Conga Los Hoyos making the newly minted Conga into an instant powerhouse rivaling the then best Conga in the city – Tivoli. With the infusion of people there were really enough outstanding drummers to form 20 congas but they had only one. Some say when a conga leader stays too long he starts to pick favorites that often has nothing to do with the sound of their beat – excluding others who play with more heart and spirit. In 1947 when the los hoyos director wouldn’t let the drummers from near the Bacardi factory play, they decided to form their own group and thus Conga San Pedrito was born. The youngest of the 6 congas, San Pedrito is noted around the city for having the most innovative sound (such as their use of a snare drum) and perhaps because of their origins, nobody is sure – but it is said they play with a chip on their shoulder, feel overlooked and have a sizzling tempo only people from their own barrio can keep pace with in their dance and free flow chants.
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The reverberation from the shots fired in the Haitian slave revolt rippled out across the Caribbean, Americas, Africa and Europe pooling up in corners and crevices in distant communities echoing the realizations of buried hopes and silent fears as the shadow of this paradigm shift began to transform the world. Revolution. Uprising. Freedom for the worst affected.
One such Tumbas Francesas society in Santiago de Cuba existed in the neighborhood of Santa Barbara. And next to their clubhouse grew a tremendous pine tree that dominated the landscape for there were no other pine trees near nor far. Soon everyone began calling the society by the tall pine tree, Tumba Francesa de Alto Pino.
In 1915 the Tumba francesa dissolved after being thrown out of their clubhouse building but in October, 1922 they found another building in the neighborhood and rented it from 1926 to 1943 only to lose their lease and have their Tumbas Francesas society dissolved again. There was no money. It was still a difficult existence being free. In 1950 Priciliano Cobas aka Centella, a young and ambitious drummer and descendant of one of the founders of Tumba Francesca de Alto Pino, created his Conga group and honored his ancestors by naming the Conga after the old Society. He organized the Conga for the carnival of 1950 and named it the Sons of Alto Pino. Then, in the mid 1950’s, feeling forced to abandon the conga, he sold all the drums. But this was not the death of the Conga de Alto Pino; each of the 6 congas has their own enduring spirit that rises above any one person or time. And such, Valentin Rodrigues took over the conga and bought more drums and kept on going and they have been an often misunderstood, maligned Conga ever since. Over the years in the Carnival competitions, Alto Pino has had mixed results – never a consistent, dominant force during the Carnival competition, though in the visitations to other Congas Alto Pino is rebellious, unpredictable, defiant and indifferent to the procedures and classical protocols of the fraternity of this fiery rhythm.
They dress how they want and don’t care what others have to say about them – they let their drums talk for them – sometimes literally – in the Carnival of 2005 when the jury gave the results of the competition, tempers in Alto Pino flared, and some threw their drums at the esteemed jurist in the jury’s stand. That move cost Alto Pino a high price; they were suspended from the competition.
In 2010, finally free of the suspension, Alto Pino rose with one of the most prestigious awards in the Island: the award ‘memoria viva 2010’.
Also of note, renown Cuban musician Rycardo Leyva was born and raised in Santa Barbara the neighborhood of La Conga de Alto Pino. He’s often said he used his memories of growing up in this neighborhood high on the hill so close to that Conga as the inspiration for his smash hit Añoranza por la Conga; a fusion of Conga rhythms and Son with elements of timba music and even cellos and violins:
With the synthesis of this brand new formula, Leyva topped the charts in the island for over a year.
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San Agustin vs. San Pedrito