Travel Special: Celebrating fire
A joyous week-long festive tribute to the ethnic roots that give the Caribbean its most vibrant dance, music, and traditions
The drummers were slick with sweat as they played, their thrumming music a prayer. The valley filled with the intoxicating waves of percussive sound pouring from their sacred drums.
Born half a world away in western Africa, brought to the Caribbean through slavery, and surviving against all odds, the rhythm they played resonated with the essence of dense forests, open savannahs, burning sun, and a world alive with spirits and gods.
The elaborate beats danced against my skin and my chest. My heart, I was convinced, had altered its ordinary cadence to keep time with the percussionists. I was among thousands of people who had gathered in Santiago, the second largest city of the island nation of Cuba, for the 37th Annual Festival of the Caribbean (3-9 July), better known as the Fiesta del Fuego—the Celebration of Fire. Delegations from the West Indies and Latin America flock here each year to celebrate the identity, art and community of the Caribbean nations, and the dance and music that drives it all. The week’s festivities include parades, performances, conferences, workshops, magical-religious ceremonies, and live music late into the night.
I felt right at home. Dance feeds me. Sometimes, I joke that I could abandon everything except my family to dedicate myself to dance. And little in my life has made my eyes shine like being enveloped by a warm Caribbean night and moving to the clave—the rhythmic backbone of most Afro-Cuban music. There was nowhere in the world I would rather be than at the Fiesta del Fuego, standing with the drummers at the base of a colossal metal sculpture of the Cimarrón, a monument dedicated to the rebel slaves, or cimarrons, of the Caribbean. The percussionists’ music was a tribute to the invincible spirit and African roots of the Caribbean that the Cimarrón represents. Cast in iron and bronze, heavily adorned with African religious symbols, and towering almost 10m high, the sculpture’s base is a nganga—a cauldron—that overflows with the power of life and death. From this ancestral cauldron the cimarron is born, and, along with the music, rises defiantly towards the sky.
Decoding the Cimarron
The statue commemorates every fugitive slave as the cimarron who escaped his captors. He broke the shackles that enslaved his brothers and sisters, kidnapped from their homelands in western Africa and brought by force to the Caribbean. The cimarron was, and is, fiercely free—asserting his freedom and resistance through Cuba’s dance, music and art.
The essence of the cimarron, with his ethnic origins in the Yoruba, Carabalí and Bantu cultures of West Africa, resounds in modern Caribbean culture. He is alive and well in Afro-Cuban dances, from rumba in the backstreet barrios (neighbourhoods) to the vivacious movements of the comparsa street dancers of Caribbean carnivals. For centuries, he has moved couples across dance floors with popular dances from danzón to Cuban salsa. He declares his freedom in the thundering feet and shoulders of people who take to the streets of Santiago to dance a conga. And he was there in el toque—the playing of drums—dedicated to him during this year’s Fiesta del Fuego.
Cuba’s original capital, Santiago de Cuba, was founded in 1515 when the Spaniards colonized the island. The city is a strategic port, framed by the imposing green peaks of the Sierra Maestra mountain range and the Caribbean Sea.
The streets spill downward from the foothills of the Sierra towards the bay, between brightly painted homes built wall-to-wall. Weathered facades harbour stories of the individuals who lived behind them during the city’s 500 years of rebellion, revolution and music.
It’s no coincidence that the cimarron is celebrated here. The determined and unbreakable Santiagueros have defended themselves from pirates in colonial times, fought for freedom from Spain in the 19th century, helped ignite the Cuban Revolution of 1953-59, and safeguarded the Afro-Caribbean culture of Cuba.
A city alive
As the festival took over the city, the already humming streets blossomed like the blanca mariposa, Cuba’s national flower, with musicians, artists, performers, and intellectuals from every corner of Cuba and the Caribbean. The sound of excited discussions about identity, gender and environmental challenges poured on to the streets through the doorways and windows of colonial buildings as I made my way through the mid-July tropical heat and air so thick I could almost drink it. With dusk, a gentler warmth wrapped the city in its arms, as the menagerie of cultures gathered for the evening’s festivities. Musicians from Martinique and Venezuela met in inspired bouts of improvisation. Brazilian samba dancers amicably challenged Dominicans to follow their moves on stage. Cubans danced the timba with Virgin Islanders in lamp-lit streets. Music and art poured from every revolutionary crack, overcrowded patio and makeshift stage in the city.
On the back patio of the Casa del Caribe, the Cuban ministry of culture’s House of the Caribbean, I joined a sea of dancers moving jubilantly to upbeat congas, cowbells and horns.
Just as the conga-cowbell pandemonium ended, a friendly hand tapped me on the shoulder. Eider López, a long-time friend and choreographer for the Cuban folkloric dance group Bara-Rumba from nearby Baracoa, had found me in the rowdy crowd. “Come practise guaguancó with us tomorrow morning—we’re staying at the school!”
López gave me a warm hug before taking the stage with his troupe. Their tour de force show of eastern Cuba’s traditional dances, from the melodic chivalry of kiribá to the whooshing skirts and sass of guaguancó, was the perfect finale to my evening.
Time to dance
Early morning, the streets were empty aside from the occasional motorcycle taxi. López met me at the entrance and led me past a cacophony of musical groups whose competing rhythms resounded through the halls. It was impossible to tell whether they were practising for an upcoming performance or were still in the throes of last night’s party. I decided that both might be true.
I hustled to match his pace as he led me to the third floor, past altars to Afro-Caribbean deities. I almost tripped on the concrete steps when we passed an old Haitian woman whose piercing gaze and lined face seemed to tell the stories of generations.
López pushed open the door to the dormitory, revealing the still-sleepy faces of the Bara-Rumba troupe. As I made the rounds, greeting everyone with a small kiss on the cheek in accordance with Cuban custom, López and his twin brother, Héctor, plugged in a small speaker and started the music for our dance class. The tiny speaker emitted a feeble whimper that was lost in the overwhelming clamour of the musical groups. We exchanged a helpless look.
Lisandro, one of the group’s percussionists, winked and got up. He tapped a few shoulders, shuffled around a few chairs, and pulled the conga drums from their bags. Felix grabbed the clave, the two sticks used to create the beat by the same name. Suddenly, we had a full band playing for my dance class.
Behind the dance and celebration, and the constant flow of rum and aguardiente—fire water, a liqueur made from sugarcane —passed around in shared plastic cups, the festival is a tribute to African heritage that, against all odds, survived slavery and suppression. Now, fused with Catholicism and meticulously passed from generation to generation, these roots are the heartbeat driving the Caribbean. And the Fiesta del Fuego.
Spectators gathered by the thousands in Parque Cespedes, the plaza in Santiago’s colonial centre, shielding themselves from the late-afternoon sun with an explosion of colourful umbrellas. The ceremony began to unfold and driving drum rhythms erupted from the plaza into the crowded city streets.
The Ifá priest was at the epicentre of the Bantú Yoruba drummers and dancers, kneeling in his flowing white robes as he used white chalk to methodically create sacred symbols of arrows and lines on the burning grey asphalt. With tobacco smoke, and then with clouds of aguardiente, forcefully expelled from his mouth, he blessed them. The explosive sound of the drums grew stronger.
A young girl sheepishly stepped forward carrying an ornately decorated cow’s horn, the mpaka, charged in a sacred ceremony with “all the good of the festival”. The horn shone in the sun with red, white and blue beads forming the stripes and star of the Cuban flag.
Looking like a tiny children’s doll with wide, sparkling eyes next to the imposing presence and commanding stature of the priest, the girl extended her arms upward, offering him the horn. Tenderness transformed his face as she gingerly placed the mpaka in his hands. I inhaled deeply—for a moment, I had forgotten to breathe, and in that instant, the exchange had eclipsed even the rhythmic beat of the drums.
The whole scene came back into focus as the drumming again increased in tempo for the consecration of the festival.
The Ifá priest now shifted his gaze to a man and woman by his side, officials from the government. With confident grace he reached forward, presenting them with the mpaka, wedding Afro-Cuban heritage with Cuba’s present.
The spectators roared. The Desfile de Fuego, the Parade of Fire, began. Dance troupes began to sweep through the plaza.
I made my way through the celebration, finding a spot in Parque Cespedes where each delegation stopped, offering their final tribute. One woman, dressed in a vibrant, flowing blue gown, assumed the spirit of the water deity Yemayá, becoming the ocean in all its moods, from soft rolling waves to the ferocity of winter storms, with masterful movements of her skirt, feet, hips and arms. Some dancers exhaled fire in golden globes that erupted from their mouths. In a show of defiant cimarron-like invincibility, others rubbed burning torches against their bodies or ran the blade of a sharp sword against their flesh without drawing blood.
When the watching crowd quickened, moving into the street and becoming the parade, a fellow photographer grabbed my arm. In thick Cuban-Spanish, he warned: “The conga is starting. Go somewhere safe and protect your camera.” Dany Hernández, a friend and Cuban photographer, came to my rescue. He guided me through the crowd to a monstrous truck, a relic from the Russian army, that was waiting at the lower edge of the plaza. Towering 5m above the crowd, the back was packed with musicians and steelpans, drums made from metal barrels. The musicians were poised to play and lead the masses of people in a conga towards the bay and the final event of the festival: La Quema del Diablo, the Burning of the Devil.
Hernández and the driver exchanged a few words before we scrambled up the slick sides of the monstrous truck to perch on top of the cab, just above the band and far above the multitudes below. The diesel ignition grumbled and we started moving. The jovial, tinny sound of the steelpans filled the air. The conga began. A flowing river of radiant smiles followed us, dancing towards the harbour. With my feet carefully wedged into a grate for balance, camera in one hand and keeping beat with the other, I thought this is how the cimarron would have danced in celebration of his freedom.
When we reached the edge of the bay, our dancing river met a sea of colourful shirts and dresses stretching as far as my eye could see. The entire city of Santiago had gathered, waiting for the conga to arrive and waiting for the burning of the devil. It was time.
An enormous figure of el diablo, the devil dressed in burlap and painted with maniacally crooked eyes, loomed above the people. Someone struck the match and languid flames lapped up his sides, growing steadily in their ferocity. The Diablo began to disappear like a ghost into the fire, with the smoke consuming him—the symbol of evil and injustice—purifying the path to the future, and next year’s Celebration of Fire.
Casino: Sometimes referred to as Cuban salsa, casino is a partner dance derived from the Cuban son that was originally performed in Havana’s casinos before the revolution (1953-59). Dancers often add steps from guaguancó, danzón, mambo and cha-cha-cha to the intricate combination of footwork and spins.
Rueda de Casino: Casino is danced in a circle, or rueda, by two or more couples. The dancers follow the direction of a cantante or líder who calls out moves.
Salsa con Timba: A genre of fast-paced and heavily improvized modern dance music that blends popular Cuban music with Afro-Cuban folkloric rhythms and other influences, including American jazz and R&B.
Rumba: Originating in Matanzas and Havana, rumba is a genre of Afro-Cuban music and dance with three primary forms: yambú, the slowest form of rumba, which can be danced alone; the faster guaguancó, a flirtatious and light-hearted dance of conquest and evasion between a man and a woman; and columbia, most often danced alone by a man in a competitive display of prowess and confidence.
Cubatón: Reggaeton-inspired music, based in hip hop and reggae, that was brought to Cuba from Puerto Rico and blended with Cuban rhythms. The result is the most popular dance music among Cuba’s youth.
Photojournalist Britt Basel has travelled through 39 countries, telling stories, helping communities protect their resources, and teaching. She is currently based in Chiapas, Mexico.
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