The extravaganza that is Santiago’s carnival has its origins in the festival of Santiago (St James), which is held annually on July 25. While the Spanish colonists venerated the saint, patron of Spain and Santiago city, their African slaves celebrated their own religions, predominantly Yoruba. A religious procession would wend its way around the town towards the cathedral, with the Spanish taking the lead and slaves bringing up the rear. Once the Spanish had entered the cathedral, the slaves took their own celebration onto the streets, with dancers, singers and musicians creating a ritual that had little to do with the solemn religion of the Spanish – the frenzied gaiety of the festival even earned it the rather derisive name Los Mamarrachos (The Mad Ones).
Music was a key element, and slaves of similar ethnic groups would form comparsas (carnival bands) to make music with home-made bells, drums and chants. Often accompanying the comparsas on the procession were diablitos (little devils), male dancers masked from head to toe in raffia costumes. This tradition is still upheld today and you can see the rather unnerving, jester-like figures running through the crowds and scaring children. Carnival’s popularity grew, and in the seventeenth century the festival was gradually extended to cover July 24, the festival of Santa Cristina, and July 26, Santa Ana’s day.
The festival underwent its biggest change in 1902 with the birth of the new republic, when politics and advertising began to muscle in on the action. It was during this era that the festival’s name was changed to the more conventional carnaval, as the middle classes sought to distance the celebrations from their Afro-Cuban roots. With the introduction of the annually selected Reina de Carnaval (Carnival Queen) – usually a white, middle-class girl – and carnival floats sponsored by big-name companies like Hatuey beer and Bacardí, the celebration was transformed from marginal black community event to populist extravaganza. With sponsorship deals abundant, the carrozas (floats) flourished, using extravagant and grandiose designs.
Perhaps the most distinctive element of modern-day carnival in Santiago is the conga parade that takes place in each neighbourhood on the first day of the celebrations. Led by the comparsas, almost everyone in the neighbourhood, many still dressed in hair curlers and house slippers, leaves their houses as the performers lead them around the streets in a vigorous parade. The week before carnival starts, you can see the Conga de los Hoyos practising around town and visiting the seven other city conga groups every day from 3pm to 8pm.