By Mayté Solano Gómez
Cuba is a country of traditions, music, culture and joy. Since the colonization of the Spanish and with the arrival of Africans as slave labor, a distinct Cuban identity has been evolved, reflecting this mixture of races, feelings and spirituality.
The Havana carnival includes all of this. Although the party that takes place in Santiago de Cuba is the most popular on the island, in the capital you can also find tradition and an authentically Cuban inhabitants ready to have a fantastic time during these popular parties.
Havana’s Malecón dresses up for the party
While in the carnivals of Santiago de Cuba the streets of the city center are crowded with people, in Havana it is the well-known Malecon which dresses up for the party.
The Malecon is a long wall that surrounds a part of the Havana coastline and guards a wide seafront avenue. This famous 8km long avenue is the place where the parade of floats and troupes takes place.
Its construction began in 1901 and its last section was completed in 1959. It was designed by the greatest Cuban engineer of the time, Don Francisco de Albear.
It is in the months of July and August that this artery of the city becomes more crowded, during the vacation season in Cuba. Many concerts of the most popular bands and singers of the moment take place. The avenue is filled on both sides with kiosks that offer varied food and refreshing drinks, including bulk beer, which is so necessary to combat the intense heat and the dazzling sun.
But beyond the carnival period, the Havana Malecon is, par excellence, the meeting place of Cubans. Different generations come to this place to chat with friends, have a romantic time with their partners, play the guitar and sing typical Cuban songs in the moonlight, to fish, watch the ships and cruises enter the bay of Havana or just to contemplate the beautiful sunset … Multiple street sellers also circulate along the avenue, whether to sell knick-knacks, roses for lovers or to offer instant photography or serenadinge services.
There is nothing better than running along the wall of the Havana Malecon, in the early hours of the morning, when the sun is still rising and it is not so strong or exhausting. There is no stress left after a race down this avenue, to exercise body and mind, with the view of the immense sea and a beautiful sunrise.
To sum up, the Havana Malecón means a festival of colors, sounds, with an amazing view of the sea, the coastline and a good part of the city. This is why it is very common, in normal times, to see tourists driving along the Malecón wall, in old American cars, very well preserved in Cuba and used for tourist purposes, or on foot, thus mixing with the Cuban people that are always in this area.
How are carnivals in different zones of Cuba similar?
One of the main points in common that carnivals have in Cuba, beyond the area in which they take place, is the comparsas. The comparsas are street performances and parades in which a group of musicians play infectious rhythms. As the music plays, the dancers perform. Costumes, banners, capes and lampposts are elements that contribute to the joyful extravagance of these troupes.
In all the regions of the island, during carnival, these types of shows are performed, although they have different local names (parrandas, charangas or romerías).
The other point is common is the varied food on offer, which includes typical Cuban dishes, while beer cannot be missing.
The Carnivals of Havana. Ancient cultural tradition
It is known that, in the sixteenth century, in Havana parties were held with blacks and mulattos, to the beat of the drums and music from Africa. These were maintained throughout the centuries. At the beginning of the war of independence against Spain, in 1895, the colonial authorities suspended all carnival activities, until 1902. It was then that, for the first time Cuban blacks were authorized to perform their music and dances together with the white troupes.
From 1937 on, comparsas began to participate permanently in the Havana Carnivals, parading through the Paseo del Prado with their distinctive choreography, dances and songs. Among the main and most traditional Havana comparsas are:
Comparsa El Alacrán (The Scorpion):
This troupe was born in 1908, although since 1844 it had already been parading through the streets of Havana, although not in its current form. Cultural and religious elements predominate in their oerformances. The colors with which it is associated are red, blue and white, that is to say the same as the Cuban flag. It is dedicated to the deity of Yemaya, owner of the sea. This Group is called “Alacrán” because it shows a story through dance, based on an incident that occurred in 1844, in which an unknown animal bites a woman slave. When it is discovered that it is a scorpion, the animal is killed with a machete.
The Comparsa “El Alacrán” is made up of approximately 200 people. The vast majority of the members wear blue, a color that represents the patron deity, Yemaya (Virgen de Regla) and also wear a yarey straw hat.
Before the beginning of the carnival, the Baptism of Las Farolas ritual is performed, in which each of the 15 lampposts of the comparsa is baptized with beer and with Yoruba songs. The objective of this ritual is to ensure that the performance of the show goes well.
Comparsa Los Componedores de Batea (The Wooden Punt/ Tray Repairmen):
The origin of this comparsa is part of the story of a Havana woman who lends her “batea” (tray) to a neighbor, who, trying to demonstrate her skills breaks it. This causes a quarrel between the two, after which they decide to find how to repair it. In the midst of that, the women decide to call the popular “trays repairman” and after repairing it they hold a party on the building lot.
Created in 1908, at the beginning there where only men, some of whom represented women dressed as such. It has almost 200 members who dance to the rhythm of drummer’s. The current troupe has 40 pairs of dancers, 14 bluffers and 12 models representing the main deities of the Afro-Cuban pantheon.
Comparsa Los Guaracheros de Regla:
The Guaracheros were born in the year 1959 and it is one of the most popular troupes on the entire Island, noted for its original and unique style. Its name comes from the particular “guaracheras”, a word to appoint the bulging sleeves with colorful flights. This is what mainly characterize the costumes of these dancers.
This troupe, with more than 200 members, has received multiple awards at the Havana Carnival, as well as more than 100 recognitions in countries such as Spain and Mexico, where they usually perform at the Veracruz Carnival.
Unlike the older comparsas, the social composition of Los Guaracheros de Regla was based on young boys from the middle class, students and even professionals. They did not have pre-established choreography, but they started from combinations that obeyed signals that the director produced with a whistle.
The group made up of young students was founded in 1961. They have been characterized not only by giving youth and joy to the sets and costumes, but also for their unique and popular “Baile de la Chancleta”. This dance consists of dancers, who wear wooden flip flops, move their feet, with extraordinary coordination, to the rhythm of the music. Today they have become the favorites of many viewers.