XXII Festival del Caribe

July 3, 2002

Compañía Teatro de la Danza del Caribe, directed by Eduardo Rivero Walker, takes the stage at the opening festival gala.
Photo by Julia Sewell

XXII Festival del Caribe: Fiesta del Fuego

Various venues
Santiago, Cuba

July 3?9, 2002

Reviewed by Julia Sewell

For twenty-two years, the city of Santiago and the cultural center Casa del Caribe have hosted Festival del Caribe: Fiesta del Fuego. This festival, the largest of its kind, focuses on the African influences in traditional dance, music, religious systems, and popular culture. Africa has been a part of Caribbean history and culture since the days of slavery. The six-day festival includes music and dance performances, forums, art displays, conferences, poetry and literature readings, and religious ceremonies at over forty venues in and around the city of Santiago.

This year’s festival was dedicated to the performing groups from Antillas Holandesas, Aruba, Curaçao, and Surinam. In addition to ensembles from Santiago, performers arrived from San Marten, Guantanamo, Santa Clara, Palmas Soriano, Cien Fuegos, Mexico, and Oakland, California.

The opening gala was held at Teatro Heredia. Intricately designed religious exhibitions, made of bone, sand, feathers, and other materials, lined the walkway in front of the theater. Compañía Teatro de la Danza del Caribe, a professional company that combines ballet and modern dance with traditional and modern Cuban dance, opened the gala by performing to a chant for a Santería deity. The sound of an ox horn called Curaçao’s Grupo Folklorico Trinchera to the stage next. In addition to their drummers, singers, and dancers, Grupo Trinchera featured Nicolaas Susana “Chon Cola,” an 86-year-old singer and preserver of the island’s traditional music. Seated downstage in front of the dancers and musicians, he sang with the voice of a young man, as they performed in bright yellow-and-orange costumes.

Once the gala ended, more groups performed outside the theater, including Santiago’s Grupo La Cinta and the famed godfather of Hatian traditions, Tato Milanes and his group Pilón del Cauto. He and another elder dancer laid on the ground and ran machetes against their bare abdomens, then jumped up and danced with the machetes, accompanied by chorus and drums. Grupo La Cinta, dressed in purple, yellow, and orange costumes, presented a rousing version of the traditional dance tajona, holding ribbons suspended from a tower and weaving in and out around the tower as in a maypole dance. The drumming was furious and added to the dancers’ energy.

Two parades, opening and closing the festival, wound through the street along Parque Cespedes. Participants danced in front of judges for five or ten minutes and then continued down the street as the next group approached. Highlights included Oakland’s Dimensions Dance Theater. Though most groups participating in the festival were folkloric, Dimensions’s work combined contemporary dance with fine African drumming and movements, which for the most part, came off well. A group on stilts danced their way through, and for the first time, Cuban-Chinese dancers added a traditional Chinese dragon dance. Fire-eating and machete-twirling dancers, fierce drummers, and mellifluous singers joined the parades.

The crowd cheered a 3-year-old dancer through a few steps of rumba. Celebrated folkloric ensemble Conjunto Folklórico Cutumba raised the bar, as the men danced recent choreography and carried spears with the precision, energy, and skill for which the group is known. The 100-year-old group Los Oyos closed the final parade with their drumming and trumpeta china, a wooden coronet with a reed and open-holed fingering, as the crowd marched down to the bay for the traditional fireworks display, the final part of Festival del Caribe.

Most festival participants were not professional dancers. But their legacy, authenticity, spirit, and energy compensated for any lack of good choreography. The vitality of this festival came from the various ages and abilities of the dancers and musicians, as well as from the enthusiasm of viewers.