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Cuba's vibrant festivals - The Carnival of Havana

Cuba's vibrant festivals - The Carnival of Havana

Cuba celebrates many festivals throughout the year and Havana especially, could be said to host the most, although the equivalent of some of the festivals in Havana are said to be bigger and better in other cities and towns.

But Havana has it all; it is home to the biggest variety of festivals in the island, from book fairs, to jazz, ballet and film festivals. The capital is simply brimming with excuses to celebrate, gather around, learn something new, make the locals engage with other cultures or simply have a bit of frivolous fun. Some of these events have become fixed on the annual calendar. Some are impromptu one-off festivities organised to mark a particular occasion, a historic date or a spontaneous activity borne out of the desire to celebrate a particular event.

But on this occasion we’ll talk about one of the longest-standing festivals and traditions in the city, so old in fact it dates back to the early colonial years, as far back as 1576 when freed slaves where given permission by the town council of Havana to attend the Christian festivities and processions of Corpus Christi. Likewise, many masters authorised their slaves to hold collective marches and organise dances to commemorate the day of Epiphany, in which they were allowed to sing and dance the songs of their native homeland, which they had brought with them from Africa.

From its early foundations until this very day – the evolution of Havana’s Carnival

As I mentioned earlier, the carnival’s roots derived from the late 16th century, in a time during which slaves where granted access to join in the holy catholic celebrations of Chorpus Christi and Epiphany. During these festivities they not only enjoyed a few days off but were also given permission to incorporate celebratory elements of their own African religion and traditions, which slowly shaped the Cuban carnival of today, brimming with Afro-Caribbean folklore and holding very little religious content at all.

Back in the old pre-slavery days, colonial Havana celebrated the carnival with parades where a mixture of social classes took to the streets in carriages, on horseback and on foot, dressing in a variety of elaborate masks and costumes. Taking inspiration from the carnival of Venice, the early carnivals in Havana included fireworks and streamers raining down on decorated floats or carrozas. Also during these times the iconic theatrical figures called “muñecones” (life size puppets) first made an appearance. They came to stay, as did the dancing men known as “faroleros”, and both of these figures still feature massively in the carnivals of today.

When the slaves were eventually imported from Africa and thrown into the mix, they added another dimension to the carnival festivities, with the arrival of African instruments and dance forms all incorporated in the festival’s routines.

It was Giovanni Francesco Giamelli Careri, an Italian visitor from the 17th century who said of Havana’s carnival:

"On Sunday, February 9, 1698, in Havana, before Easter, blacks and mulattos, in picturesque costumes, formed a congregation to revel in the carnival."

Originally celebrated during February to coincide with the religious dates I just mentioned, the carnival was eventually moved to the summer months after Fidel Castro’s Revolution in 1959, to coincide with other dates of historic importance relating to the triumph of the revolution.

Today, the Carnival of Havana (Carnaval de La Habana), although less famous and much less popular than its rival counterpart in Santiago, is a colourful feast for the senses, with numerous floats, varied themes, different music styles and a selection of staged performances that include musical groups ranging from old classics such as the ever-popular, 45-year-old Los Van Van salsa band to modern emerging groups across all genres, be it the infectious and authentic Cuban timba, alternative hip hop, rap and even some reggaeton or its slightly different version in the island - Cubaton.

There’s something for everyone in the family too, including a whole day of festivities dedicated to children, now called the Kids’ Carnival. Beyond the intoxicating beats, the scantily clad ladies with the glittering costumes and their seductive moves, there is a whole cultural explosion to immerse into. One you shouldn’t miss if you happen to be there in the summer. Sure, it’s not for everyone and not everyone will like it - some might find it too loud, too rambunctious, too many drunken people, even too “dirty” in some places, a shabby atmosphere in some neighbourhoods (some habaneros disregard the carnival as being something low class so it provokes mixed feelings among the locals) but all in all a really unique experience to absorb the city’s flair and the flamboyance of its citizens is to be fully absorbed and experienced.

The carnival is most visually spectacular when observed from the Malecon, the parades and celebrations here are unique and for sure the most colourful of all. Also for tourists, this is not only the most scenic spot from which to view it but also one of the safest in the city when the crowds are better dispersed and the feeling less claustrophobic.

Carnival of Havana 2014 – where traditional music meets modern salsa beats

The Havana Carnival of today is a great spectacle that every lover of this city or culture-enthusiast traveller should get to know at least once. It presents a unique opportunity to immerse in the vibrancy of the city and the flair of the locals.

Once upon a time it used to include ceremonies such as the crowning of a queen but this stopped after 1970, when the last carnival queen was elected in a televised national event that achieved a record number of viewers. But still, the biggest draws of the city's carnival still take place today with a varied assortment of dancers parading down the streets as part of groups known as "Comparsas".

Comparsas were introduced in 1908 and consist of a group of uniformed dancers performing a rhythmic step in time with accompanying instruments. Born in marginal neighbourhoods, these comparsas soon became symbolic and iconic expressions of not only the Havana carnival but Cuban culture in general. The most famous of these dating all the way back to the early 1900s and still popular to this day, are: El Alacran and Los Componedores de la Batea. These dances tell stories from daily Havana life, such as a brawl between women of a solar (tenement house) with a religious subtext of African abakua origin. These elements can all be easily absorbed by observing their dancing and well-synchronised choreographies.

Comparsas of yesteryear that are still present today include: Los Marqueses de Atares, Los Guaracheros de Regla, La Sultana, Las Bolleras y Los Mambises. With the passing of the years more have been added, such as the Comparsa la Jardinera, Comparsa La FEU and Comparsa Los Jovenes del Este.

Although, due to many economical restrictions and the island’s financial limitations, the carnival of today is a far cry from the glorius days of the early 1900s with the ornate floats and the luxurious detail in the design of the costumes, beautiful flats still take to the streets today, comparsas and muñecones still parade down the long Malecon promenade, all the way from La Punta to Hotel Nacional.

The Havana Carnival of 2014 was the 191th, getting ever closer to the second century of this famed annual festival. From the vibrant drumming to the energetic singing and dancing, the Carnival of Havana represents the life blood of Habaneros, their undying passion for music and their intoxicating flair.

The old classics are played for the older and not-so old generations, as real classics here never really die, everyone can sing-a-long or hum-a-long any of the traditional tunes whilst still gyrating hips to more contemporary beats. The hottest latest Cuban bands are there, old and new styles converge, it’s a collision of everything that’s great about this musical nation and you should cerntainly get a piece of it if you can.

The 2014 Havana Carnival was dedicated to the celebration of a few ocassions; firstly to the 495th anniversary of the foundation of the city, first named as the Villa de San Cristobal de la Habana, secondly to what would mark the 95th anniversary of the late Benny More (considered Cuba's greatest popular singer of all time and master of all Cuban genres, from mambo to guaracha, son and bolero) and lastly to the 75th year of Orquesta Aragon, an iconic music band from the late 1930s and Cuba's best charanga group throughout the 50s and 60s.

Things to look out for during this year's edition included:

  • The Children's Carnival, with dance groups composed by kids and clowns
  • Conjunto Folklorico Nacional de Cuba performing the shows Muñecones Habana y Carnavaleando
  • Ballet de la Television Cubana
  • Caribbean Dance
  • Carroza El Tropicana Nightclub
  • Carroza Los Caballeros del Ritmo
  • Carroza Banda Los Angeles de LA Habana

Highlighted music performances included the all-female salsa group, Las Anacaonas, Maykel Blanco y Salsa Mayor, Aragon and Azucar Negra, among others.

Taking place from 8th to 17th August 2014, this year's week-long of carnival performances took to the streets from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily.

Beside the music performances, the city also sees a variety of food and drink stalls popping up in every corner, open throughout the day, so even before the show starts at night, the carnival also offers an experience to try out a variety of Cuban snacks.

Comparsas, stilts, floats, bright elaborate costumes...the Havana carnival is like less refined incarnation of Cuba's famous Tropicana'show but without the expensive tickets.

Susana Corona

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Susana Corona

Cuba Expert

As a born and bred Cuban, I know and love Cuba with an undying passion, and on my frequent travels...

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