ISLANDS OF HISTORY
AN ONLINE MUSEUM OF PERFORMANCE TRADITIONS
THE COMPARSA IN CUBA
Argeliers León and María Teresa Linares
AMONG THE MANY TRADITIONS that Africans contributed to the island of Cuba, comparsas are secular processionals of the greatest significance. Africans, who used to hold other celebrations of this nature in their homelands, retained in Cuba their representational function as a resource that provided them with the most immediate means of preserving a collective memory of past events. At the same time, these representations engendered special forms of communication, functioning as unwritten historical texts with many variants, as would be the case of any significant event among peoples solely dependent on oral transmission for the preservation of their historical memory. In Africa, the reenactment of past events was not only manifested in processionals, but also took on theatrical forms that were mounted at specific places for public viewing.
In Cuba, the comparsa reconstructed reminiscences and retained its representational function. Cubans, however, restructured its communicational aims. In Africa, festive processionals were held not only to reenact past events, but also to reaffirm the symbolic ownership of a parcel of farmland by protective forces of nature invoked to yield plentiful harvests. By becoming emblematic representations of neighborhoods, instead of parcels of farmland, Cuban comparsas preserved the Africans’ identification with a cultivated area of land in a new environment that, precluding them from land ownership, transferred territoriality to the community or neighborhood. In this manner, and while retaining analogies with African processionals, Cubans resignified the objectives of these events.
The comparsa is a fiesta traslaticia, that is, an open-air representation by parading actors who take to the streets and play, sing, and dance, sometimes in costume and often masked. In Los bailes y el teatro de los negros en el folklore de Cuba (1951), Fernando Ortiz defines the comparsa in Havana as a group of masked performers with a common plan to represent a collective theme, such as the reenactment of a folk story, a one-act ambulant play, or a processional step. Writing in the late 1990s, María Elena Vinueza switches the focus from representation to group identity, defining these collective celebrations as “the traditional way in which persons from the same neighborhood or from kindred social sectors of the population organized themselves to participate in carnival parades” (1999: III, 852).
In the provinces, these processionals continue to represent neighborhoods, creating a sense of group identity and fueling regional competition. The presence of emblems identifying each comparsa—almost invariably an animal, such as the rooster, hawk, or scorpion—was never a symbol of authority, as are the chalice or the tabernacle, but carried a strictly nominal function by communicating the presence of a neighborhood. Nor can we compare the objectives of comparsas with civic parades or processionals of academic groups in ceremonies typical of ancient universities. Called comparsas in Havana and Santiago de Cuba, these processionals are known as parrandas in the Province of Villa Clara and as charangas in Bejucal (Province of La Habana). To this day, the townspeople group themselves by neighborhoods and form antagonistic bands. In Bejucal, the charanga “La Espina de Oro” (The Golden Thorn) was represented by the color red and its emblem was the scorpion; the charanga from “La Ceiba de Plata” neighborhood was the “blue” group, emblematically represented by the rooster. The charangas from Bejucal began parading in 1844 and still practice this tradition of festive processionals. This potential for resignification of objectives lies at the core of the communicative power of popular traditions throughout the history of humanity.
Chroniclers have recorded festivities in which African descendants played principal roles in dramatic representations, including some that a village playwright might have tossed together with mythological characters from classical antiquity, as in the instance that Alejo Carpentier cites in La música en Cuba (1946: 114):
In 1792, for instance, and as part of the celebration of the birth of the prince of Asturias, a battalion of pardos from bayamo, supported by freed blacks from the same town, organized a masquerade “followed by some chirimías” [shawms] displaying an allegorical carriage led by two pairs of oxes that represented a fortified castle. When they arrived in the presence of the civic authorities, the castle opened in the shape of a stage for the representation of a short allegorical poem. Three black officers, “costumed as love, apollo, and mars,” engaged in a most learned discussion on the subject of whether literature could serve as a more effective weapon than arms. A black Minerva closed the debate with a most gratifying loa, and the representation ended with “a lot of music” performed by the militia’s band.
Other representations assumed the shape of long narratives about events and characters that were meaningful to the social group. Such was the case of song-and-dance celebrations that included narration and allusions to local characters and situations. To this type belonged the song-and-dance expression known as columbia. More specifically, its practitioners called it rumba columbia, as the various modalities of rumba performed by African descendants during these fiestas were beginning to leave their imprint on all these modes of celebration, grafting them into complex patterns of social relations.
The cultural disruption suffered by slaves, when they were forced into a social order that was completely alien to their ways of life on the African continent, caused a loss and attrition of their ancestral cultural patterns. From the start, however, the condition of slavery devised different and successive strategies to reconstruct and preserve ancient customs, encouraged by a growing population of freed slaves and their migration to small urban areas in the colonies. In these new urban environments, the black population—itself quite mixed, because the slave trade brought together men and women of many different ethnic origins or “nations’—developed new lifestyles and economic relations that contributed to the further submergence of old cultural patterns while encouraging their substitution by other customs that partially collected features from the Hispanic culture of domination (see Argeliers León, “Music in the Life of Africans and Their Descendants in the New World,” in this volume).
As stated above, Africans brought to Cuba their representational processionals whose main functions were to preserve the group’s collective memory and reaffirm the integrity of parcels of land believed to be owned by life-giving forces that protected harvests. The displacements involved in these celebrations were repeated over and over in their African habitat as a symbolic means of demarcating and circumscribing the boundaries of farming land. In the new environment, however, one of these objectives lost its meaning because the slaves could not own any land. Unlike the African displacements over a demarcated surface, the linear paths followed in processions of Corpus Christi and in commemorations of patron saints symbolized the imposition of ecclesiastical authority. Secular power was equally expressed in linear parades to celebrate official holidays, when groups with banners representing the municipality would march ahead of civic authorities. Rather than any such association with authority, the parading masquerades or comparsas identified a neighborhood—the substitute for that ancestral parcel of land. For the freed slaves, and even for a part of the still enslaved population in Cuban towns, the possibility of retaining these processionals was limited to the display of dances and certain traits, such as distinctive costumes and music performed along restricted urban paths.
Vestiges of these celebrations can be followed clearly from the beginning of the sugar boom in the nineteenth century, particularly in Havana and in cities whose economy depended on sugarcane production. Historians and chroniclers of local customs documented these celebrations, and engravers left us visual imprints of their pageantry (Fig. 1). The brilliance of the displays went hand in hand with times of affluence and prosperity of the colonial economy. Comparsas also flourished during the Republican period in the twentieth century (1902 and thereafter), when these groups took on a new organizational structure and character.
Fig. 1: Nineteenth-century engraving of a parading cabildo. Photo courtesy of María Teresa Linares.
If the path of socioeconomic development conditioned the course of comparsas on the island, there were other public festivities that involved smaller groups, such as the kokoríkamos (Fig. 2), tandas, partidas, mojigangas, peludos, tangos, and tangos de negros. During carnival, these groups strolled the streets joining other masked revelers in those neighborhoods with the largest concentration of African descendants (Figs. 3, 4, and 5).
Fig. 2: Kokoríkamo or kokorioko, a supernatural character from an Afro-Cuban comparsa (Ortiz 1951: 479). Courtesy of María Teresa Linares.
Fig. 3: Mask of a mythological dwarf or mbaka (Ortiz 1951: 481). Courtesy of María Teresa Linares.
Fig. 4: Mojiganga on horseback (Ortiz 1951: 476). Courtesy of María Teresa Linares.
Fig. 5: Mulata de rumbo dancing the anaquillé (Ortiz 1951: 533). Courtesy of María Teresa Linares.
By their active participation in the emergence of an American social class that became the productive sector on which European colonialism was to build the foundation of societies on this side of the Atlantic, Africans and their descendants created expressive forms that were American by nature, as in the case of the comparsas in Havana and Santiago de Cuba. Because of their organicism, these cultural expressions responded to a social reality wherein African and Hispanic components, more than reminiscences, were functionally integrated into the social context in which they came to exist by a process of reinsertion.
In the Americas, African slaves lost their traditional ways of life while entirely new customs were imposed on them, sometimes by whips and chains. In order to incorporate themselves into the colonial system of social relations over the course of many generations and socioeconomic changes, African descendants had to devise new cultural forms as strategies for adaptation. They kept only fragments of their cultural traditions, retaining especially those elements that carried a very specific meaning or fulfilled some immediate function within their new social environment, and then only as a form of adjustment or accommodation to that environment. First they had to analyze what elements were available to them—their own and those of the colonizer that were within their reach—in order to create syntheses within the social parameters allowed by a restrictive colonial system. This gradual process of transculturation first brought into play the various and distinctive ethnic differences, consolidated through the institution of the cabildo de nación or cabildo of an “ethnic nation.” Originally, cabildos were societies of mutual aid organized by African-born individuals (negros de nación) who appropriated the term used for the municipal authorities of the Spanish colonial government. Internally, cabildos also imitated the monarchical hierarchy of king, queen, court, and so on. These societies played a basic role in the preservation of ancestral religious rituals and African practices, and also were a decisive factor in the retention of religious and secular songs and dances. In order to ensure their entry into a registry and thus obtain authorization to carry out their activities, cabildos adopted Catholic names, such as the Sociedad del Santo Cristo del Buen Viaje. The concept of nación refers to the ethnic group of origin on the African continent. These groups’ opportunity to assert their identity and establish contact with society at large was the commemoration of Epiphany (January 6, or Día de Reyes), the day set aside by viceroys and the famous captains-general of Spain to receive testimonials and expressions of loyalty from those they governed. This took place with all the pomp and ceremony that surrounded Spanish rulers in the Americas after the reign of Charles III. For the colonial authorities, these representations were a concession they granted to themselves once a year for their amusement and the display of “exotic” customs still retained by those human beings whose social standing they considered almost subhuman.
For the slaves and their descendants, Epiphany must have carried a far greater meaning, implying already a phenomenon of analysis and synthesis, or differentiation and selection of elements and their convergence into a new set of social relations. It follows that, if the cabildos represented different ancestral lands, within each cabildo mixtures must have taken place as each group became “representative” of the events and functions that were being reminisced and at the same time reconstructed. Perhaps for this reason the artists of the time cast the celebration of Epiphany in complex and incongruently dense designs, mixing acts, characters, musical instruments, and attributes of the different ethnic groups. Memorialists and curious travelers could not distinguish one outfit from another any more than they could discriminate between different songs and dances. Even more revealing are the personal impressions of observers whose writings mirror the contempt for the social class participating in these fiestas. In these accounts, characterizations of demeanor as “savage,” “diabolical,” “terrifying,” “uncivilized,” “horrific,” and “noisy” alternate with references to “impertinent” behavior, the “discomfort” these raucous displays caused to passersby, and the rows, disorder, and other such offenses that the colonial authorities associated with these celebrations.
With the official dissolution of cabildos de nación during the last two decades of the nineteenth century, and in the aftermath of changes in political and social structure brought about by the Republican era, carnival celebrations were transformed and comparsas became the natural vehicle for the convergence of musical, choreographic, and allegorical elements that already were firmly entrenched in the festive traditions of each region (Figs. 6–10). Moreover, comparsas are not only a popular creation conditioned by social relations shaping their different manifestations over time, but also the result of rules and ordinances first imposed by the colonial authorities, and then by subsequent governments. Although in 1902 the government of the fledgling Republic sanctioned carnival celebrations and parades of representational comparsas, these authorizations also alternated with periods of prohibition responding to changing political trends. The 1902 carnival in Havana, for instance, was organized by an official group that favored a tendency toward spectacle already claimed by the manner in which the upper and middle bourgeoisie participated in these events, namely parading in decorated carriages, with whites in costume joining processionals and dancing at social clubs, and matrons watching the passage of cabildos from elaborately wrought balconies. Shortly thereafter, floats replaced carriages and the older comparsas were either restricted to marginal areas of the city or sporadically banned.
Fig. 6: Comparsa “El Alacrán,” La Habana. Photo courtesy of María Teresa Linares.
Fig. 7: Dancers from the comparsa “El Alacrán,” La Habana. Photo by Roberto Salas, courtesy of María Teresa Linares.
Fig. 8: Photographic composition by Roberto Salas on a comparsa in the Paseo del Prado. Courtesy of María Teresa Linares.
Fig. 9: Comparsa musicians, La Habana. Award-winning photo by Roberto Salas, courtesy of María Teresa Linares.
Fig. 10: Tumbadora player. Photo by Roberto Salas, courtesy of María Teresa Linares.
This situation persisted until 1937, when comparsas reemerged under a very different organizational structure and with a particular reordering of their paths that responded to the objectives of tourism. These new comparsas in Havana were now pageants featuring attractive costumes, but they did retain their association with neighborhoods, due in no small measure to the considerable political control exercised over labor unions by secret Abakuá societies in Havana, Cárdenas, and Matanzas that managed to impose their hegemony on comparsas in western Cuba. The most traditional comparsas retained their costumbrista themes and zoomorphic emblems, while others reflected interest in contemporary events, such as the second world war raging in Europe. As a stable allegory they also reintroduced the traditional hachones (torches made out of a tree trunk with wicks damped in kerosene) carried by boys clearing the path and walking alongside the revelers. These torches are mentioned as a very old custom in descriptions of popular celebrations in Spain. By the 1970s Cuban comparsas still retained their nocturnal reveling and the hachones—as old comparseros still call the lit lanterns once covered with colored muslin and later replaced by more vibrantly colored cellophane—carried by boys who twist their handles to the beat of the music (León 1972: 17; see also Fig. 8). Each comparsa had its own repertoire of collective songs accompanied by large ensembles of drums and iron idiophones, with trumpets and trombones reinforcing the melodic line of the singing.
Comparsas were further enriched by choreographic changes. The religious icons heading the ancient processionals of Corpus Christi, as described in early colonial writings, surfaced in some comparsas of the early Republican period and did so enhanced by ornaments, figurines, lights, sets, and characters moving about the platform. Most of all, the inherently histrionic character of a comparsa performing a diversity of themes was displayed by the dancers, whose attires, choreographic gestures, and songs in particular, completed the dramatic unity subtending the representational basis of these performances. When the old comparsas were reorganized, themes of more current social interest made their appearance. Among the most famous Havana comparsas are “El Alacrán” (Figs. 6 and 7), “Los Marqueses de Atarés,” “Los Componedores de Bateas,” “Los Chinos Buenos,” “Los Dandies,” “Las Boyeras,” and “Los Guaracheros de Regla.” Some of them—among them “El Alacrán,” “Los Dandies,” and “La Jardinera”—became institutionalized, vying for prizes and seeking the support of commercial enterprises (León 1972: 26). Comparsas also captured the imagination of photographers (Fig. 8) and composers, among them Ernesto Lecuona (1895–1963), whose many musical portraits of Cuban life could not have excluded a syncopated danza for piano on “La Comparsa” (see Orovio 1981: 224).
Although commercial interests also infiltrated the celebration of carnival in Santiago de Cuba, the most important cultural and economic center of the eastern region, the fact that the carnaval santiaguero has been organized since time immemorial by the popular sector has contributed in no small measure to a tenacious retention of traditions. Among the most enduring behaviors in comparsas santiagueras are the toques of the tahona (now a rural comparsa); the “canto del Cocoyé,” whose origin goes back to societies of tumba francesa; and the retention of royal hierarchies typical of the now-extinct cabildos, which has been preserved by the “Carabalí Isuama” and “Carabalí Olugo” comparsas from the neighborhoods of El Tívoli and Los Hoyos still parading in their early 19th-century style with courtly costumes. Three variants of the comparsa tradition coexist in Santiago de Cuba. On the one hand, the comparsa proper is a group organized in advance that rehearses a specific choreographic and musical plan under a general director, featuring uniform costumes as well as songs accompanied by a large array of membranophones and iron idiophones whose actual performance is regulated by a leader communicating signals with a whistle, this being a common feature of spectacle-oriented comparsas in both the eastern and western regions of the country. Congas, on the other hand, which are probably older, are groups of dancers and musicians who converge spontaneously as they parade through the streets without a preestablished itinerary or required costume, whose stable feature is an ensemble similar to that accompanying comparsas with the addition of the corneta china (a characteristically strident and piercing double-reed instrument) guiding the parade as well as the toque, and marking the start with a call (diana) peculiar to each group. More recent are the paseos (strolls), which, closer to the character of comparsas in western Cuba and organized in advance, parade in costume reenacting themes of current interest to the accompaniment of popular orchestras reinforced by tumbadoras, trumpets, and trombones playing a repertoire of sones, guarachas, and merengues to fit the occasion (Vinueza 1999: III, 853–54).
Social changes since the Cuban Revolution of 1959 have brought about a massive involvement of the population in traditional celebrations of carnival (Figs. 9 and 10). Moving along the path of carnival parades, comparsas on themes mirroring new social interests have enriched once more the representational dimension of this enduring tradition, which, at the close of the twentieth century, is an integral part of Cuban culture. If comparsas—especially in Havana—have relinquished their emblematic identification with neighborhoods and the concomitant feuds between the “ethnic nations” of yesteryear, they have retained not only their representational character but also fundamental elements from the Cuban tradition of dance and song. Through their many transformations, comparsas have become spectacular displays carrying a long history of submerged meanings.
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