Carnival of Santiago de Cuba - Comparsa

The most important manifestations of the mamarrachos and the present-day carnaval of Santiago are the parades or street performances of comparsas. The Castilian word comparsa comes from the Italian comparire – “to appear briefly” – as in a walk-on appearance in a theatre. It can also mean a group of musicians and dancers who perform in the streets during (pre-Lenten) carnival or other festivals.

Comparsas are mentioned in connection with the mamarrachos of St. John and St. Peter in Santiago as early as 1679 (Pérez I 1988:24). The first comparsa recorded was called “Los Alegrones” and was active in 1757 (Pérez I 1988:28). The names of 46 comparsas that were active in the 19th century along with some details about their costumes, themes, etc. are mentioned by Nancy Pérez (I 1988:137-9), the Cuban historian of the Santiagueran carnaval.

Pérez divides 19th century Santiagueran comparsas into two categories: paseos and congas (Pérez I 1988:136) The paseo was distinguished "by its accompanying music, the scenography and the choreographed dance steps that it performed (Pérez I 1988:136)." Ramón Martínez defined a paseo as a "type of comparsa but instead of Tajona, the accompaniment was orchestral music, pasodobles and light marches." (Brea and Millet 1993:196). The musical ensembles that accompanied the paseos were usually mobile versions of the danzoneras or orquestas típicas that played in the dance halls or, sometimes, Spanish military bands (Pérez I 1988:106-7). Speaking of the 20th century, Brea and Millet (1993:196) add that "The paseos used Jazz Band orchestras, even though they have more drums and interpret popular current musical pieces." This usage of the word paseo to mean a type of comparsa should not be confused with the usage that signifies a parade of animal-drawn carriages or wagons (see above: "A typical 19th century Mamarrachos").

The second type was the conga, which was a “large conglomeration of dancers who, in an orderly, uniform manner, and dressed in accord with a selected theme, dance a rhythmic step in time with the accompanying instruments, which are almost always mainly percussion (drums: tumbas, quintos, and metal pans)" (Pérez I 1988:136). The congas were composed mainly of humble folk of scanty means; the paseos tended to be more lavish and required more capital. What the congueros lacked in material goods, they had to make up for in inventiveness. It was in the conga that the unique, characteristic music and dance of the Carnaval of Santiago de Cuba originated and evolved (see Conga).

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