Photos: Gonzalo Vidal, Amauris Betancourt
The Caribbean Festival – also known as the Fiesta of Fire – first began as part of what was Santiago’s dynamic theater movement. The originators of the festival were the Conjunto Dramático de Oriente, and the Cabildo Teatral de Santiago. In the 1980s, this theater group based its productions on the everyday life and history of the people of Santiago, and promoted what was known as Theater of Relationships, a form of theater that cultivated the classics but also used resources from the people for expression and communication.
Joel James, director/founder of the Casa del Caribe, a cultural research institution, and the festival, was the group’s dramatic advisor. His idea of exploring areas of popular culture to nourish this type of production was very well-received by outstanding actors and directors.
The first festivals had a very long name: the Festivals of Caribbean-Based Performing Arts. Gradually, the name became shorter, and at the same time, the festivals grew, and eventually included artistic expressions not just from Cuba, but also from other parts of the Caribbean. The festivals opened up to all of the arts, as long as they had a point of contact with the most authentic elements of our popular artistic expressions.
The Caribbean Festival is so much a part of Santiago that I do not think it would be possible to hold it in any other city without losing some of its shine and joy. We santiagueros are the most Caribbean people in Cuba, and that can be seen in our personality, the way we are. It was the people of Santiago who gave this festival its name. When I first got involved in this work, in July of 1992, the festival was known as the caribeño, the Caribbean. “It’s almost time for the caribeño,” people would say.
Its other name, the Fiesta of Fire, came about as part of a whirlwind of ideas from its most outstanding founders as part of an effort to find a colloquial message for the event. Rogelio Meneses came up with Fiesta of Fire, based on his knowledge about the meaning of the element of fire in Afro-Cuban and Afro-Caribbean expressions.
With the passing of 32 editions of these Fiestas of Fire, the Caribbean Festival in Santiago de Cuba has become a space for demonstrating and participating in cultural traditions that are very specific to this part of the Caribbean region, and which at times are practiced solely by groups of people who have inherited these traditions from their families, handed down from generation to generation. These are the so-called agrupaciones portadoras, or “groups of bearers,” who rule over these fiestas.
Also during the festival, a colloquium is held, “The Caribbean that unites us,” which addresses issues of common interest to the region.
In the Snake Procession, which every July files through the city’s main streets, you can feel what the Fiesta of Fire is. Creators of the most authentic art, and the people who feel it, enjoying as they dance, sing and have a good time in the most Caribbean way.
We are on the threshold of an unprecedented edition of this festival, a real record-breaker. From July 3 to 9, the people of Santiago de Cuba and others who join in will have a really wonderful time.