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Santiago's Festival of Fire: Cubans hug up their Caribbean culture

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  • Norman Girvan
    This report is also posted at http://www.normangirvan.info/girvan-santiago-festival/ Santiago’s Festival of Fire: Cubans hug up their Caribbean culture,
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 10, 2011
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      This report is also posted at http://www.normangirvan.info/girvan-santiago-festival/

      Santiago���s Festival of Fire: Cubans hug up their Caribbean culture,

      Norman Girvan

      Culture is to Cubans what shopping is to Americans

      Santiago de Cuba���s Festival of Fire, held each year in the first week of July, is the Cuban version of CARIFESTA. Artistes come from all over the Caribbean, highlighting the popular and traditional culture of the region. This year the Festival was dedicated to Trinidad and Tobago, which sent a 70-odd multi-cultural delegation of dancers, pan men, drummers and other performers headed by Culture Minister Winston ���Gypsy��� Peters. Performances were held in Santiago���s Teatro Heredia and at public spaces throughout the city, all free to the population, and mostly enthusiastically attended. Judging by what I experienced during this and other visits, culture is to Cubans what shopping is to Americans. People of all ages and all walks of life seem to hug it up at every opportunity; whether in the form of musical performances, song, dancing, art exhibitions, sporting events, film festivals, book fairs, museums or just plain playing dominoes on the sidewalk.


      The annual Festival is organised by Santiago���s Casa Del Caribe, the 31-year old centre for research on Caribbean popular and traditional culture and the promotion of Cuba���s cultural ties with the rest of the region. An integral part is an international colloquium at which researchers share their findings on culture, society and politics from the different language zones. I was privileged to deliver the opening keynote address on the subject of ���C.L.R. James, Caribbean Integration and the Independence of the Caribbean���. This was essentially my earlier OWTU CLR James Memorial Lecture, with an additional section on James and the Pan-Caribbean (this is appended below). I learnt that my address, which was delivered in Spanish, had been broadcast in full on Cuban radio, sections shown on TV and an excellent report published in the daily Granma. Such prominent media treatment of academic events is not unusual in Cuba; and contrasts with the scanty coverage given their equivalents in most of the Anglo-Caribbean media. Ironically, my treatment of C.L.R. James got better coverage in Cuba than the same lecture did in his native Trinidad and Tobago!

      The other keynote address was delivered by James Millette on the subject ���Cuba and Trinidad and Tobago: Sister islands at two ends of the Caribbean���. James traced the social and political evolution of the two Caribbean ���markers��� over 500 years, focusing on the struggle for emancipation and national independence, the transcendental significance of the Haitian and Cuban revolutions, and the shortcomings of constitutional decolonisation in the Anglo-Caribbean; and noting the decline of Western pre-eminence consequent on the rise of the People���s Republic of China.

      In all, there were over 90 presentations on the colloquium theme, ���The Caribbean That Unites Us���. Twenty-five panels were grouped under the subjects History and Culture of the Caribbean; Gender, Culture and Identity; Caribbean Popular Religion; Traditional Popular Medicine and a special Tribute to Gabriel Garc��a M��rquez. The presentations are summarised in the report prepared by the organisers, posted at Colloquium Report (in Spanish). Unfortunately the individual presentations have not been posted, but if you are interested try sending an email to the Casa del Caribe at http://www.casadelcaribe.cult.cu/#

      jouvert sant.jpg Trini night.jpg

      The thread connecting colloquium to cultural events to language zones was the African presence in the Caribbean. As scholars pondered Pan-Africanism in Cuba and Jamaica and the development of Black consciousness in Martinique and Trinidad and Tobago; Vud�� and Yoruba religious ceremonies were being performed in communities adjacent to Santiago. Attending several of the cultural events, I came away with a strong sense of the power of music, dance and spiritualism as the common language of Caribbean people. Santiago���s Steelband Caribe and Trinidad���s Valley Harps steel orchestra had half their audiences at Teatro Heredia jumping on the stage at the end of their respective performances. The cultural procession held in the city centre before the Cuban and T&T culture ministers and a crowd of several thousand ended with a street jump-up which to all intents and purposes was a Trinidadian 'j���ouvert'���except that it was Santiagueran Conga. The ode to the Cimmaron (Maroon) held on a hilltop in the community of Cobre was a ceremony with powerful spiritual impact���complete with possession���which reminded me of Jamaican Kumina and, I am told, shared many elements with Trinidadian Shango. And of course the great Bob was everywhere���on T-shirts at the Cimmaron monument and his voice coming from boom boxes in the street dances.

      Vudu.jpg Festival Martinique.jpg

      Next year���s Festival del Fuego is dedicated to Martinique. We need some enterprising souls to organise charters to these Festivals so as to avoid the time-consuming and costly flight through Panama and Havana. And what about a ferry charter from Port Antonio in Jamaica, now twinned with the city of Santiago? The city has many attractions, including the magnificent monument to Antonio Maceo, Black leader in Cuba���s war of independence from Spain, the tomb of Jose Marti, the famous and well-maintained Spanish fort ���El Moro���, and several art galleries.

      July 10, 2011.

      James and the Pan-Caribbean

      Now I would not want anyone to have the impression that CLR James���s was a narrow West Indian chauvinist, that his conception of the Caribbean was an exclusively Anglo-centred one. If I were to give you that impression I would be committing a grave error and a serious injustice to the legacy of CLR James. James was a historian, a Marxist historian, a historian of revolution; and he was profoundly aware of the historical forces that had shaped the foundation and evolution of Caribbean society; the forces of capitalism, the plantation system and slavery; which know no barriers of language; the forces of colonialism and imperialism; that rendered these islands pawns in the larger game of rivalry of the imperial powers; one day Spanish, the next day English, the next day French or Dutch or American; and so on; sometimes one island divided in two parts, each with a different imperial language.

      And the proof of this of course is that one of James���s best and most widely quoted books, was not written about the British West Indies at all. I am referring of to The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L���Overture and the Saint Domingue Revolution. A book of extraordinary scholarship and erudition; a detailed historical, economic and political analysis of Caribbean society under slavery, of the dynamics of race and class, of imperialism and national liberation, of freedom and self-emancipation. It was one of his earliest books, first published in 1938; and when it was republished in 1963, James added an Appendix. And the title he gave the Appendix was, from ���Toussaint l��� Overture to Fidel Castro���. So you see what I mean! As Dra. Graciela Chaillloux has written: ���The Cuban Revolution���s recent attainment of power was more than sufficient impetus and reason to re-examine the past century and a half of the history of the Caribbean. From a Marxist perspective, deeply rooted in Caribbean reality, James saw the personalities of Toussaint and Fidel as symbols of the certainty of the revolutionary transformation of Caribbean society���.

      Now note carefully what James says about these two revolutionaries and these two revolutions.

      Castro's revolution is as much of the twentieth century as Toussaint's was of the eighteenth. But despite the distance of over a century and a half, both are West Indian. The people who made them, the problems and the attempts to solve them, are particularly West Indian, the product of a peculiar origin and a peculiar history. West Indians first became aware of themselves as a people in the Haitian Revolution. Whatever it���s ultimate fate, the Cuban Revolution marks the ultimate stage of a Caribbean quest for national identity. In a scattered series of disparate islands the process consists of a series of uncoordinated periods of drift, punctuated by spurts, leaps and catastrophes. But the inherent movement is clear and strong. (CLR James, Black Jacobins, Appendix).

      The inherent movement is clear and strong! The movement of the people; the movement of Caribbean people! Can one doubt that James saw the Caribbean people as one people, a people with an enormous revolutionary potential, divided by language and by water, but linked by historical experience? Can one doubt that he saw the Cuban Revolution and the Haitian Revolution as being inextricably linked, products of the same historical currents, the current of self-emancipation, of ���smaddifiction��� as the late Rex Nettleford called it[1]), the same currents that feed this annual cultural celebration of the Caribbean self, this Festival del Fuego! And how fitting it is that it should be held here in Santiago de Cuba, cradle of the Cuban Revolution, and just a few hundred kilometres away from Bois Caiman, cradle of the Haitian Revolution!

      So when James spoke about Federation of the British West Indies as a historical necessity, we have to put it in context; the Federation would have to serve as a platform towards cooperation across the Pan-Caribbean space; and indeed with the nations of Latin America as well. He says:

      ���I have sympathy for those people who think of British Guiana as having a continental destiny. ...There is no reason why British Guiana, placed as it is on the South American Continent, should not be able to form associations of one kind or another with the other two Guianas...(but) ..It can attempt these connections only if it is firmly associated with the West Indian islands, with people who speak the same language, who have more or less the same type of historical experience, who have had the same European association. That is the natural unity. Upon that basis, while on the one hand Jamaica and these others can make their experiments for association with Cuba and Haiti, at that end of the curve, British Guiana can pioneer into these areas at this end... ��� (CLR James, lecture on Federation, 1958.)

      So I wanted to remind you of that point. Now back to Federation.

      The rest of this lecture is at


      [1] ���smaddifiction��� ��� to ���become somebody���; to assert one���s identity, dignity, right to be regarded as a human person equal in every essential respect to every other person.

      Norman Girvan
      Trinidad & Tobago
      Tel. 868-628-9429
      Mobile 868-782-9260
      Internet http://normangirvan.info
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