Even though this culture is of African origin, even though it is hundreds of years old, it is still very much alive here in Oriente." --- Roberto Sánchez Vigñot

Santiago trumpeters Leonel Doval and Lioll Brossal on their way home from the Academia de Música Lauro Fuentes. The two are part of an evening and weekend music education program which makes it possible for people previously trained and working in other professions to receive music degrees.

Roberto Sánchez Vigñot
Director, Cutumba Folkloric Ensemble

Let's start by you telling us how Cutumba came together.

Roberto Sánchez - In 1959 it was originally founded as a ensemble involving a large extended family, and in 1960 it became a professional group. With the triumph of the Revolution, due to the intrinsic cultural values we all shared and which were promoted by the Revolution, it became the top folkloric ensemble in Oriente (eastern Cuba), and was originally called El Folklórico de Oriente. We then split into two brigades. Cutumba as it was then called focused on exploring the cultural roots of this area, of this part of Oriente. The other group engages in more purely recreational dance and more modern interpretations. We began performing rumba and guaguancó, material based on Yorubá, Congo, and Carabalí. But we focused on Tumba Francesa and other Afro-Haitian roots. Throughout our existence we have maintained the influences of the region of Oriente, or eastern Cuba, especially those of Guantánamo and Santiago de Cuba, and the traditional and folkloric roots which these provinces areas have had historically.


The group has performed throughout Cuba?

Roberto Sánchez - The group has performed in many places - less in Havana, where we have performed only two or three times. But in a lot of others - Camagüey, Matanzas, the Isle of Youth, and so forth.


People these days are paying more attention to Haitian influence throughout the Caribbean. In Puerto Rico in the area of Ponce there are such influences in the Bomba. In the Dominican Republic a new cultural movement more readily recognizes Haitian influence, after years of denial and repression. Tell us more of the story of the impact of Haiti here in Cuba.

Roberto Sánchez - Afro-Haitian migration first began when slaves were brought over by French planters during the Haitian Revolution. Some important cultural manifestations arrived at this point. But let me start in what was the French colony of Santo Domingo. With the war of the mulattos and blacks and the division of the country, there arose a tremendous repression against people who were black. Cuba presented a nearby, more inviting and open place to many blacks from the island, and attracted various waves of migration by boat and rafts. Haitian people came to settle in the eastern, more mountainous parts of Cuba, all the way to Camagüey. It was primarily in the mountains that the Haitian immigrants founded new communities and continued their lives. But being mostly slaves, these communities faced a lot of oppressive conditions. There was some communication and exchange with the rest of the society, but for the most part these became separate communities. However, their influence was felt from the very beginning, and they engaged in agriculture, especially the cultivation of coffee and sugarcane and also the introduction of certain kinds of foods and customs which they brought with them from Santo Domingo.

Guantánamo and Santiago de Cuba were the cities closest to the mountains, and it was there that the mixing of the different ethnic groups was the heaviest. The people of Haitian stock suffered from discrimination, but this did not prevent the growth of cultural influence through for example the participation of Afro-Haitian people in our carnivals or in other expressions of our folklore in the area. The result of this eventually was that we all became fused with the Haitians and with these cultural influences.

For example, I am Haitian on my mother's side. My last name is Sánchez-Vigñot, the latter being a French name which came from Haiti. The rest of the members of the ensemble also are of Afro-Haitian descent and have Haitian last names.


Because of the history of Haiti and the proximity of Cuba to Santo Domingo, this phenomenon probably occurred here earlier and to a greater extent than in any other country. Today, you can see some Haitian influence in the music of Puerto Rico, and certainly in the music of modern day Santo Domingo. The influence in Cuba has been very significant, brought here by people who came both voluntarily or who were brought here as slaves. Throughout the past three hundred years, there have been massive migrations, as I said first in the 18th and early 19th centuries. In this century, in 1920 there was a great movement of people to Cuba, and in 1948. Following the Cuban Revolution such immigration picked up, and there are still Haitians arriving to Cuba today.


This process has led to the creation of what we have today: a culture with strong Afro-Haitian roots. Today, when we see Haitian performances and routines it is notable that these may be different from ours. Ours are more traditional, more true to the original forms and interpretations. In Spain, when we performed at the same festival as a Haitian ensemble, it appeared that their work was more penetrated, more influenced by outside cultural forces. Perhaps there exist more traditional interpretations in community or family settings within Haiti, but it appears that this is not the case in the official representations. Cutumba exists in order to maintain these roots in the most original way possible.

Independently, there were settlements of slaves in Oriente from the Arará/Dahomeyan civilization, which contributed much to the development of the culture. In Havana and the culture of western Cuba, the strongest influence came from the Yorubá, which is distinct from the Dahomeyan culture. The folklore which exists in Haiti is dominated by Arará influence, and that of Oriente is basically the same.


Can you give some examples of the performances of songs, their roots and the significance of some of the steps which accompany the songs?

Roberto Sánchez - Well (laughs), the singers can do this better than I because almost all of the songs are in creole. But the songs always speak to the realities of slavery, of the family, about the earth, of the oppression of slavery and the


possibilities of obtaining freedom or escaping, all in the creole language, or patois as it is better known here in Cuba. All of the songs - the Tumba Francesa, the Vodú, the Gagá always speak of these things, or of war. Sometimes of love. The Tajona is a form of folklore very typical to the region here, but which has a lot or European influence to it, but which has its roots in the experiences of slaves here. The dance imitates the movement of the grindstone drawn by oxen used to grind coffee. Here in Santiago, Cutumba probably does the best interpretation of the Tajona.


The Tumba Francesa, also of Afro-Haitian influence, arose as an imitation of the slave masters, from the slave's perspective. The slaves would receive the old clothes of the Europeans and wear them in dances which imitated the steps of the European dances. But while the masters would perform the same dances with their pianos, violins or whatever, the blacks would perform them only with drum accompaniment, and would include elements of Afro-Haitian religion with the dances.


Were these dances meant to parody those of the Europeans?

Roberto Sánchez - No, these were imitations. You see parody more so as a part of the Tajona, and in the Carabalí, which comes from a black society and which involves a controversia, an interplay between blacks and whites. The Tumba Francesa was developed by domestic slaves who spent a lot of time in the master's house, and who in their leisure time would perform these imitations of the European dances, wearing the old clothes of the masters.


You began to touch on the religious elements of your performances.

Roberto Sánchez - The name "Cutumba" means "Cuba Festival," but almost all of the dances performed by the ensemble are religious in their origins and practice. Almost all of the members of the ensemble are followers of distinct African based religions such as Santería, spiritism, Vodú and so forth. For sure, there are certain dances which are purely recreational and for personal enjoyment per se. But the majority have religious or mystical significance: they serve to draw strength to the participants in order to protect their families, to protect one in time of war, etc.