The term conga refers to the music groups within Cuban comparsas and the music they play. Comparsas are large ensembles of musicians and dancers with a specific costume and choreography which perform in the street carnivals of Santiago de Cuba and Havana; the instrumentation differs between congas congas habaneras. Congas santiagueras include the corneta china, an adaptation of the Cantonese suona introduced in Oriente in 1915, its percussion section comprises bocúes, the quinto and the pilón, as well as brakes which are struck with metal sticks. Congas habaneras lack the corneta china but include trumpets and saxophones, they have a different set of percussion instruments: redoblantes, quinto and metallic idiophones such as cowbells, frying pans and rims. Congas and comparsas have a long history which dates back to the 19th century, with musical traditions being passed down from one generation to the next; the older comparsas are derived from cabildos de nación or other social groups, whereas the ones, called paseos, are derived from barrios.
The music of the congas has become a genre itself, being introduced into Cuban popular music in the early 20th century by artists such as Eliseo Grenet and Armando Oréfiche and his Havana Cuban Boys. They have been present for decades in the repertoire of many conjuntos, Cuban big bands and descarga ensembles having an influence on modern genres such as salsa and songo; the conga drum known in Cuba as tumbadora, took its name from the congas de comparsa. The history of the conga is obscure and its origins remain unknown. In the early 19th century, although the word "conga" is not found in written sources, there are references to "tumbas", according to Brea and Millet, "tumba" refers to the percussion ensemble of the conga. "Tumba" is mentioned in connection with mamarrachos as early as 1847. A word that may be synonymous with "tumba" is the word "tango", mentioned as early as 1856. Most 19th-century writers were negative towards Afro-Cuban culture and little information about the tumbas or tangos was recorded.
"Congo" was the word used to designate African slaves brought to Cuba from the Congo region of Africa. According to the rules of Spanish grammar, "congo" became a masculine noun/adjective and its feminine counterpart was formed by changing final "o" to "a." This Spanish noun/adjective pair has been used in Cuba to designate anything pertaining to the above-mentioned African slaves and their culture. Therefore, some have assumed that "conga" was an adjective, that the comparsa was dropped and conga changed to a noun. However, the word conga may derive from either "maconga" or "nkunga" in "the language of the Congo". Ortiz states that the drum called bokú is "...typical of the congos." Goodman mentions the “comparsa conga” in conjunction with a carnaval figure known as “el Rey del Congo”, which seems to confirm a kongo ethnic connection to the conga. The word bokú means “drum” in Kikongo. In the early years after the establishment of the Republic of Cuba in 1902, there were numerous decrees by successive mayors of Santiago de Cuba banning "African drums and tangos".
These decrees were not faithfully enforced: “In spite of the prohibitive proclamation, the tumbas echoed loudly everywhere, including in the most central and heavily-traveled areas. And together with the raucous and uncouth sound of the African tumba, the well-known arrolladera displayed its contortions.” According to Pérez, “Although the prohibition of African manifestations was reiterated, the comparsas were permitted. In reality, it was just a question of maintaining on paper that which could not be enforced due to the express desire of the bourgeoisie, to whom these manifestations were a diversion, ‘something colorful’ and amusing.” Opponents to the conga in print outnumbered defenders. The conga was a thing of the illiterate Afro-Cuban working people, while the writers of editorials and angry letters to the editor were upper-class Hispano-Cubans. One prominent attacker of the conga, the most florid in his prose, was the long-time mayor of Santiago, Desiderio Arnaz, who expressed the feelings of some upper-class Cubans in a newspaper article of 1925: “I will have you know that the initial days of our traditional masquerades – which have just passed – have left painful impressions in my mind.
Allow me to explain. In every way, the carnival has been a joyful celebration of the soul of the people, an exhibition of good artistic taste, a competition of original ideas, a contest in which thought and action have always vied in giving objective form to the perfect conception of Beauty and towards the noble intent of the dignification of society, but here, in our city, in one of those scientifically inexplicable regressions towards a dark past, certain elements
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