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The Haitian Influence in Cuban Music and Dance Forms: Gagá

This Article was Submitted by Maylenis Ortega of Trinidad, Cuba.  Maylenis and I met in July of 2016 in Trinidad and fell in love dancing together in Trinidad.  I asked May to start sharing more of her knowledge with us here as she and her partner are a walking encyclopedia of knowledge, skill and talent about anything and everything related to dance, music and culture in Cuba.  

I am honored and blessed to have her as part of my team in Cuba!  I did my best to translate this from Spanish for you.  

Cuba and Haiti are both a mixture of many cultures from different countries. The music, dance, food and many aspects of Cuban culture today are heavily influenced by many different cultures and countries throughout it’s history.

Haiti has a very strong presence in Cuba and has been a rich source of cultural influence in Cuba throughout it’s history.
As a result of the Haitian Revolution, Haitians fled to the nearest coast.   French Blacks and Haitians arrived to Cuba through the Bay of Guantanamo and found refuge in Santiago de Cuba.  There they made Haitian settlements, creating the so-called Tombs French, whose associations  were not only to worship their patron saints and show their cultures, but served relief and mutual aid among them.

Today there are some existing settlements and musico-danzario groups in Santiago de Cuba and the region of Cuba known as the “Oriente” that continue to demonstrate and give value to the Haitian influence that has impacted Cuba’s history in many ways including traditional foods, songs and dances, all full of the passion and grace of the black Haitians.

 Among their songs and dances is the Merengue Haitien, the Congo, the Fodu and Gagá.  These dances and songs are festive, except Fodu which has more of a religious connotation.

Generally their festivals ended with Gagá,  as this is the richest rhythmically. Gagá allows the dancers to show off their dancing skills forming factions that challenge each other with acrobatic and pyrotechnic (technique candela) dances.   These are the dance of the baton, the Papa Vidro, the comecandela, the machete dance, dancing on stilts, and the very popular performance often seen in Trindad, Cuba as well,  the peeling coconut with teeth, just to mention a few. These maneuvers are performed generally by men, although women have been known to begin implementing them more in modern times.

The women typically can be seen dancing with flags of different colors, making sayeos and pelvic movements emitting little high-pitched sounds (shouts) with “laluleo” to give encouragement to the male dancers and musicians.  The women dance with strong percussive touches which demonstrate their strength, excite and energize the dancers and encourage a powerful full sound environment.

Traditional instruments used were three reels that were called Ereketé, Bula and Mama Tambó (drum major) and the bell.

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