By Patricia Grogg
HAVANA TIMES, May 29 (IPS) — The “Festival of the Caribbean,” or “Fire Festival” held annually in the eastern Cuban city of Santiago de Cuba, takes place this year from July 3–9. A “large and significant” Honduran delegation is expected representing that country’s Garifuna culture.
“These festivals have consolidated as a forum for exchanges between diverse cultural manifestations in the region,” said Orlando Verges, director of the Caribbean Center (Casa del Caribe); organizer of this event, along with the Cuban Ministry of Culture and the Cuban Friendship Institute.
In statements via telephone from Santiago de Cuba, 847 kilometers from Havana, Verges said so far attendance has been confirmed by guests from 12 countries and by more than 70 Latin American artists and intellectuals, although it is expected that the representation from Honduras – this year’s invited country of honor – will be the larger.
Verges said Honduras President Manuel Zelaya has expressed an interest in attending the 29th edition of the Caribbean encounter. “We don’t have confirmation of that visit (but) it would be the first time that a president from the region attended a Festival of the Caribbean,” he commented.
The Honduran delegation will conduct demonstrations of music, theater, dance, poetry and storytelling, visual arts, concert music and contemporary dance. In addition, there will be samples of work by 10 caricaturists, and the participation of singer-songwriter Aurelio Martínez and the National Garifuna Folkloric Ballet, directed by Crisanto Melendez.
There will also be samples of two culinary styles, one of Honduras and another by the Garifuna, one of the several ethnic groups in that nation, along with the Lencas, Sumos, Tolupans, Pechs and Misquitos. These groups collectively constitute almost 10 percent of the population of the country’s 7.8 million inhabitants.
Who are the Garifunas?
According to specialists, the Garifunas are descendents of the indigenous Carib people and of African slaves who were shipwrecked and took refuge along the coast more than 200 years ago. Most of them live on Bay Island and on the Atlantic coast of Honduras.
Their language, agriculture and religion are very similar to those of their Carib ancestors, while their dances, drumming and art have a strong African influence. However, experts warn that despite their having been able to preserve their lifestyle, there are many “external influences” that threaten their existence.
Patricia Cardona, the director of the National Institute of Anthropology and History of the Republic of Honduras, noted that the ethnic Garifunas have been able to preserve many of their traditions, as well as their language, culinary arts and rituals.
“Their form of life is very special and characteristic. They inhabit the entire northern area of Honduras and have some specific ways of expressing themselves through dance and various traditions that they continue to conserve – like the cult of the dead, the way of educating themselves and the way of living in a community,” Cardona commented.
Also attending the event in Santiago de Cuba will be a group representing Honduran academics and historians, among them Darío Euraque, director of the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History, as well as the Honduran minister of Culture, Arts and Sports, Rodolfo Shepherd Fasquelle.
“Regional participation in the Fire Festival has increased every year,” Verges noted, stressing that in the national environment the event has been established as a natural-alternative space for cultural and traditional expressions of the country.
The point of departure for these encounters, which began in 1981, was the necessity of recognizing the cultural values of immigrants from Haiti, Jamaica and other Caribbean countries who are scattered across Cuba.
Music and dance groups from the Jamaican-Cuban and Haitian-Cuban communities, for example, emerged from their anonymity thanks to the festival, which also allowed them to be recognized by each other and to confirm likeness and differences with their counterparts in other Caribbean countries.
The program of these encounters combines examples of theater, dance and music in the streets and other open spaces with theoretical workshops organized by the Caribbean Center, an institution that promotes research and cultural exchanges in the region.
The agenda includes a main theoretical event titled “The Caribbean that Unites Us,” although simultaneously there will be workshops on poetry, oral traditions, popular theater, dance and religious traditions, in addition to a film series and concerts both indoors and out, according to the organizers.
Each annual event concludes with the “Celebration of the Gagá,” borrowing from Haitian culture during Easter Holy Week. On the last day of that religious ceremony, it is customary for a symbolic Judas to be burned to expiate his guilt. That ritual has been incorporated in the Festival of the Caribbean through the incineration of an enormous devil made of straw and plant materials.
The term “Fire Festival,” which the festival adopted several years after its creation, is due to the fact that this element is associated with all African cultures that have real weight in the formation of Caribbean identity, Verges explained.
Because of this, fire was present as a resource to the independence movements in the Caribbean and Latin America; in addition, it was used by African slaves in their war tactics. In Cuba, the Mambí army (independence fighters) used it to burn villages and crops, which contributed to the decimation of the Spanish forces.
The Caribbean Center, founded June 23, 1982, has played a decisive role in the promotion of research and cultural exchanges in the Caribbean region, while the holding of the festival figures among its most important functions.
Translation by Havana Times