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Conga in the Calle: A Day at the Calle Ocho Festival

It was already past noon on Sunday, March 10th, the day of the Calle Ocho Festival, and I was still at home, typing away on my laptop. At the last minute, I was putting the finishing touches on a LittleHavanaGuide.com article with tips for enjoying the festival.

Fortunately, my own tips helped remind me what to bring as I hurried to get ready. Hat? Yes, my Panama hat. Sunblock. iPhone charger.

I also brought other items not on the list, like a locally made cigar. A cowbell. My Little Havana T-shirt. I rushed out the door without even reviewing the map of the festival or checking out who was playing at its many stages.

Festivalgoers celebrating their roots.
Festivalgoers celebrating their roots. One young man is holding a metal guiro (musical instrument).

As I walked to Calle Ocho from my apartment, I saw my neighbors holding up simple cardboard signs advertising parking for rent. $10. Just a half block away the price increased dramatically: $25. Whoa!

When my boyfriend Lionel and I arrived at Calle Ocho it had already become a beehive of activity. Loud music boomed from a nearby stage, with some kind of Latin electro-techno-pop I didn’t care for.

Lionel is originally from the English-speaking, Central American country of Belize, and with my encouragement he bought a small Belizian flag sold by one of the many souvenir vendors on the street. Many festivalgoers wore flags wrapped around their necks like capes; others wore T-shirts or caps with flags or with the names of their countries of ethnic origin.

As we made our way up the street, I began to crave an arepa: Colombian-style corn cakes sandwiched around melted cheese. I ordered one from a vendor who handed it to me squeezed between a folded paper plate.

Mexican chicharrones de harina for sale.
Mexican chicharrones de harina for sale.

I munched on my snack while we meandered past lines of people waiting ever-so-patiently for tiny product samples (like Fabulosa  all-purpose cleaner), swaggering young folks adorned with tattoos, and guys with hair styles ranging from long locks under baseball caps to spiked hair to ponytails, and people of all ages with faces eager, glowing.

We were glad to see that our buddies at the local Mexican hole-in-the-wall El Carnal were doing well with their taco sales (3 for $5). Across the street, I snapped a photo of the classic Mexican street snack, chicharrones de harina, stuffed in clear plastic bags hanging from the sides of a vendor’s tent.

Grammy winning Colombian singer/actor/composer Carlos Vives with dancers.
Grammy winning Colombian singer/actor/composer Carlos Vives with dancers.

As we approached 13th Avenue, groups of dancers wearing folkloric dance attire walked towards us along the sidewalk. Dang — we’d missed the Carnaval de Barranquilla procession at 11 am! Someday I hope to see the original Carnaval de Barranquilla in Colombia, one of the world’s most legendary carnival parades and celebrations.

I asked one group of dancers if they could pose for a photo, and they agreed.

After I took the photo and we stepped past the group, one of the dancers — wearing his traditional Colombian hat — walked back to us and said, “Tu sabes que él es Carlos Vives?” He tilted his head back towards the group, his eyes filled with both pride and excitement.

Embarrassed that I didn’t know who he was, I just smiled and nodded. Only later did I learn that the man in the group wearing white was not a dancer — he’s a Grammy award winning Colombian singer, composer and actor! He’s also won three Latin Grammies.

It made me wonder what it must be like to be a superstar in one country but not recognized in another (although I’m sure that many in the U.S. DO know who he is). Carlos probably wondered why we had not asked for an autograph, a picture with him, or something!

B-boy doing head spins in Cuban Memorial Park.
B-boy doing head spins in Cuban Memorial Park.

To our right was an entire stage devoted to the traditions of Colombia, with a huge banner displaying the red, blue and yellow colors of Colombia’s flag.

Then we observed a crowd gathered in a circle in front of the Brigade 2506 memorial (at SW 13th Ave.). As I peered over shoulders I saw a young boy with a helmut walk into the circle and proceed to do some impressive head spins.

We didn’t stay long watching the b-boys. It was time to stop at one of my favorite hangouts, Los Pinareños fruteria. Angel, Jr. sold us a couple beers. At a wooden stand in front of the market, two helpers prepared the fruteria’s fresh-squeezed sugarcane juice (guarapo) — a much healthier drink option, it occurred to me later.

We continued on, savoring relief from the afternoon sun when we could find it. One family had settled in for a sun break at a shaded, closed off entrance to a rear parking lot, treating it like a pop-up concrete park.

We stopped briefly at CubaOcho, which today served as the festival VIP area (I had passes). This elegant cultural center is another favorite haunt of mine, but we stayed only long enough to pick up a festival map. I wanted to mingle once again with the crowds outside.

Festivalgoers order their food from a vendor
Festivalgoers order their food from a vendor

After passing Domino Park, we walked over to Art District Cigars, where owners Marco and Ana were sitting on stools in the doorway and a musician, whose name escapes me, was accompanying music soundtracks (a pista) with his metal guiro. As always, the old man wore his black hat and a slightly tattered suit jacket.

The cigar shop was fortunate to be sheltered by a shade tree, and a space in front of the sidewalk allowed some couples to dance to the loudspeaker’s Cuban son and conga music. The melodies mingled with the sounds of the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd bustling along the street and the loud music from other venues, but somehow this space of dance felt peaceful and calm.

I decided to join in with my cowbell, keeping in time with the clave (the underlying beat). The musician and owners smiled and more couples joined in the dance, including locals I recognized. Now I was feeling it … the essence of Calle Ocho.

A cooler/boom box at the Calle Ocho Festival
A cooler/boom box at the Calle Ocho Festival

When he took a break, the musician pulled me aside, and said in Spanish, “Please tell the most powerful person you know in Miami, the Mayor even, that they need to have this carnival go to 11 pm.” When I gave him a doubtful look, he continued, “I come from a country filled with misery and poverty, but when we have a carnival it lasts for 15 days and goes to 11 pm each night.”

His comment stayed with me after we decided to move on.

Where was the rumba?!

My ears scanned for the sound of the drums but no rumba was to be found. Perhaps at 19th Avenue, like last year? We walked on, and soon my eyes spotted three congas sitting next to a vendor stand.

Aha! I asked the musician standing next to them if this was the spot for rumba, and he said he was waiting for the other players. “Who?” I asked. “Junior,” he said. “I know Junior!” I replied. The boricua drummer promised that the rumba would start in about 15 minutes, after Junior had arrived.

A beautiful Impala lowrider on display.
A beautiful Impala lowrider on display.

Lionel and I continued up the street in the meantime. The crowds had thickened. Loud hip-hop thundered into the street from a stage at one of the avenues. I spotted lowriders on the other side of Calle Ocho, parked along the avenue. My favorite was a shiny silver impala glittering in the sun, its frame nearly touching the ground. Its roof was decorated with a mustard, gold and orange design that reminded me of the Southwest.

We pressed on. I caught sight of a vendor stand selling Jamaican food, and hoped I would find goat stew. Sure enough, they had everything I was looking for and served me up a plate. Lionel wasn’t hungry yet.

I ate standing up as strangers walked past us, including families, the moms and dads sometimes holding small children in their arms. Some mothers managed to push baby carriages through the dense crowd on the street. Beautiful young women, their long hair pulled back in shiny, dark ponytails, walked together and scanned the activity in the crowd.

This man is making a Puerto Rican alcapurrias.
This man is making a Puerto Rican alcapurrias.

Near the Jamaican food stand, I saw a man pushing his hands into an wet, yellowish dough with a texture that reminded me of a dense pudding. He shaped handfuls of the dough into a sort of oval shape and set them aside. In Spanish, I asked where this cuisine was from and what he was making.

Alcapurrias, de Puerto Rico,” was the response. One of the ladies working at the stand recognized me. Eventually we figured out how we had met.

One of my regrets about this year’s festival is that I did not try enough street food. How I wish I’d tried my first alcapurria!

It was time to check on the rumba, however, and sure enough, I saw Junior walking in the direction of the drummer I’d met. “I’ll see you at the rumba!” I said. He continued back down the street at a quick pace.

When Lionel and I returned to the rumba spot, Drummer #1 was on the phone, his eyes darting around the street. I spotted Junior further down the sidewalk, so we waved at him, motioning for him to return. “Tell him to come back!” I told his friend, and finally they found each other.

Junior turned one of the congas on its side, reached into its hollow base and pulled out a straw hat, which would serve to hold tips. Soon, he and his friend began with a rumba beat.

I took out my cowbell. This time, however, I muted it and played just a rumba clave: da-da, DA-da-da. Soon a space seemed to expand around the drummers, and people young and old started to drop their dollars in the hat.

Two drummers begin attracting a crowd with the sounds of Afro-Cuban rumba.
Two drummers begin attracting a crowd with the sounds of Afro-Cuban rumba.

One more unusual characters giving a tip was a man who wore a face masked in newspaper. His arms were also covered in newspaper. Was this his makeshift protection from the sun?!

All around us, the sounds of amplified, electronically generated music permeated the air, but the drums caught everyone’s attention it seemed. People lingered. In between jams, a man approached me and said he was from Honduras. In Spanish, he said these rhythms were part of his culture, too.

Indeed, people of African descent (and the drumming traditions of their ancestors) can be found across the Central American coast.

Lionel stood and watched, smiling.

Now we had to find a bathroom. I needed to charge my phone, too. We both figured it would be easier to find a spot if we returned towards 18th Avenue, and sure enough, we found the perfect place: G.R. Tabacaleras, owned by my buddy George Rico. George had blocked off the corner entrance to the store with a table from where he was selling cigars and drinks. He unlocked the other door so we could enter.

Roast chickens watching the festival.
Roast chickens watching the festival.

The elegant interior with its dark polished wood accents, high ceilings and leather sofas was a perfect temporary retreat from the crowds. I bought a bottle of water, sat in a comfortable chair and charged my iPhone; Lionel lit up a cigar. We were soon joined by a tall, gregarious man from West Palm Beach and his girlfriend.

As we chatted, George kindly brought us all Cuban coffee served in delicate ceramic cups. Yes, it was another perfect Calle Ocho moment! We could still see the action on the street from the cigar store’s large windows facing Calle Ocho, and from the open corner entrance we could hear all its sounds, including … were those drums?

The corneta china -- a key sound in the conga line.
The corneta china — a key sound in the conga line.

My ears honed in on the sound the way a child’s can hear the ice cream truck from blocks away. I immediately recognized what I was hearing. It was not only the drums, it was the campanas used for the conga line: not cowbells, but metal brake drums!

“We gotta go,” I said to Lionel as I jumped up from my seat, almost leaving my phone and the charger behind. We both walked quickly to the unblocked entrance and left, thanking George, and wove our way through the mass of people on the street and towards the conga musicians.

They were easy to find as someone held their distinctive light blue sign up high: Conga Coco Yé. The group preserves the conga music traditions of Oriente, from the eastern end of Cuba. In this region, the city Santiago de Cuba holds a famous carnaval that dates back to the 17th century.

But back to Calle Ocho. I was ready to do exactly what Gloria sang about in 1985:

Come on, shake your body baby, do the conga!
I know you can’t control yourself any longer.”

Dale!!  Yeah, it was time to do the conga!

At first, though, I was so squeezed in with the crowd behind the musicians it was impossible to do so. I barely caught up with them as they turned towards one of the stages where Miami favorites Hansel y Raul were about to perform. Out of respect for the Cuban-born duo, the conga musicians finished a song and took a break.

Popular local Cuban musicians Hansel & Raul perform on stage
Popular local Cuban musicians Hansel & Raul perform on stage

While the crowd waited for Hansel y Raul and their band to begin their set, I stood by the side of the stage in a shady spot in front of the Singer sewing store. Nearby, young pro-immigration activists shouted from bullhorns, carried large banners (“Keep Families Together!”) and distributed literature.

Lionel had gone off to greet some friends at a nearby shop.

When he returned, I was dancing by myself to “Los Reyes de Charanga” (the kings of charanga), cans and bottles at my feet because there were no nearby trash cans (or they were full). The audience had arms in the air, loving this traditional Cuban music with its infectious melodies and rhythms.

After one of the songs had ended, the conga group returned and this time I stayed in front of the man with the sign. Eventually, I kept in step with a young woman (Melani) who knew the comparsa steps (da, da, da — da-DAH!) and we stayed in front of the line the entire way until we arrived at 27th Avenue! Next to us, and sometimes behind us, her friends and strangers also joined in with the steps.

Drums on the sidewalk during a rest stop
Drums on the sidewalk during a rest stop

Two years ago I danced the conga all the way from 14th Avenue to 27th.

An older Cuban man was like the trickster in front of us, dancing this way and that and helping to open the way for us through the tightly packed crowd. For many blocks, a woman in her ’60s held up a Cuban flag (or was it a shirt — I can’t even remember) and walked ahead of us all, sometimes turning to face us. She too had her role.

Sometimes we would end up too far ahead of the drums and we would circle back in front of them, before being pressed forward, ever forward …

Some of the conga song/chants were anti-Chavez and anti-Castro, and often folks would sputter out their own curse word contributions against the two. Most of time, however, the musicians and others joined in traditional songs, with the cornet China (a reed-like trumpet) playing a melody, and people singing a phrase in response.

Here I am dancing the conga.
Here I am dancing the conga.

We would rest at particular spots, when Lionel and I would chat and talk (he was walking with the group). When the line would start up again, somehow we’d make our way past baby carriages, the elevated police stands in the middle of the street, and the especially packed areas at the intersections, not far from the stages. At one point we passed another conga group making its way down the street in the opposite direction!

People brightened with delight when they saw us, even many of them who had been sauntering with a bit of toughness in their stride. We weren’t on a stage with a dozen speakers amplifying our sounds to the masses. None of us were celebrities. Beyond the musicians, most of us singing and dancing were strangers to each other.

Still, we represented something ancient and beautiful and glorious: the soul of the street, the music of the street, the dance of the people. Everyone and anyone could sing along or dance along.

PALO!'s performance at Calle Ocho.
PALO!’s performance at Calle Ocho.

Finally, we made it to the foot of the stage where the group PALO! was performing. We female dancers felt a bond from having danced so far together: we hugged and parted ways, and I returned to PALO!’s stage.

The local Afro-Cuban funk band had created an atmosphere that reminded me of a block party: strangers felt like neighbors, or even like extended family.

In her heartfelt way, the singer, Leslie Cartaya, sang:

... barrio que acuna sus penas, penas de un tiempo mejor
que donde tú va a gozar, donde donde tú va a guarachar
donde bailas donde gozas, sí, en La Habana, mi Habana,
goza, goza, goza La Habana entera
ay, ríe y baila a tu manera.

[Translation: Neighborhood that cradles its sorrow, longing for better times.
Where are you going to have fun? Where are you going to enjoy yourself?
Yeah, you’re gonna have fun and dance in Havana
The whole city of Havana will enjoy it
Laugh and dance in your own way]

Yes, you’re going to have fun in Little Havana. The whole world will enjoy it: laugh and dance in your own way.