A bit of history
Founded by the Spaniards in 1514, Santiago was the capital of Cuba from 1524 to 1549.
Cuba’s first cathedral was built there as early as 1528, and Santiago de Cuba actually served as the island’s capital until 1589.
At the centre of the new Spanish colony in the 16th and early 17th centuries, Santiago de Cuba was the capital of Cuba until it was usurped by Havana in 1607.
Because of its deep natural harbour and Caribbean coast, it was also the centre of the island’s prosperous slave trade in the 1700s and 1800s.
In 1898, the surrender of Spain to the United States took place in Santiago, but the city then gradually slipped to second-class status after the government moved to Havana.
The city began its multicultural boom with the influx of slaves from West Africa, bringing their own cultural practices and slowly blending them with those of the Spanish over the decades.
The sense that Santiago is a melting pot of cultures only increased in the late 1700s, with an influx of British and French immigrants seeking refuge in other Caribbean islands.
Cultural influences came mainly from Haiti, Jamaica, Barbados and Africa.
Today, Santiago is the only official “Hero City” on the island, revered as a bastion of Cuban nationalism and the cradle of the Revolution.
It was here, on July 26, 1953, that the Revolution began with the failed assault by Castro and his rebels on the garrison of the Moncada, then Cuba’s second largest military post.
“It was also here that Castro accepted the surrender of Batista’s army in 1959.
This is also where Castro’s ashes were finally buried after his death in 2016.
The town’s motto is “Rebelde Ayer, Hospitalaria Hoy, Heroico Siempre” – Rebellious yesterday, hospitable today, heroic forever.
The city was badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, losing most of its trees as well as many buildings, but subsequent repairs and a facelift to celebrate its 500th anniversary in 2015 mean that the centre is now attractive again.
The slower pace of development that followed has undeniable advantages.
Travelling some 20 kilometres along the coast in both directions from the provincial capital, you find yourself on another planet of rugged coves, breaking waves, historic coffee plantations and emerald hills where endemism is rampant.
Cuba’s true cultural capital?
This is a point that Havana would dispute, yet when you go to Santiago de Cuba, you might argue that the city is the true capital of Cuban culture.
There are things that are considered to be typically Cuban that actually began in Santiago de Cuba.
Some people say that the sound (which was the precursor of salsa) started in the Sierra Escambray mountains on the other side of the country, and others suggest that the music that gave birth to salsa really took off in Santiago de Cuba, popularized by African influences that were more present in the city than in other parts of the country.
Whatever story you choose to believe, there is no denying that your trip to Santiago de Cuba will be marked by a memorable soundtrack.
Music abounds during the city’s annual carnival (which sends the city into a frenzy in the second half of July – avoid it if you’re in the mood for rest and relaxation).
There are also an impressive number of concerts in different places in the city.
Don’t miss the Casa de la Trova to listen to exceptional music that showcases the different styles for which the city is famous.
Music in Santiago de Cuba
The passion of the people of Santiago for music dates back to the very foundation of the city.
From the first centuries of colonization, music from Spain and that of African slaves were linked: drums and rattles were added to vihuelas and guitars to create new sounds and rhythms, typical of cultural crossbreeding.
Although the verified existence of the Sound begins in the twilight of the nineteenth century, many claim that the Sound of the Ma’Teodora was played in Santiago de Cuba at the end of the sixteenth century and was the starting point of a long musical evolution in the rural areas of eastern Cuba.
Later, this rhythm would spread throughout the country and become the musical genre that best represents Cuban idiosyncrasy and culture.
The trovador takes his guitar and sings to the woman, to the country, to love.
The lyrics of the traditional trova songs have a literary intention that generally takes on more importance than the melody itself, although they are inseparable.
Artists of the stature of Pepe Sánchez and Sindo Garay are among the most talented and expressive authors and performers.
The trova does not escape the cultural crossbreeding, it is above all the fruit of it.
Thus, in the middle of the 19th century, with Pepe Sánchez as a precursor and teacher, the Cuban trova appeared.
UNESO World Heritage Sites
Santiago de Cuba has the distinction of being the only province in Cuba that has three of the ten properties recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage to date.
These are the Castle of San Pedro de la Roca and the Archaeological Landscape of the First Coffee Plantations of South-East Cuba, both declared in the category of cultural property in 1997 and 2000 respectively, and the Tumba Francesa, “La Caridad de Oriente”, classified as intangible property in 2003.
La Tumba Francesa
The Tumba francesa “La Charité d’Orient” was declared World Heritage by UNESCO in the category of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2003.
It arrived in Cuba with Haitian slaves, who were transferred to the eastern part of the country after the revolts that shook Haiti in 1790.
It is an authentic tradition that continues today, born of the fusion of the rhythms and songs of Dahomeyan Africa (Niger, Congo and Benin) with the French dances of the Caribbean, part of the best heritage of their slave ancestors and slave owners who bear witness to one of the most significant historical events of colonial America: the Haitian Revolution.
The Tumba Francesa originated in the eighteenth century, when French masters allowed their slave endowments to have fun at the time of the French Revolution.
It is called “tumba” because it has a rhythmic base given by the African drums, and “French” because the slave, owned by the French colonists, appropriated the dances, song lyrics and elements of the masters’ clothing, with a great sense of refinement.
Among its peculiarities is the harmonious combination of the elegance of the French dance, the liturgy of African religious beliefs, the lyricism of the songs and the sound of the drum beats or the tombs, instruments carefully made according to the indigenous techniques of the communities that cultivate the French tumba and that have been handed down from father to son for centuries.