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This past July, the Toronto Morris Men visited Santiago de Cuba,
invited as part of a Symposium on Carnival Costume Design put on by the
Cuban Union of Writers and Artists (UNEAC).
Our association with the Symposium began a year earlier when Jose Antonio Prades
Hung, who is involved with UNEAC, and Maria Luisa Bernal, a prominent Carnival
costume designer, visited Toronto and were invited by TFMM fool John Mayberry to
a practice. Jose Antonio invited us to Cuba that same night, at our usual pub
session. I think we all had a roughly similar thought process as we considered
the offer: "That would be crazy! But wouldn't it be great if we could really do
it? Wait, why can't we really do it?"
So, on July 16th, nineteen of us took off for Cuba - fourteen Men and five of our family members. As we arrived at the airport in Holguin, Jose Antonio was there to greet us with flowers, and we went down to Santiago de Cuba on the southeast coast the next day. We were put up in various casas particulares (licensed rooms in private homes) in the Santa Barbara neighbourhood of Santiago, all within walking distance of each other and Jose Antonio's own house. It was perfect for us; freed from the isolation of a tourist hotel, we felt closer to the day-to-day fabric of the neighbourhood.
Our first dance spot was in the cabaret space of Santiago's largest theatre,
the Heredia, for the opening of the Symposium. Jose Antonio had invited
several young artists, dancers, and musicians to meet us, many of whom we
befriended and saw often during our week there. After a dinner and some other
musical presentations, we got up and danced our set to an amazingly enthusiastic
response. Afterwards, we presented a Canadian flag to a representative of the
Ministry of Culture who was in attendance, and sang "Let Union Be" from the
As the evening went on, we were led by a natural momentum to an outside courtyard, where, under the benevolently bemused watch of the military guards, we decided to teach our new Cuban friends some Morris dancing. Despite a bit of rum and language-barrier inspired chaos, we were impressed by their eagerness and fearlessness for the dancing.
But showing off our dancing was far from a one-sided affair. The first night in Santiago de Cuba we were treated to a night at the Casa de la Trova, probably the city's most well-known night spot, where the dancing spilled out onto the balcony as the layered rhythms from the large and energetic salsa band washed out into the city air. The next day we were given a lesson in the basic steps by a two of the young dancers. Over the week, our hosts often got us dancing, either in traditional music rooms such as the Pena del Son, or to the various conga and steel drums bands with whom we met and exchanged performances.
A major highlight of the trip for us was our visit with the Conga de los Hoyos, Cuba's top conga band. The Hoyos introduced their band of 30-some players, explaining the role of each of the drums and various instruments, and began to play. We traded performances with them and slowly gained the attention of passersby, who began filtering in and peering through the glassless windows.
We found a certain affinity with the Hoyos and fed off of each other in
increasingly energetic performances, culminating in a wild piece by the Hoyos in
which one of the drummers entered a Santeria trance, waving a bundle of leaves
and getting us up to dance with him as sweat streamed down our faces and soaked
We were not quite done, however, and were itching to dance the Morris in what is, for us, its natural environment - the public street. We set up and began dancing in a large island in the middle of a wide avenue outside the Hoyos' practice space. Besides los Hoyos and the people traveling with us, we attracted quite a large crowd, who seemed to regard us with a mixture of puzzlement and enthusiasm that we are not unused to in Toronto.
We also got to dance in the Parque Cespedes, the central square of Santiago bordered on one side by the city's great cathedral and on the other by the Ayuntamiento (City Hall), from the balcony of which Castro announced the new government in 1959. This was another great dance spot and we were well-received by a crowd of both Cuban locals (to whom we passed out flyers that we had had translated into Spanish and printed up before we left) and somewhat confused tourists, including some very amused folks from England.
After our stand in the square, we were introduced to a five-piece female vocal group who called themselves the Vocal Divas, and were treated to a performance of a capella spirituals and Cuban songs in the foyer of an ornately marbled old hotel. Anyone who's spent more than a few minutes with the TFMM knows that we love to sing, and we often used a song as a farewell or thank you to the artists and groups that we met. For the Vocal Divas, we offered Paul Read's version of the Mingulay Boat Song, and their joining in the chorus was one of many moments of cross-cultural elation.
In downtown Santiago there is a museum dedicated to the Carnival, its walls
hung with costumes, props, instruments, and posters from Carnivals past. This
proved to be revealing from a Morris perspective; as we walked in the building,
the room's centrepiece was a Carnival prop that looked like nothing so much as a
hobby horse. Nearby in a glass case was a long pole with ribbons woven near the
top and streaming down its sides. John Mayberry also discovered parallels
between his Fool and the traditional Cuban Orisha, or god/trickster character,
portrayed by many bands in the Carnival parades. The character, named Elegua,
appeared in many incarnations, but was always outside the main formation of
dancers, and was constantly engaging in various antics and rituals, serving as a
similar interface between crowd and performers that a Morris fool does. Whether
these parallels are completely random or not, they were certainly exciting and
wonderful to notice.
On the night of the Carnival parade itself, Jose Antonio told us that it was traditional for all the groups in the parade to walk, in costume, from their own neighbourhoods to the Carnival site. Not ones to break tradition, we met and changed into kit at Jose Antonio's house as Oscar, a friend of Jose Antonio's who was acting as a translator for us, taught us a popular Carnival chant - Oigan Santiagueros Sigan Adelante (roughly something like "Listen, Santiagans, go forward").
We must have been a spectacle in our kit, with the sounds of our bells and our newly learned chant ringing through the neighbourhoods of Santiago, as we made our way down to the Carnival. Many people along the way leaned out of their windows to cheer us on or chant along with us. When we arrived, the Carnival site was teeming with people and overflowing with sound and music. As the parade started, we watched the Cuban performers go by in shimmering costumes as fireworks went off directly overhead, the shattered shells clattering at our feet.
Soon, it was our turn. As we lined up, the announcement went over the loudspeaker: "For Canada, the Toronto Morris Men!" and we Winstered on to, I'm sure, the largest cheer those words have ever inspired (we had to stay together mostly by visual cues as it was impossible to hear the music). As Kevin got a microphone and we did a ten-man version of our dance Al's Bunions, John danced around to the crowd, handing out red hankies that he'd previously stuck in his belt to make a sort of pointed skirt.
We finished our dance to great cheers. Before we left, Oscar got us to do our
Carnival chant once more into the microphone, and we danced off with the crowd
After the exhilaration of the parade, we finished our tour with a quieter, though no less moving, performance in the village of El Cobre, the home of the shrine to the patron saint of Cuba. Jose Antonio had arranged for the village schoolchildren's steel drum band to meet us and exchange performances, and as we arrived, there was already a crowd waiting for us in a tree-covered cul-de-sac. We were struck again, as we were at so many places on our tour, by the peacefully vibrant energy that exists amid so much obvious poverty, and being able to experience that side of Cuba warmed our hearts.
It was thrilling to be able to share our dancing in a culture in which artists, musicians and dancers are so valued and respected. None of us knew quite what to expect when we started, but the hospitality and enthusiasm we were shown from everyone we met was overwhelming. We were often caught, whether preparing to go on at the Carnival parade, getting wrapped up in the performances of los Hoyos, singing with the Vocal Divas, or in countless other moments, simply looking at each other in smiling disbelief that we were lucky enough to be here.
John Mayberry and
Stefan Read contributed to this article. More
photos than you probably want to look at can be found at