SANTIAGO DE CUBA
After the sudden death of La Conga el Guayabito director, Arnaldo Cruz, and the subsequent internal mayhem, debilitating strife, and spiteful conflicts a seasoned group of drummers broke away on their own determined to make a better sound. Armed with these artistic intentions, Conga San Agustin was officially founded in 1922 headed by Victoriano Palacios, (aka Vitue) a respected maverick and free thinker and under his suave direction from the very first slap of the drum, from all accounts, Conga San Agustin had a pleasing and yet most distinctive sound. But Vitue wanted more; more rhythms, more cadence, bigger sound. By the late 1920s Vitue had pushed Conga San Agustin’s rhythm completely out the confining box by introducing a kitchen implement as a street instrument – los sartenes (frying pans) – used adroitly to cut across the thick layers of 15 congas in their big sound.
The metal twang of the frying pans separated the San Agustin conga from all the others bands in Santiago de Cuba but not for long for adept musicians know a beautiful sound when they hear a beautiful sound no matter from whence it comes and so it was in the very next year’s street Carnival competitions all the other Congas in the city had imitated San Agustin’s use of the kitchen essential as a driving rhythmic instruments and just like that the sound of the island of Cuba had morphed onto a radically new plain. Frying pans: it’s not how something looks but what it sounds like in the hands of masters that creates the wonder and tension you feel inside. In this spirit, many years later the frying pans were traded in for automobile brake-drums they call Campana (Bell) and to this day San Agustin’s bell players strike different cadences than the other Congas. And despite the enduring and often heavy criticism from the other Congueros about the deviations from the classic Conga rhythms, San Agustin marches to a different drum honoring the peculiar rhythms found in the vast sonic frontiers of what if, what more, what else, as they move boldly into the unheard wilds of the untried.
In 1978 while the world festival of youth and students was celebrated in Havana, Cuba, the Santiago de Cuba Carnival commission asked San Agustin leadership to be the one Conga who represented Santiago province in the festivities. A coveted honor. Due to their storied success in Havana with their energy poured into their unique rhythms, Raul Lopez aka Tiburon, the current conga director of Conga San Agustin, convinced the commissioner that the band should be the Official Band of the Santiago de Cuba’s baseball team throughout the national championships.
The Congueros played so well raising so many spirits during the pitched baseball battles, Conga San Agustin became the official band of the baseball team in perpetuity. This watershed moment has reaped massive unforeseen benefits for the band’s sound. Unlike the other 5 conga groups, due to the frequency of the baseball games, San Agustin sound is always sharp for the group plays three, sometimes four, times a week in the home stadium during the six month season working hard on different ways to fire up the crowd both when the baseball team is down and certainly when the team is up and winning. They are also paid. By the time Carnival season comes around and the best band competition begins, San Agustin is a well oil machine flowing without missteps having already worked out the kinks in the demanding forum of the baseball stadium where they must play hard and loud with positive energy to create the right rise in the crowd. The clear advantage of being together for 6 months representing one of the best baseball teams in Cuba, the positive exposure and new fans they gain weekly by their performances in the stadium stands during the games makes the other congas burn with want. San Agustin is the most respected rival, to Conga los Hoyos – and their parades are followed by thousands. The drummers of San Agustin are very colorful during their parades and always the favorite of the youths because of the band’s continuous experimentation with some of the classic Cuban rhythms as well as the current popular sounds in Cuban music twisted up new into a great something else to dance to.