The reverberation from the shots fired in the Haitian slave revolt rippled out across the Caribbean, Americas, Africa and Europe pooling up in corners and crevices in distant communities echoing the realizations of buried hopes and silent fears as the shadow of this paradigm shift began to transform the world. Revolution. Uprising. Freedom for the worst affected.
This infectious energy of change had a myriad of rhythms and stories carrying messages from the past and dreams of a grand new future. In Santiago de Cuba, one of the initial ways this powerful seed from the revolution grew was in the Haitian émigré communities who formed societies, or Tumbas Francesas to keep united, organized and safe. These immigrants were not always welcomed; former slaves, black and often very poor trying to rebuild their lives from the ashes while embodying the very true fact that people will only take so much for so long before they push back, respond, avenge. By gathering and making music and performing the dances from the sweeter times of their history, these clubs or societies, as they called them, also created avenues to speak their mother tongue and maintain grounding connections in a tumultuous sea of change while honoring where they came from and ensuring no one ever forgot from whence they escaped. In the beginning of the 20th century, within the soft sounds of the Tumbas Francesas and the fluid steps the dancers performed, lay a sleeping demon in the smooth rhythms of their drums waiting only for the right time when the call to arms would alight and the sound would be called back into the fields and streets to again inspire a downtrodden people. Such is the range of the great rhythm waves of our times – the ability to soothe and too, formant the courage for an uprising.One such Tumbas Francesas society in Santiago de Cuba existed in the neighborhood of Santa Barbara. And next to their clubhouse grew a tremendous pine tree that dominated the landscape for there were no other pine trees near nor far. Soon everyone began calling the society by the tall pine tree, Tumba Francesa de Alto Pino.
In 1915 the Tumba francesa dissolved after being thrown out of their clubhouse building but in October, 1922 they found another building in the neighborhood and rented it from 1926 to 1943 only to lose their lease and have their Tumbas Francesas society dissolved again. There was no money. It was still a difficult existence being free. In 1950 Priciliano Cobas aka Centella, a young and ambitious drummer and descendant of one of the founders of Tumba Francesca de Alto Pino, created his Conga group and honored his ancestors by naming the Conga after the old Society. He organized the Conga for the carnival of 1950 and named it the Sons of Alto Pino. Then, in the mid 1950’s, feeling forced to abandon the conga, he sold all the drums. But this was not the death of the Conga de Alto Pino; each of the 6 congas has their own enduring spirit that rises above any one person or time. And such, Valentin Rodrigues took over the conga and bought more drums and kept on going and they have been an often misunderstood, maligned Conga ever since. Over the years in the Carnival competitions, Alto Pino has had mixed results – never a consistent, dominant force during the Carnival competition, though in the visitations to other Congas Alto Pino is rebellious, unpredictable, defiant and indifferent to the procedures and classical protocols of the fraternity of this fiery rhythm.
They dress how they want and don’t care what others have to say about them – they let their drums talk for them – sometimes literally – in the Carnival of 2005 when the jury gave the results of the competition, tempers in Alto Pino flared, and some threw their drums at the esteemed jurist in the jury’s stand. That move cost Alto Pino a high price; they were suspended from the competition.
In 2010, finally free of the suspension, Alto Pino rose with one of the most prestigious awards in the Island: the award ‘memoria viva 2010’.
Also of note, renown Cuban musician Rycardo Leyva was born and raised in Santa Barbara the neighborhood of La Conga de Alto Pino. He’s often said he used his memories of growing up in this neighborhood high on the hill so close to that Conga as the inspiration for his smash hit Añoranza por la Conga; a fusion of Conga rhythms and Son with elements of timba music and even cellos and violins:
With the synthesis of this brand new formula, Leyva topped the charts in the island for over a year.