The Barrio Tivoli was an early destination of fleeing Frenchmen, the once regaled former Haitian plantation owners who got lucky and slipped out of a burning country hoping to dodge certain karmic destinies lurking round during the Haitian Slave revolt of 1812 for those of their ill conceived ilk. Ironically, soon after the uprising, the barrio of El Tivoli also became densely populated with freed Haitians slaves and their decedents who immigrated to the Cuban port neighborhood in search of jobs from their more affluent countrymen who spoke the same tongue. The same culture in a new world in a different way sewing the seeds of change and revolution in Cuba.
Nearly a century later shaped by the growing influences from the various Haitian drumming and dancing traditions like Tumba Francesa, la Conga El Tivoli was formed by Feliciano Mesa in 1911.With their unusual roots, Conga de El Tivoli quickly became the most prestigious, innovative and famous band winning the competition of the Congas in the carnival year after year. Then in the Carnival of 1915 El Tivoli surprised everyone in the audience and jury when they arrived with this strange looking horn of Chinese origin. To this day no one is quite sure how this instrument found it’s way in-between the drums and frying pans. Regardless, the sound revolutionized the rhythm and immediately became an integral part of every Conga even in today’s modern sound – like a long lost piece of the sonic puzzle finally making it’s way home from China to take it’s place amongst its brethren big drums of Africa.
But all was not so well for Felicano Mesa and his Conga El Tivoli. Despite their long running dominance and success out on the streets, after twenty five years in the neighborhood with declining support and subpar performances by his drummers compared to the emerging new Conga Los Hoyos, Feliciano Mesa decided to change his groups name to Paso Franco and move la Conga right up the street to another neighborhood on Trocha Street where a burgeoning merchant class had begun to flourish. Mesa believed he could find more support and sponsorships for his group there – a decision that haunts Conga Paso Franca to this day. Now, when they do not do well during invasions or parading through carnival the second–guessing always arises; should Mesa have ever left their roots just a little ways down the street.
Today, out on the street, El Paso Franco drummers and leadership still consider themselves the original and unique El Tivoli. They claim the prestige and cache attached with being the proud successors of Mesa and his magnificent innovation with the Corneta China:
But the rest of the Conga Groups refuse to accept that notion and constantly remind El Paso Franco that they are only Paso Franco and El Tivoli no more.
In 1938 when Felicano Mesa moved his base and sound he probably didn’t imagine that people would still be arguing about his decision in the 21st century but with the fierce competition that prevails during carnival season, every Conga and it’s followers find ways to out stage and discredit their opponents.