Seafood and meat dishes at excellent prices (0053 22 65 2292; Enramada 605 between Calle Barnada y Plaza de Marte). named after a ruined French coffee plantation in the mountains (now a Unesco World Heritage Site), the aroma of roasted beans filled the old tavern, which has been serving Cuban coffee since 1868. The black, bitter drink is sweetened with sugar and followed by a slug of canchánchara – the local brew, a blend of sugar-cane alcohol, lemon and honey, not unlike a caipirinha.
Rum is another celebrated local tipple. Don Facundo Bacardí Massó discovered the secret of ageing rum and opened his first factory in Santiago in 1862, but the Bacardís left Cuba when companies were nationalised by Castro’s new government around 100 years later. Today’s big brands are Ron Caney and Ron Santiago. Drunk in a mojito or a daiquiri, they help loosen the limbs and inhibitions when the call to the dance floor must be answered.
In the Casa de la Trova in downtown Santiago, I sat down simply to listen to a son cubano band, Septeto Cumbre, but before long I was up on my feet, responding to its African-Spanish-Cuban combo of double bass, güiro (a hollow gourd, played by rubbing a stick along the notches cut in one side), maracas, drums, campana (a bell), guitar and flute. A white-capped Cuban, Iván, beckoned me to join him. He led, twirling me in vueltas (laps) around a room lined with paintings of the greats of son under the whirr of the ceiling fan. The Cuban anthropologist and essayist Fernando Ortiz once described this heady music as “auditory rum”.
Learning about the conga and the comparsas with Félix Bandera Ble, I came to appreciate Santiago’s unique blend of cultural, patriotic and religious influences: African drums were used to carry arms, medicines and messages to the mambises (revolutionary fighters in Cuba’s War of Independence against Spain); a life-size model of a white horse, belonging to the Christian apostle Santiago, parades alongside Los Hoyos as they dance the conga; the colours of the conga in turn signify the Orishas (saints) of Santería – red for the warrior Changó, yellow for the feminine and sensual Ochún; and the “burning of the devil”, which takes place in early July each year, is not just an anachronistic ritual but an essential practice believed to exterminate evil.
“The devil effigy has to burn completely,” Félix Bandera Ble told me, “otherwise problems will arise in the city. In 2012, the devil did not burn completely and Hurricane Sandy later caused a lot of devastation.” This month, I am told, there was nothing left but ashes, heralding a more auspicious year.