Well, we’re coming right up on Pentecost. I confess that I don’t actually know what Pentecost is, not having a religious bone in my body, but in the DR it is celebrated as the Fiesta del Espíritu Santo (Feast of the Holy Spirit). That is the main time of year in which the Cofradía de los Congos del Espíritu Santo gets together to play a very unique type of music in Villa Mella, Dominican Republic, just north of the capital. So I figure this is a good time to put up some info on the Congos de Villa Mella. It is I think the only major type of Dominican traditional music that I haven’t yet been able to experience in person since I’m usually not in the country in the months of May and June, but I hope to rectify the situation before long.
The Congos are a type of drum ensemble music only played in this one part of the country. Both instruments and repertoire are different from those of the more widely-distributed palos. In fact, the congos are so unique that in 2001 UNESCO declared the Cofradía de Congos del Espíritu Santo de Villa Mella one of its 19 “master works of oral and intangible heritage of humanity” worldwide. UNESCO is currently engaged in a research and preservation project with the Congos.
In Carlos Hernández Soto’s book titled Kalungah Eh! Los Congos de Villa Mella, he tells us that cofradías are voluntary associations that arose in Spain as to provide mutual help among the poor. Because blacks were excluded from white associations, they began to form their own cofradías in Seville during the 14th century. From there, the organizations came to Latin America and in the DR they still exist in San Juan de la Maguana, Cotuí, and Villa Mella. “Congos,” he goes on to tell us, was a term applied to blacks in general in the colonial Dominican Republic, since many African slaves in the DR came from the Congo River area. Today, the word refers to the music played by people associated with the Cofradía or Hermandad (brotherhood), who are still very connected to their African roots. It seems to have similarities to ritual music associated with groups of Congo origin in Cuba and Brazil.
The music of the congos is principally played for the days of Espíritu Santo, la Virgen del Rosario, and the funerals of cofradía members, but the congos are so important that now even non-member residents ask for the music to be played upon their deaths. They also play for cultural activities and fiestas patronales, but death rites are the most important use for the music of the congos. Unlike in Cuba’s African brotherhoods and secret socities, both men and women are allowed and can hold offices in the cofradía. Women are not prohibited from playing the ritual drums. The Espíritu Santo is the patron saint of the area and Hernández Soto suggests that the saint is syncretised with Kalunga, god of the dead in the Congo-Angola region.
Congueros, members of the cofradía, say that their instruments were brought directly to Villa Mella by the Espíritu Santo in the form of a man. The ensemble consists of two double-headed drums, the congo or palo mayor of about 3 feet long and the conguito or palo menor of about 12 inches. These are combined with a couple of idiophones: maracas and the canoíta (little canoe), a hollowed-out wood block with a handle that’s beat with a stick.
Congueros say they have 21 toques (pieces), since this is a sacred number, but there are actually more than that. All are sung in call-and-response fashion. The song “Palo Mayor” refers literally to the lead drum and figuratively to the group’s principle ancestor, as ancestors are generally called “tronco mayor” (main trunk) or “cabeza mayor” (main head) and children are known as “ramazones” (branches). Trees seem to be very meaningful in general to congueros, as a recent article reported that the Hermandad and an agronomist were protesting the cutting down of five trees in the park in Villa Mella that stood over the spot in which they have always played. The agronomist argued the trees, too, were part of the “patrimony of humanity.” The “king” of the hermandad, 96-year-old Pio Brazoban, called them the “soul of the fiestas.”
Hernández Soto describes the Fiesta del Espíritu Santo as follows. During the nine days before Pentecost, each part of Villa Mella elects kings and queens who all meet at the parish church on the eve of the feast. Official greetings are exchanged, and congregants enter singing “Ya llegó, ya llegó” accompanied by percussion instruments (panderos, balsie, mongo, and guiro). To the left of the entrance, the Cofradía plays and one couple at a time dances, then people pray and sing novenas. Theater and poetry may also be enacted by the youth. During these activities, the cofradía exits to the park, where they set up opposite the house of the current king of the cofradía. They take turns singing and entering the house to eat. In another part of the park, people sing and dance pri-prí (local accordion music) until morning. On the next day, Sunday, a couple dances a solemn congo piece in front of the alter during the offertory, to the accompaniment of the church choir. After mass, a procession tours the town with the image of the dove while singing pieces like “Ya llegó” and “Quítame lo malo,” and the cofradía again plays, continuing on rotation for the rest of the day.
Different music is used during funerary rites, Hernández Soto explains. For funerals of a cofradía member, the three main Congo pieces (Palo Mayor, Camino Real, and Kalunga) are played during the wake, as the body is carried to the cemetery, and again upon arrival at the grave. Kalunga is always the last piece, as it asks Kalunga to accompany the deceased on his/her journey. Thus, in the community to say “Le cantaron Kalunga” (they sung Kalunga for him/her) means “s/he died.” The cofradía meets to play again on the ninth day in front of an altar on top of which sits a doll representing the dead person and perhaps the god Kalunga as well. No dancing takes place at these rituals until they meet again to play on the Cabo de Ano, the one-year anniversary, at which all dance except the family. At the Banko ceremony, which ideally takes place on the seven-year anniversary, everyone may finally dance because the dead person has become an ancestor and no longer inhabits the home. The dead person often “mounts” a family member and dances too. At the Banko the papers from the altar are burned and the ritual enramada shelter is swept and cleaned. After this, the cofradía enters the room next to where the mourning women are secluded and play the “toques de viuda” (widow’s pieces) to officially take the family out of mourning.
What connection there between the congos and merengue típico, my usual topic? Probably not much, except perhaps in vocabulary. For instance, there is a merengue in call-and-response form called “Cumandé.” I asked several típico musicians, including my teacher, what they thought this word means and they didn’t know. (My teacher said he thought it was a Haitian word.) But according to Hernández Soto the word “kumande” appears in the song “Ya cantan lo gallo” (the roosters are already singing) and means “there is no death” in the Fon language. Since call and response is not the usual form for merengue songs, those songs (like Cumandé) that have that feature could be borrowings from other Dominican folk traditions. I’ll be very interested to see pri-prí, the accordion music from Villa Mella, to see how it is similar or different from the music I know.
Hernández Soto, Carlos. 2004. Kalungah Eh! Los Congos de Villa Mella. Santo Domingo: Editorial Letra Grafica.
Hernández Soto, Carlos and Edis Sanchez. 1997. “Los Congos de Villa Mella, Republica Dominicana.” Latin American Music Review / Revista de Música Latinoamericana, (18)2:297-316
music download: http://www.emusic.com/album/11007/11007078.html?fref=150051
documentary for purchase: http://www.melassa.org/OrderForm.html
palos, salve, & congos tracks: http://www.dominicana.com.do/musica/musicaraiz.htm
article on Palos by Martha Ellen Davis, with comparison to congos: http://svr1.cg971.fr/lameca/dossiers/ethnomusicologie/pages/davis2_eng_2003.htm
article on the trees: http://www.arquiteca.com/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=47&mode=&order=0&thold=0