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Cuban Music Lesson: Conga

Get ready to be schooled, asere. It’s time for a Cuban music lesson! Learn to tell your cha cha cha from your mambo without leaving your couch. Put on your dancing shoes, guayaberas, park your 57 Chevy, light up that Habano, and pay attention.

When you hear the word conga, what comes to mind? A type of drum? A line dance? An old Gloria Estefan song? The conga is all three of these things. However, there is a lot more to it than something you do drunk at your cousin’s wedding.

Like most Cuban music, the conga has its origins in Africa. It is named after the Congo people of western Africa, who “emigrated” to Cuba by way of being forced into slavery. The Congolese had a line dance that was part of the religious ceremonies honoring their gods. The drums that the Africans used to play these sacred rhythms later became known as conga drums. It was said that in an act of defiance to their asshole slavers, the Congo would dance the conga as they were chained together. That takes some huevos, my friends. It was considered to be so dangerous and exciting, that it was outlawed during slave days. After slavery ended in 1899, the conga became a popular dance during the carnival season. These carnival conga lines would very often get out of control. The dictator Machado made the conga illegal in the 1920’s, because he feared it would incite anti-government riots.

When American tourists started flocking to Cuba in the 1930’s, the conga quickly became a popular dance. It was easy to do and required no practice. Any drunken schmo at a club could simply add himself to the line. The conga was also popular because you could use it as an excuse to grope the person in front of you. Unfortunately, sometimes you would end up behind a fat sweaty dude instead of a sexy señorita…unless that’s your thing. We don’t judge.

Many of Cuba’s well known musicians would perform a conga at the end of their set to get everyone on their feet. One of the most famous popularizers of the conga was Desi Arnaz. In the 1950’s, Desi was one of the most popular performers in America, thanks in large part to his being on I Love Lucy. His song Babalu, is considered one of the all time classic congas. Later, Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine recorded their song Conga, which also was also huge hit. So, next time your uncle bugs you to join a conga line, do it. It’s fun, easy, and more exciting than just sitting on your butt eating cake.

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