The Chinese bugle in Santiago de Cuba

The Chinese bugle in Santiago de Cuba

Heritage & Traditions

By Nina Pereira

Beyond the emblematic Afro-Cuban drums that represent national music, the peculiar sound of the so-called Chinese bugle marks the most famous and enjoyable carnivals of this Caribbean island, those of the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba.

The wind instrument, which connoisseurs point out that is the Chinese suona, was introduced in Cuba by immigrants from the Asian nation at the end of the 19th century, here it was rolled up and became one of the protagonists of the congas, which drag crowds to dance in the eastern region.

It is said that a group of musicians from Santiago, who in 1903 were walking through the Chinatown of Havana, heard the typical bamboo trumpet, caught their attention and took a copy home. In Santiago, its high-pitched, hooky sound became louder and more vibrant.

According to scholars of the Santiago carnival, the flattened Chinese cornet made its debut in the 1915 festivities, through Feliciano Mesa, then director of the Paseo del Tivolí, and Juan Bautista Martínez was the first to play the instrument, which later spread to other neighborhoods .

The instrument produces only three tones and two semitones, and executing it properly is an art, as is making the bugle, a work that is done entirely by hand, so none is the same as another, say specialists.

Precious woods are used in its manufacture, such as acana, ebony or baria, and the bell is generally made of aluminum. The thinner it is and the less it weighs, the better its sound.

Experts also point out that whoever plays it should be in a higher position than the rest of the people, so that it can be distinguished more widely. With distant precedents and more than 100 years since its arrival in Santiago de Cuba, the Chinese bugle has become part of the most authentic musical tradition of this Caribbean country.