Cuba’s Tumba Francesa

Diaspora Dance, Colonial Legacy

by | Oct 26, 2007

Ballet folklórico Cutumba performs Tumba francesa. Photo by Grete Viddal.

I arrive at Santiago de Cuba’s Teatro Oriente to see a small crowd of locals and tourists waiting in front to buy tickets. We are here to see a performance by Ballet Folklórico Cutumba, one of eastern Cuba’s premier folkloric dance troupes. Although the theater is run down and no longer has electricity or running water, its former elegance is apparent. As we enter, we see lush but tattered velvet drapes flank the stage and ornate architectural details adorn the walls underneath faded and peeling paint, Light filters in through high windows. As the performance starts, women in elaborate ball gowns enter this dusty stage. They must hold up their voluminous skirts to keep yards of fabric from dragging on the floor. Men sport white topcoats with tails and matching white cravats, contrasting with their dark skin. The costumes, modeled on 18th century French court attire, may lead the audience to expect a reenactment of an ancien régime ball.

However, the performance space fills with the driving rhythms of African-style drums. This is the Tumba Francesa, a dance unlike any other in Cuba.

I had seen many different Havana styles portrayed in documentaries about Cuban dance. I’d read extensively on Cuban music and culture. However, I was completely unprepared for the exciting folkloric manifestations of Afro-Franco-Haitian-Cuban origin found in Cuba’s eastern provinces. In 1998, I traveled for the first time to Santiago de Cuba to participate in a study program hosted by Ballet Folklórico Cutumba, a group specializing in performing the dances of eastern Cuba. Cutumba’s mission is to research, collect, conserve, and present these dances.

Santiago de Cuba, the “capital of Oriente”—the island’s eastern provinces—has been home to thousands of Haitian migrants and retains a special culture that strongly differentiates it from Havana. The eastern provinces of Cuba were host to two major waves of migration from Haiti, one during the time of the Haitian Revolution in the early 19th century, and another in the early 20th century, when almost half a million Haitians were recruited as manual labor for eastern Cuba’s expanding sugar industry. Both waves of migrants brought well-defined, and quite different, traditions of music and dance that are still practiced in Cuba today.


The intriguing dance I first witnessed almost ten years ago is one of Ballet Folklórico Cutumba’s signature performances. Dancers in ornate costumes enter the stage promenading in stately rows. Tumba Francesa is danced to the beat of a battery of African-style drums: the premier the largest drum, the segonde or bulá, and the smallest, the catá (an ideophonic drum, in this case a hollow wood log struck with two sticks). When Cutumba’s musicians play, they fill the performance space with robust sound.

According to Ernesto Armiñan Linares, Cutumba’s choreographer and an authority on local history, domestic slaves living in the households of the francophone plantocracy created the Tumba Francesa. They danced it wearing the cast-off finery of the masters Later, free blacks of means and mulatto elites adopted these dances as well. After emancipation in Cuba, Tumba Francesa clubs or societies were formed. Members held offices, such as that of Presidente and Presidenta. Public dances started with salutations to the organization’s title-holders, then other visitors and local elders. Armiñan Linares explained to me that in later decades, heroes of Cuba’s wars for independence were also ritually saluted by the societies.

In 1999, I visited the town of Guantánamo (which is near but completely separate from the infamous U.S. military base), two hours drive east of Santiago de Cuba, to see another performance of Tumba Francesa. Here, the Tumba Francesa Society Santa Catalina de Riccis (locally known as Pompadu) gives weekly concerts. Pompadu’s costumes were less ornate than Cutumba’s, but the women’s dresses still referenced eighteenth century attire. Demeanor was dignified and formal during Masón, the dance that initiates Pompadu’s performance of Tumba Francesa. Couples paraded with curtseys and bows. Decorous and reserved dance steps were counterbalanced by dynamic percussive music. Next, the group performed the livelier Yubá (also spelled Jubá), and choreographies became more animated as the music sped up. Finally, the group presented Frenté, a competitive dance performed only by men. To begin, the men gathered into a circle and fastened colored scarves to the arms, legs, and chest of one dancer. The player of the largest drum pulled his instrument into the circle, flipped it sideways and sat on it. He began to play fast patterns and sequences. Frenté is a friendly competition between dancer and musician, with displays of fancy footwork responding to challenging rhythms played by the lead drummer. Musicologist Olavo Alén explains in a Winter 1995 article in Ethnomusicology, “the premier player will always try to make his rhythmic improvisations so complex that the dancer will lose the rhythm or simply be unable to follow it; otherwise the dancer wins the challenge. When the duel between drummer and dancer is very close, the winner in determined by the applause of the spectators.”

Cutumba’s and Pompadu’s performances raised many questions for me. How did Tumba Francesa arrive in Cuba? Had it really been performed in the eastern provinces for more than two and a half centuries? Was this part of what made Oriente different from Havana? I began to learn about the colonial history of eastern Cuba, and how it was changed by events on a neighboring island.


Migrations resulting from the Haitian Revolution altered the cultural landscape of the Caribbean. In 1804, the colony of Saint-Domingue became Haiti, the western hemisphere’s first independent black republic. Saint-Domingue was France’s most prosperous colony until a slave insurrection in 1791 spread across the country, eventually defeating even Napoleon’s armies. As war engulfed Saint-Domingue in the years leading up to 1804, much of the French plantocracy fled, some with household members including their domestic slaves. Free blacks and mulattos also joined the flood of refugees.

The largest portion resettled in eastern Cuba, particularly in Santiago de Cuba and Guantánamo. By 1799, Calle Gallo (“Rooster Street” in Spanish), one of Santiago’s main streets, had been re-named Grande Rue (“Grand Street” in French). By the end of the first decade of the nineteenth century, one out of every four people in Santiago had come from what became the Republic of Haiti, according to Cuban ethnographers José Millet and Rafael Brea in their 1989 book Grupos folklóricos de Santiago de Cuba.

Over the course of the next decades, the former members of Saint-Domingue’s colonial elite established coffee plantations in the hills and mountains surrounding Santiago. The planters of Saint-Domingue had experience growing coffee, a crop new to Cuba. The French taste for coffee, its spreading popularity in Europe, and the business acumen of the Saint-Domingue plantocracy—at the time scions of the world’s most profitable colony—combined to inaugurate a new political economy in eastern Cuba historian Hugh Thomas tells us in his book Cuba, or, The Pursuit of Freedom (1998 [1971]). Coffee plantations, or cafetales, were for the planter class the sites of shady gardens, elegant parties, and cultural activities in Parisian style. These franceses blancos, as these immigrants were called, brought to the eastern provinces a repertoire of ballroom dances, known as contredanse in French (eventually contradanza in Cuba) including quadrilles, the minuet and cotillion. However, “The musicians who played for the Cuban contradanzas were black” explains musicologist Ned Sublette in his 2004 book Cuba and Its Music. In Oriente, franceses negros took the European ballroom dances and remade them for their own pursuits, setting them to drum rhythms and creating their own Tumba Francesa (“French Drum”). While the original ballroom dances of the white plantocracy faded from custom over the years, black franceses preserved their own versions of these dances.

Both enslaved and free blacks gathered for mutual aid and cultural expression in cabildos, social organizations active in Cuba since the early colonial period. Cabildos functioned as support networks, for example, organizing funerals and taking up collections for members in need. They also held dances and sponsored processions on holidays. The black franceses from Saint-Domingue began to form their own cabildos, which became known as Tumba Francesa societies, after the dances held there (Alén 1991).

In the decades following the arrival of the Saint-Domingue refugees, Franco-Haitian society in Cuba underwent a number of changes. With the outbreak of war in Europe between France and Spain in 1809 came an expulsion order and French citizens living in Spanish colonies who did not want to pledge allegiance to the Spanish crown were ordered to leave. Many coffee plantation owners left for New Orleans, almost doubling that city’s population (Sublette 2004). In the 1840s, hurricanes devastated eastern Cuba. Many cafetales were converted to sugar plantations or abandoned (Thomas 1998 [1971]). Cuba’s first war of independence from Spain, the unsuccessful Ten Years War, lasted from 1868 to 1878 and further debilitated eastern Cuba’s economy. As for the white franceses, Sublette describes their fate this way: “The coffee planters of Oriente, who had fallen on hard times already by 1840, saw their industry destroyed; what remained of the French coffee bourgeoisie was ground down to a rural middle class.” (2004: 245) While the ballroom dances of the eighteenth century faded from the salons of affluent whites, they have remained a tradition among black franceses for more than two centuries.

After the 1959 Cuban Revolution, the Cuban state took over the funding and supervision of all public cultural organizations, including Tumba Francesa societies. The government has sought to demonstrate national unity in a multi-racial society through vigorous promotion and funding for sports, the arts, and grupos folklóricos—typically staged manifestations of Afro-Cuban cultural activities. In 2003 UNESCO, partnering with the Cuban government, proposed a six-figure funding package to help “ensure the viability of La Tumba Francesa” under the auspices of the “Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.” Folkloric performances signify pride in the Cuban national heritage and also help attract foreign visitors with much-needed hard currency. Tumba Francesa societies are potential tourist attractions and may help the eastern region capitalize on its distinctive cultural patrimony.

Scholarship on Cuban religious and performance culture has often focused on the capital and its surrounds, but Havana’s story is not Cuba’s story. Today, its lively customs set Oriente apart, contributing to the creation of a distinctive regional identity. Expressive culture, such as dance, can function as a kind of “embodied history” that enriches and extends narratives of migration and identity. Tumba Francesa fused French court dances with African music, elite colonial fashion appropriated by slaves who made into something new. Tumba Francesa dances embody the presence of both Africa and Europe in the Caribbean, and shed light on the creative genius of black peoples who found ways to meld these legacies into compelling art forms.

Fall 2007Volume VII, Number 1
Grete Viddal is a PhD candidate in the Department of African and African American studies at Harvard University. Her research centers on how migration has influenced eastern Cuba’s culture and history. She is also fascinated by the ways in which communities express identity through dance. A version of this essay has appeared in the Journal of Haitian Studies.

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