Cuban art has been known to be expressed through celebration—here are some of the best annual art and music festivals the island has to offer.
Cuba Gibara International Film Festival concert
A nighttime concert at the Gibara International Film Festival
Photo: Alejandro Hernández

Cuban cultural expression derives its richness from the elements that compose it. Cuba is a country where many cultures converged and organically mixed with each other so that each one left some trace or expression behind. Art is perhaps the most apparent manifestation of this, as it is also the expression of the deepest feelings of a nation generation after generation.

Despite, and perhaps as a consequence of what is undoubtedly a painful history, Cuban art has been known to be expressed as a celebration–though this doesn’t mean that it isn’t done with an air of seriousness. 

Below are five Cuban art festivals where artistic work, cultural heritage, and a great excuse to have fun meet.  

1 – Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano de La Habana 

In December, Havana is all about film. Few times are the theaters so alive as during the Festival del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano. This festival was inaugurated on December 3, 1979, and for its first iteration, the ICAIC (Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos) invited more than 600 Latin American filmmakers. 

The objective of the Festival is to present productions of the New Latin American Film movement, which originated in the 60s. This movement was the first expression of aesthetic unity at the continental level in Latin America, concentrating on social problems within a realism framework, and distancing itself from the commercial Hollywood formulas to get closer to author cinema.

Cuba Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano
Promotional poster for this year’s Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano

The Festival of Havana is one of the most prestigious contests that has this ethos as its  center. Every year, hundreds of premieres arrive to the theaters of Proyecto 23, exhibiting different genres: documentaries, animated films, short films, fictional long-form films, experimental film, etc. Restored classic films are shown alongside these premieres, and conferences on “the seventh art” (filmmaking) are also given. 

Many of the invited filmmakers are actually not from the Latin American movement, which means that spectators can enjoy not only the best of contemporary and classic Latin American film, but also some of the best productions of universal film, with movies by renowned directors like Bong Joon-ho, Oliver Stone, or Lars Von Trier.

2 – Fiesta del Fuego

Hot Santiago de Cuba is without a doubt one of the cultural and historical enclaves of this Caribbean nation; and it’s there that the celebration of the Fiesta del Fuego takes place. It’s been celebrated each year from the 3rd to the 9th of July since 1980. 

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It’s this event that brings together  the different expressions of popular culture and the traditions of the indigenous tribes of the Antilles; it’s the largest celebration of its kind in Latin America. Every year, the festival is dedicated to a different Caribbean country, and it is this country that will have the biggest presence during the celebrations and presentations put on during the festival. 

Academics and representatives from tourism agencies participate annually, as well as regional arts groups and some guests invited from further away (Pakistan, for example, participated in 2012).

santiago de cuba festival
Santiago de Cuba. Photo: Gabriela Rivero

During the festival, which begins with the Serpent Parade, there are grand spectacles, street celebrations, art exhibitions, dance rituals, poetry gatherings, and conferences about Caribbean culture and traditions. 

The Fiesta del Fuego concludes with the Burning of the Devil, embodying its essence in an expression using  the magic symbolism of American and Caribbean cultures.  

3 – Festival Internacional de Cine de Gibara

This is the heir of the Festival Internacional de Cine Pobre founded in 2003 by the renowned Cuban filmmaker Humberto Solás. From its first edition in 2003 to its discontinuation in 2015, it was exclusively centered on the projection and competition of films produced with budgets of less than 300,000 dollars. 

With its continuation in 2017 under the tutelage of the multifaceted artist Jorge Perugorría, this festival was baptized with its new name. It hasn’t stopped showing “poor films,” but rather has increased its exhibitions to show works of all budgets from anywhere in the world, from consecrated film producers like the United States and India to more emerging producers like Chad, Lebanon, and Macedonia.  

The Festival Internacional de Cine de Gibara is one of those that goes beyond the theater. At night, there are concerts with the best national and international music, where all genres perform.

In this festival, mock-up projects and unedited scripts for long-form and short-form fictional films as well as documentaries compete for a prize, though what that prize is has been somewhat unclear since Perugorría’s administration of the festival. Displays of experimental film and video-art are also organized, always with an eye towards the highest aesthetic and artistic value. 

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That said, the Festival Internacional de Cine de Gibara is one of those that goes beyond the theater. At night, there are concerts with the best national and international music, where all genres perform. Many still fondly recall the spectacular concert given by Fito Páez at the festival in 2018, or the long-awaited presentation of the almost mythical Cuban band Habana Abierta after almost a decade since they were last allowed to play on the Island. 

Gibara is a festival of film, culture, and good artistic taste that usually takes place in July. Additionally, the beautiful seascape of the eponymous coastal town, as well as the humility and familiarity of its inhabitants, are two of the best-guarded treasures of the Greater Antilles.  

4 – Havana World Music

Havana World Music, the most popular music festival in Cuba, started a few years ago. The event has been able to solidify itself and win the hearts of the entire artistic community and the general public because of its diversity and high quality presentation.

Over the years that it has taken place, the festival has been held in various locations such as Fabrica de Arte Cubano, the Parque Almendares and the Ciudad Deportiva, though it never goes beyond the limits of the capital. 

Cuba's Havana World Music Festival
A packed concert at the 2020 Havana World Music festival

The focus of the festival is diversity and folklore, and bands from all over the world -come to play. During the festival, besides concerts by the invited artists, there are also conferences, performances, and exhibitions.  

Havana World Music has brought to Havana artists of international renown. Most notably, sparks flew for Marina, former member of Ojos de Brujo, as well as many of the most well-known figures of Cuban music like X Alfonso and Carlos Varela (the latter  caused an unprecedented controversy when in the middle of his concert at the last celebration of the festival, thousands of people shouted “Libertad” (“Freedom”) in the Ciudad Deportiva). Besides this, Havana World Music has been one of the principal opportunities for quality new Cuban bands to gain recognition through Primera Base, a competition organized by the festival. 

Related Post: Havana World Music Festival 2022: Different but Better

Under the artistic direction of Eme Alfonso, and held each May, Havana World Music is an excellent option to learn more about authentic music, featuring a diverse group of talent, all who incorporate their distinct identities into their music (rap, Afro-Cuban beats, Spanish indie rock, etc).

5 – Romerías de mayo

Originating from a religious festivity from colonial Cuba, when  the friar Antonio Joseph Alegre placed a Christian cross in what is today known precisely as the Hill of the Cross, Las Romerías de Mayo is one of the most important festivals that Cuba has. The Catholic festivity has since become a popular celebration that today serves as a large-scale display of the majority of national youth art. The artistic expression that is most enjoyed during the festival is part of the Asociación Hermanos Saiz (AHS).

Dancers giving a street performance at Las Romerías

The enthusiasm of the youth of AHS was the spark necessary to revive Las Romerías in 1994. Since then, Loma de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross) is the place where tradition and modernity are expressed through art mixed. At the end of the festival, a tree is planted as a symbolic ritual of the growth of the spirit of Las Romerías.

During the first week of May, the city of Holguín parties. Las Romerías is a gigantic event where national and international artists and intellectuals hold talks, street festivities, and stagings. In concerts by AHS artists, every kind of musical genre cultivated on the island is played, from traditional and popular dance music to electronic music, rock, and hip hop. It’s also a pretext for the expression of other arts. 

The city of Holguín, though far from the Capital, isn’t difficult to get to since it has its own airport and, as one of the most culturally-rich cities in Cuba, has a taxi route from Havana. 

Las Romerías de Mayo in Holguín is the best celebration of past and present, tradition and modernity, religiosity and art, the roots of which the largest festival in this eastern city is built.

(Hero image: Havana World Music Festival)

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Alejandro Suárez Placeres is a fifth-year Philosophy student at the University of Havana. He is the cofounder and editor of Proyecto and Revista Creativa Manifiesto, an independent Cuban literary and art publication. He enjoys literary creation, especially poetry, short stories, and philosophical essays. Ale is also a lover of music as well as a film aficionado.

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