The Dominican culture is hard to find and for foreigners sometimes even harder to detect. In comparison to many other Latin American countries, they spare out some festivities you would expect from a country like the Dominican Republic. Although they perceive themselves as strictly catholic people, they don’t express it with religious festivities during Carnival and with Easter progressions in a collective and colorful way. The national holiday on February 27 is as well barely recognized with organized and widespread festivities or ceremonies. I had the joy to saw a great exception of that rule in San Cristobal. They celebrate annually on the last Sunday in November a ceremony called ‘Fiesta de Palos’ (Translated: Stick party) close to the capital city of the Dominican Republic. Luckily, I could join this racket and was surprised how Dominicans celebrate their culture on a Sunday afternoon in San Cristobal!
Some 20 miles away from Santo Domingo, a village called ‘San Cristobal’ can be found on the map. Neither my Dominican girlfriend nor her parents I was traveling with knew what to expect from this afternoon.
We were visiting some relatives of that village who organize on their street once in a year the ‘Fiesta de Palos’. Although they are living quite close to the capital of the Dominican Republic in San Cristobal, these types of festivities aren’t celebrated in the urban districts of Santo Domingo. Which means, that also they learned and something new about their own country and fellow citizens.
For me as a Super-Gringo, everything was absolutely new and astonishing. Without having a good connection to the family of my girlfriend, I would never have access to a community like them. Thus, I am quite thankful to have obtained this insight to the Dominican culture, which usually is hidden to foreigners. Comparably to my Eminem-experience in Guallupe in Ecuador in December 2017, I was again the only white and foreign stranger in a black community. And again, they welcomed me with very open arms and with a candid spirit that pleased me very much.
I took my GoPro and took a lot of videos, but unfortunately not many photos. To explain these festivities a little bit better, it could help to read the following questions:
What is ‘Fiesta de Palos’?
‘Fiesta de Palos’ is a cultural festivity in the Dominican Republic to honor Catholic saints or anniversaries of the deceased. It usually takes places in rural areas.
Where does ‘Fiesta de Palos’ has its origin?
‘Fiesta de Palos’ has its roots in Congo, Central Africa. Along with its folkloric African instruments, it’s characterized by its up-tempo rhythms, loud chants, and playful dances.
What instruments are played at ‘Fiesta de Palos’?
Usually, three different long drums are used with a height of up to 3 – 4 feet. The Dominicans call these three drums El Mayor, El Menor and El Alcahuete à The oldest, the youngest and the pimp. And no, that translation is neither wrong translated, nor a joke. They really call this drum a pimp.
Next to the long drums, idiophones accompany the sound to complete the loud noises.
Where is ‘Fiesta de Palos’ celebrated?
Possibly everywhere in the Dominican Republic, but more likely on the countryside and in villages with many inhabitants of Afro-American descent. Fiesta the Palos is not an urban festivity and can’t be found in the touristy areas around Punta Cana. You need to dig a little deeper before finding the true Dominican roots with its culture and music.
How often is ‘Fiesta de Palos’ celebrated?
On a very irregularly basis. ‘Fiesta de Palos’ is associated with the celebrations of virgins and saints. Whenever there is a strong bond between a village and a holy catholic figure, it’s about the villagers to honor them on a yearly basis with this festivity. Depending on which virgin or saint is cherished or adored, the festivity dates also varies. There isn’t any consistent or periodical rule for the entire Dominican Republic. All depends on the favors of the villagers to the saints – Or vice versa as you like.
These types of micro-sized cultural activities aren’t communicated or published transregionally and remain cultural insider knowledge. It’s very hard to find them, even more difficult for foreigners.
What is special about Fiesta de Palos?
One of the most surprising things was for me, that the musicians did not receive any applause. If you carefully watch the videos until the end of their songs, you will notice, that no one of the audience gives applause for the band. It was the first time in my life, that I observed an audience that doesn’t value the performance with clapping their hands although supporting it strongly. I asked a few people, why they don’t applaud to the music. They answered: “It’s not part of this culture and we never do that when someone plays songs like that.”
Another interesting thing is, that each of these long drums is as unique as its creator making it. They are all produced hand-made and never in batch fabrication. Usually, these drums are made from trees hollowed out and covered with goat or cow skins for the head. Each drum makes a different sound.
Fiesta de Palos is a big get together with people drinking, dancing, chattering all day. Not very different to a usual Dominican Colmado at night. But with the desire to maintain the Afro-American culture in the Dominican Republic. As you can imagine, these rural traditions with its music and dances die out, because of the lack of communication and recordings. I hope, that I could contribute at least a little bit to conservate a little piece of the Dominican tradition and publication of this article.
I couldn’t even tell, which specific Catholic saint was honored that day. The little table with the candles in the videos showed the devotionals. But the whole time I was there, it was not communicated, whom to honor that day. Neither did I really understand what they were singing about, their words were very loud and fast and slang. But it was a very special day for me to see Fiesta de Palos in the Dominican Republic.