The Varied Traditions of Semana Santa

Two years ago, I celebrated Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Southern Spain by marching in the beautiful and solemn religious processions with my favorite community band, the Asociación Musical San Isidro de Armilla. This year, I experienced the Dominican version of Semana Santa in Santo Domingo. Allow me to do a quick comparison:

  • Processions: The processions in Santo Domingo are similar to the ones in Southern Spain, though on a smaller scale. While I didn’t see any of the pointy hats that characterize the dress for processions in Spain, there were people dressed as knights.


    The music in both locations consists of heavy drum beats and solemn marches, though of the three processions I happened upon in Santo Domingo, only one included a full band.


    An illuminated statue of the Virgin Mary in a procession on Thursday evening of Semana Santa.

    It should be noted that both in Spain and in the DR, despite the seriousness of the holiday, the band members are prone to goofing off, as I learned from a clarinetist who enjoyed making faces at my camera as he passed by.

Here is a video of a Wednesday afternoon procession in the Zona Colonial:

Video by Cristina Clow

    • Tourism: In Spain, tourists flock to the south to experience the Semana Santa procession. In the DR, people evacuate the city and plop down on the beach for vacation week. This leaves Santo Domingo quiet and without traffic jams, which was wonderful for those of us who stayed in the city.


  • Desserts: In the DR, Spanish torrijas are replaced by habichuelas con dulce (sweet beans), a liquid pudding made with red beans, white sweet potatoes, milk, sugar, cinnamon and raisins. Don’t be deterred by the bizarre ingredient list. When I tried it, I immediately understood why Dominicans eat it all day, every day, during Semana Santa.

Habichuelas con dulce

Habichuelas con dulce action shot

Catholic processions are not the only Semana Santa traditions in Dominican Republic. On the outskirts of Santo Domingo and in bateyes*, barrios, and small towns across the country, people practice various popular and syncretic religions which include elements of European, African, and Dominican traditions. The most common custom during Semana Santa is called gagá. Here is a clip from a gagá procession just west of Santo Domingo in a town called Batey Bienvenido:

Numerous scarves are worn by the religious leaders of the ceremony, with each one representing a different spirit. My favorite instruments were the long horns (no surprise there), especially since I haven’t seen horns in any other type of folkloric music here.

The procession felt like a huge celebration, which was quite a contrast from the Catholic processions I saw the night before. There was loud music, dancing, drinking, singing, and in general a good time was had by all.

gagá horns

Trying out gagá horns with folkloric music professor Edis Sanchez before heading out to see the real thing.

gagá procession

A ceremony during the gagá procession.

The gagá rhythm has in the past few years caught the attention of various Dominican musicians, who have combined it with other genres of music. Check out this gagá version of “I Shot The Sheriff” by Yasser Tejada and Palotre:

That’s not something you hear everyday!

*A batey is a community where historically Haitian migrants made a living from working on sugar cane plantations

2 thoughts on “The Varied Traditions of Semana Santa

  1. Really interesting to see the similarities and contrasts of processions from three different but in some ways related cultures. It got me thinking about processions and parade traditions more broadly, a common form in so may cultures with so many different variations.
    Great rendition of the Sheriff.


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