This article illustrates some influences modern politics had on Yorùbá culture. Discussions on Òrìṣà topics are mostly either on spiritual or anthropological details and often lack a contemporary political view. Why is Yorùbá culture so widespread today? One of many answers we find in the Caribbean only a few decades ago: the role of Afro-Cuban arts in communist Cuba. It is a complicated story that can be told on many different levels. I suggest reading the books listed below to get the full picture. I recently saw in the website's statistics that many people from Nigeria are reading this blog. This text serves as a short introduction to recent aspects of Yorùbá tradition in the diaspora and might surprise some readers.
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After the triumph of the Cuban Communist Revolution its leader Fidel Castro held his first speech on January 8, 1959. It was broadcasted and watched by thousands of people on TV. While Castro was holding his speech several doves started fluttering around him, one white dove sat down on his shoulder and remained there for minutes. For the Christians a white dove symbolizes the Holy Spirit, the Cuban Olórìṣà associated it with Òrìṣà Ọbàtálá. The whole country was sure: with Castro comes peace. A few days earlier, on January 1, the Communist guerilla troupes returned from the Eastern ‘Oriente’ region, a remote place known as a hideout for runaway slaves, and entered the city of Havana. They waved the red and black flags of the ‘26th of July’ movement, some of them were wearing ìlẹ̀kẹ̀, Òrìṣà beads. It was the first day of the year, combined with the colors red and black, and the Catholic feast of the ‘Niño de Atocha’, all together Cuban symbols for the Òrìṣà Èṣù-Ẹlẹ́gbáa. With this religious confirmation the Communist Revolution should become the start of a new era for the post-colonial society and its African heritage.
On top of the Communist government’s agenda was to create a new national Cuban identity and racial equality amongst the different levels of the society and people of European, Asian and African descent. Social programs were started to fight racism and to integrate and educate the black population. They should have brought the structural marginalization of black people to an end. This topic cannot be discussed here in detail, but at least their situation was improved after the Revolution. An already known term and image became recreated: the ‘Afro-Cubanity’. A large portion of this identity lies within the strong Yorùbá culture from times of slavery, in Cuba known as Lukumí, Santería or ‘Regla de Ocha’ (Yor. Òòṣà, short for Òrìṣà).
For me, as an artist, the story that follows both pleases and scares me. Did you know that in the aftermath of the Revolution Fidel Castro and Che Guevara founded the Havana Arts University, the ‘Instituto Superior de Arte’? They had an inspiring vision for a better society, a long-term plan – and they knew about the power of culture, art and education. They used art for their political strategy, it was an essential component of the Revolution. As we will see, it worked out well, although not exactly like originally intended.
Religion hinders progress and development, especially for a socialist regime. The Catholic church with its interfering hierarchy was not tolerated, property confiscated and priests expelled out of the country. Whoever wanted to work with the Communist Party – which now became the only employer nationwide – could not be a member of the church. In the fear of arising counter-revolutionary movements public congregations were forbidden. It was ‘easier’ for the people believing in African faiths. For centuries they practiced their religion hidden in private spaces, in their shrines at home, their backyards. Where, like in Yorùbáland, split palm fronds still indicate the presence of Òrìṣà. People continued this practice and left their ìlẹ̀kẹ̀ at home when going to work or disguised their annual Òòṣà ceremonies as big birthday parties. The spiritual need of many Christians now became partly satisfied by Babaláwo and other African derived practices. The house temples, called ilé, were not centrally organized and lacked structures of an institutionalized religion. This de-centralized, pluralistic and creative form of organization, I think, is also one of the reasons why Yorùbá traditions survived slavery. The work of the Santeros was not considered a direct threat to the communist regime, but still very far from being welcomed or at least accepted.
What in Africa was an ethnicity became a few generations later known as an African religion in Cuba: the Lukumí (Yorùbá) practicing Òrìṣà worship, the Arará (Ewe/Fon, who got their name from the slave port of Allada, Benin) honoring the Vodun, the Congos (Bantu-speaking people from central Africa) and their religion called Palo-Mayombe, the secret society and mask dances of the Abakuá/Carabalí (Efik from the Calabar region) or already Creole cultures like the immigrants from Haiti and Vodú. In Catholic Cuba all these religions commonly were referred to as ‘witchcraft’, like the Onígbàgbọ́ call the traditional believers in Nigeria today. The Cuban communist government now initiated a process of folklorization through the arts and spectacles and changed this negative image (though not completely). De-mystification of religious rituals should help to end both racism and the widespread fear of Afro-Cuban rituals. The new government brought Afro-Cuban culture into the focus of attention and gave it a greater value – as national heritage! ‘Cuba is not Latin-American, it is a Latin-African country’, is a famous quote from a speech by Fidel Castro. ‘Afro-Cuba’ became one of the new keywords for the national identity, with ‘every Cuban having a drop of black blood’ in his veins. Cuba was made equal to Afro-Cuba – with 65% of its population referring to themselves as ‘white’, see the demographics. This process is called ‘reverse discrimination’. Afro-Cuban cultural expressions, like Yorùbá tradition, became the official patrimony and its aesthetic production was brought under the control of a huge new bureaucracy. The culture should become separated from the religious believe, this was the goal.
Soon after the Revolution a group of intellectuals founded the research and performance organization ‘National Theater’, which consisted of five departments: music, modern dance, theater, choir and folklore. The department of folklore started the ‘Institute of Ethnology and Folklore’ within the ‘Academy of Sciences’. In 1961 they founded a state-run ballet group for African derived dance, the very famous ‘Conjunto Folklórico Nacional de Cuba’. Professional choreographers began to work together with Olórìṣà and initiates of Afro-Cuban traditions. Sacred Yorùbá dances, that formerly were performed in ceremonies when people got mounted by the deities, were brought on stage for an audience that was not part of the religious community. This caused troubles at the beginning in their shows, when re-enactment and actual Òrìṣà worship mixed up or dancers got mounted in the wardrobe. At the beginning all the artists (dancers, drummers and singers) were Olórìṣà or believers from other Afro-Cuban religions, everyone performing within his or her own ‘folkloric genre’. Later they were recruited from the arts university. Many discussions amongst Santeros (Spanish for Olórìṣà) started as soon as some of them, insulted as ‘traitors’, worked together with the government. They got paid for sharing their ritual knowledge, received prestige and played an active part in the triumph of the revolutionary movement.
The dances changed, rhythms were played faster, the role of the lead singer was reduced for more refrains, elaborate costumes were designed larger than life. The arrangement should now please the spectator, not the Òrìṣà. In a sacred ceremony one single drum rhythm for a mounted dancer could have been played for half an hour. The stage now in the most literal sense ‘dramatically’ changed the performance and the expression. What survived times of slavery as a ritual knowledge of a small community now was shared with the public. Reshaped by religious outsiders to adjust the ‘exotic spectacle’ to the requirements of theatrical Western arts and entertainment. The outcome of this artificial process later again affected the performance of the ‘authentic’ traditions.
It was not only the work of the ‘Conjunto Folklorico’, that made Afro-Cuban culture visible in the public. Drumming, dancing, singing, oral literature, costumes and rituals were studied, analyzed, exhibited and performed by new founded academic and cultural institutions and ensembles. The ‘National Council on Culture’, which in 1976 became the ‘Ministry of Culture’, made sure that the revolutionary ideology was well represented by folkloric groups. They elevated forms of folk art and registered professional and amateur ensembles. Artists, musicians, writers and performers got supported by the state. The 1960s have been a very creative period in Cuba and a whole infrastructure was developed to support art production, from schools and universities to theaters and festivals.
Afro-Cuban drumming, dancing and singing became part of the study on arts university. Professional choreographers incorporated these elements as ‘folklore’ into the Modern and classical dance education. A vocabulary of Òrìṣà dances was developed based on academic research. The performance groups of initiates worked closely together with scientists and artists. Afro-Cuban dances became a standard repertoire of all academic dancers. What formerly happened only in the streets as a religious ritual, among mostly poor and black people associated by a racist society with witchcraft, crime and of low moral standard, now was considered art and brought on stage. A mythical history around this folklore was constructed, fixed genres like ‘Congo, Abakuá, Yorùbá’ became known in the public. The best bàtá-players began to teach the Òrìṣà rhythms as professors on the arts universities. I know many Nigerian readers won’t believe that bàtá-drumming is somewhere taught on university level! Afro-Cuban percussion became a branch of musical study just like other classical instruments.
A side note: in the 1960s many West African countries sent musicians with grants to Cuba. An example is ‘Mbalax’, the national dance music of Senegal today, that developed in the 1970s when Cuban salsa music in Dakar got fused with local Wolof percussion. Cuban music was highly appreciated by the early radio broadcasters in Africa. It was not related to a single ethnic group thus accepted as something ‘African’. Zoukous in Zaire started with some local bands copying Cuban tunes, or the Afro-Cuban drums known as ‘congas’ and their basic rhythm ‘tumbao’ via American jazz got incorporated into West African orchestras. The small island Cuba and its Afro-Cuban culture – apart from the political activities of the communist government – was very influential on the African popular culture.
Academic research was published on ‘Afro-Cuban folklore studies’. Here the Cuban anthropologist and ethnomusicologist Fernando Ortiz must be mentioned, whose work was one of the fundaments for the new Afro-Cubanity. He founded the ‘Society of Afro-Cuban studies’ in 1937 and published dozens of books on the African heritage of the island. In an ethnographic conference organized in 1936 music of the Lukumí (Yorùbá) was performed for the first time in a non-ritual context. Especially for this event a new set of bàtá drums had to be built, that was not consecrated to Òrìṣà Àyàn. The books of Fernando Ortiz are nowadays available as re-issues in every bookstore on the island and still shape the view people have on their African heritage. What must be critically mentioned is the title of the first book he wrote: ‘Afro-Cuban underworld: Black sorcerers – Notes for a Study of Criminal Ethnology’. He was a lawyer by training, and reading his books on Afro-Cuban culture feels a little bit like watching ‘CSI Miami’. But the advanced academic study of Cuban Òrìṣà tradition left its marks even in the literature in Yorùbáland. Abraham’s ‘Dictionary of Modern Yoruba’, a work funded by the Nigerian government, lists St.Lazarus, the Catholic saint associated with Babalú Ayé in Cuba, in the dictionary entry for the word ‘Òrìṣà’.
In post-revolution Havana state-run museums were opened dedicated to the memory of the slaves’ religious practices, exhibiting ‘authentic’ ritual objects, Òrìṣà shrines, Yorùbá drums, etc. Most of them were aesthetically designed and installed by practitioners, thus the goal of these museums was the ‘preservation’ of the patrimony, ‘before it gets lost’. Afro-Cuban culture was constructed as ‘something from the past’ and not contemporary. Popular visual artists like painter Manuel Mendive contributed to the ‘revitalization’ of the Afro-Cuban and Yorùbá roots. The so-called ‘popular traditional culture’ was treated for the first time as an important part of the country’s history. Thus it remained linked to the past and not considered social practice. The original idea by the Communists was to reach a status of scientific atheism. But in reality this led to a strengthening of the Afro-Cuban religions, especially the Òrìṣà traditions. Cultural institutions like the ‘Casa de Africa’ or the ‘Casa del Caribe’ organized conferences and invited researchers from abroad. The ‘Havana Biennial’ founded 1984 for a long time exclusively featured artists from non-Western countries, many of them from African countries and some Yorùbá, like Sangodare Gbadegesin Ajala from Osogbo, who later hosted Mendive in Nigeria.
In 1985 the ‘Office for Religious Affairs’ was founded by the government to establish relationships to representatives of the various Afro-Cuban religious groups. Those who became state-approved could host groups of delegations, diplomats, scientists or tourists in their shrines and got access to foreign currencies in exchange for giving insights on their rituals. International relations were established, foreign godchilds initiated into Òrìṣà. However, these Santeros had to live with the rather abusive name of being called ‘Diplobabalawo’. Like every state-run institution the office was criticized as an instrument to control the believers. In 1987 the Ọọ̀ni of Ilé-Ifẹ̀, the king of all Yorùbá people, visited Cuba and met Olórìṣà and Babaláwo working with the office.
Òrìṣà traditions continued to blend with Cuban pop music, drum rhythms and Yorùbá based themes were fused with salsa, Afro-Cuban dance movements incorporated into popular dancing styles. Every child heard about the Òrìṣà stories at school or in one of the many documentaries and performances on TV. To a certain extent the secularization worked out, what once happened only in a sacred space now became accessible to everyone and national folklore. But the performance of Òrìṣà dancing on stage to the rhythms of the bàtá drums could never completely be cut off from the religious practice. The folklorization process helped making the Yorùbá traditions stronger and more visible, although it was not intended to promote religious aspects. It attracted lots of people, who eventually became ‘iyawoses’ (Hispanicized plural of Yor. ‘ìyàwó’, bride, new initiate). The aesthetically pleasing Cuban Òrìṣà worship with its beautiful multi-colored porcelain altars, the rich mythology in literature, its symbolism and beaded artwork, had a better reputation than e.g. the Congolese Palo Mayombe cults. Its shrines made of various natural and maybe rotten material look more ‘archaic’ or ’frightening’ to outsiders, not so easy for marketing.
Everything changed in 1992, when Fidel Castro admitted the mistake of excluding religious people from the communist party. The Cuban constitution was changed and religious followers of any kind were officially allowed to become members of the party. Now Olórìṣà could wear their ìlẹ̀kẹ̀ at work or show their religious affiliation in public, public services were allowed. The ‘Yoruba Cultural Association of Cuba’ was established and acknowledged by the state. They moved into a beautiful restored building right in the very center of Havana, with a shop, museum, library, restaurant and performance space for bàtá concerts and Òrìṣà dancing. This center, supported by the government, is the first address for tourists interested into Yorùbá culture.
The different waves of emigration from Cuba to the US, first mostly the elite/white people for political, later the poor/black people for economic reasons, are another important point for the spreading of the Òrìṣà religion. And eventually the fall of the Soviet bloc: the loss of its support led to the ‘Special Period’ in Cuba with a complete economic decline and people suffering from food shortage. This forced the state to open the country and develop the tourism industry, Ilarí Obá Willie Ramos analyzed in an extensive article the effects these events had on Yorùbá religion in Cuba. With about two million Cubans living outside of the country (20% of the total population) the ‘Yoruba Cultural Association of Cuba’ nowadays has branches all over the world, that contribute with their network and probably thousands of godchildren to the center in Havana. A few communities today are ritually fully independent, in the sense that they can perform all rituals by themselves, without needing any reconnection to the source in Cuba. In countries like Venezuela, Mexico or the United States the Cuban Òrìṣà houses have gathered all the knowledge, people (herbalists, drummers, priests) and Òrìṣà to fully initiate and educate new members. Others made themselves independent, reconnecting to Yorùbáland traditions, e.g. when Òrìṣà Odù was received in Nigeria by a Cuban ilé from the US, what made them finally independent from their house in Havana to initiate Babaláwo. Other second diaspora scenes regularly have to return to Cuba to perform more complicated rituals, that involve the work and knowledge of many people.
Today tourism is the most important source of foreign currency for Cuba. It comes right after all the money the emigrants are sending home to their families. Yorùbá religion recently has become a major factor in tourism, being researched at the ‘College for Hotel Business and Tourism’ in Havana. Nationwide 22 institutions offer study and research programs on Afro-Cuban culture for foreigners and regularly organize international conferences (see Claudia Rauhut: Santería und ihre Globalisierung in Kuba, p.117). Afro-Cuban culture is one of the main motivations why tourists pick Cuba as their holiday destination. Since many decades the ‘Conjunto Folklórico Nacional’ offers twice a year the ‘Folkcuba’ workshop, where ritual percussion and dance are taught on a very high level to foreign students.
Sandy beaches you can find everywhere on this planet. Cuba additionally offers a wide range on high quality culture and arts, especially music and dance, combined with the usual myth of the exotic and stereotypes from European romanticism: the sexualized body of black women/men and their ‘sensuality’, the general ‘Caribbean lust for life’, the patina of the untouched past and last but not least the expressive, African derived and 'mystical' spirituality. Tourists pay entry fees for folklore shows and concerts, visit temples to get demonstrations of ‘rituals’ or receive ‘spiritual cleansings’, might partake in divination readings or drumming and dancing lessons. The state-run travel agency ‘Paradiso Turismo Cultural’ with offices in various countries offers a broad range of academic and cultural activities for groups coming to Cuba, among them Òrìṣà dancing, drumming and visits to ilé. They work together with cultural institutions like the Yoruba association and individually design trips. Often, once foreigners made contact to artists after shows or tours, relationships with the Olórìṣà develop. An Ifá or ẹ̀ẹrìndínlógún consultation may follow, a small initiation at the next visit to the island. Besides the official cultural Òrìṣà tourism there is a huge informal network without any support from the state, and this is where the real religious work and rituals happen. The state does not officially support religious tourism, for the state it is only about culture. But they know that Yorùbá and other Afro-Cuban religions are an important source of income for the service sector and contribute to the economic performance of the island. Hosting a tourist at home without a permission would be an illegal source of income in Cuba, but as religious freedom now is part of the constitution these activities cannot be prosecuted easily, once they are connected to Òrìṣà or other religions.
A very important point for the worldwide success of Afro-Cuban culture and the visible Yorùbá tradition is the support of the state for folklore and the high level of Cuban art education (and education in general), that starts at a young age. Many skilled artists leave the country and seek their fortune abroad or later work directly in the tourist industry. The best of them contribute to the cultural image of the island, work in the famous state-run dance companies, salsa bands or as independent visual artists, authors, writers and choreographers. They contribute to Cuba’s excellence in the field of arts, which turns into more cultural tourism. Music and dancing are a Cuban export success, with salsa orchestras touring the globe and passionate Latin dance communities in almost every Western city worldwide. Cubans abroad are ambassadors for their culture and contribute to the tourism industry at home. The high value of the African heritage in Cuba today is an active part of this process and economically important, it attracts many people who participate in cultural activities.
Even when the famous old-school ‘Buena Vista Social Club’ orchestra with its slow, peasant Cuban Son music toured through Europe's classical pretentious concert halls, it was accompanied by bàtá drummers from the ‘Conjunto Folklórico Nacional’. They played a ten minutes ‘Yorùbá ritual performance’ for a female, black Ọ̀ṣun dancer. It made me uncomfortable watching this spectacle of 'the other' in this context, seated within an audience that was not aware of the history of slavery or where these dances come from. While they were amused by Ọ̀ṣun's laughter I felt more like crying, although aesthetically the performance was beautiful. Cuban singers and musicians on stage often wear ìlẹ̀kẹ̀ and give references to their personal Òrìṣà between the songs or proudly beat the ‘clave’, an African time-line pattern that is part of every Cuban melody. I have not met a Cuban yet, who is not proud or at least aware of her/his Afro-Cuban culture and Yorùbá heritage. Although I have to admit, most of the Cubans I personally know are artists themselves and in one or another form represent this Afro-Cubanity and Blackness on stage or in exhibitions.
If you happen to see a Cuban Òrìṣà performance on stage, the usual short explanation is ‘These are the African Yorùbá dances that survived times of slavery in Cuba.’ True, but there’s a longer political and very unique story behind it. For me it is impressive how a racist colonial society via communism and the strategic use of arts eventually became to value black culture as patrimony. On the other hand equating black people only with folkloric dance and music while they still suffer from racism has to be strongly criticised. You just have to compare the skin colors of the dancers of the classical 'Ballet Nacional de Cuba' to the 'Conjunto Folklórico Nacional' to know that equality is not yet established in the communist country Cuba. But it is important to know some of the parameters set by the communist government, I think.
Yorùbá Òrìṣà tradition seems to adopt itself to so many different living conditions and survives under varying political powers. There’s a high visibility of artistically developed Yorùbá traditions in Cuba, that is based on the more invisible but strong Olórìṣà community, their tremendous ritual knowledge and belief. As I mentioned at the beginning, well researched and critical studies have been published on these topics, too many important details are missing in this article. If you are interested, find more information in the books, they are all very recommended, and create your own image of Òrìṣà! Àṣẹ!
About the globalization of the Yorùbá religion from Cuba:
Claudia Rauhut: Santería und ihre Globalisierung in Kuba. Tradition und Innovation in einer afroamerikanischen Religion. Ergon Verlag, Würzburg, 2012.
About the history of Black culture in Cuba:
Kristina Wirtz: Performing Afro-Cuba. Image, Voice, Spectacle in the Making of Race and History. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2014. (read on Google books)
About the process of folklorization and the 'Conjunto Folklórico':
Katherine J. Hagedorn: Divine Utterances. The Performance of Afro-Cuban Santería. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington and London, 2001.
About the history and spiritual fundaments of Yorùbá religion in Cuba:
Miguel A. De La Torre: Santería. The Belief and Rituals of a Growing Religion in America. William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, Michigan/Cambridge, 2004. (read on Google books)
About the changes in Yorùbá culture when slaves reached colonial Cuba:
David H. Brown: Santería Enthroned. Art, Ritual, and Innovation in an Afro-Cuban Religion. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2003. (read on Google books)
About the birth of African pop music:
Wolfgang Bender: Sweet mother: Afrikanische Musik. P.Hammer Verlag, 2000.