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Santeria's Convergence of Music, Dance and Spiritualty: Historical Note


Uzoma O. Miller

September 23, 2002

Mississippi State University

Music is an art form widely acknowledged for its ability to relate the history, tradition, folkways, folklore and even the cultural politics of peoples and societies. The music of African descended people of Cuba provides a most compelling historical illustration of music as a cultural political dynamic. This essay is based on field research conducted at The National School of Art, Havana Cuba, July 2000, and the 1997 publication of Santeria from Africa to the New World: The Dead Sell Memories, by George Brandon. The thrust of the research is to identify and tease out the historical antecedents of Afro-Cuban music, its correlation with Santeria’s evolution, and to what extent Spanish colonial policy nurtured the collective experience of music, dance and religion by enslaved Africans on the island.

To assess the roots of Afro-Cuban music and religion, one must begin on the west coast of Africa with the indigenous cultures of the Bantu regional cluster. The particular nations that would eventually makeup the majority of enslaved persons from 1720- 1804 were of the Bantu language cluster. Namely the Yoruba from northern Nigeria, the Congo from Zaire, the Carabali from the Calabar River area on the Cameroon-Nigeria border, and the Arara from the former Dahomey, or contemporary Benin and Togo populated the island. The first fifty years of the 19th century facilitated the greatest influx of enslaved Africans as a result of the sugar boom, and the rising demand for labor to extract sugar cane. It is significant to point out that the numbers in Cuba of enslaved Africans was approximately triple that of imports to the United States. Thus the propensity for Africanisms in Cuba is logically more overt, and pronounced than one might expect to find in the United States.

In stark contrast to British colonial policy, the Spanish allowed their slaves and freed blacks from the same ethnic group to interact with one another through the medium of civic organizations and what is known as mutual-aid societies. Cabildos, as the Spanish called them, were mediums of the Catholic Church whereby the enslaved carried out processions and collective prayers too. Simultaneously, the African groups incorporated music and dance into all respective activities as they participated. Accordingly, a fusion between Spanish and African culture manifest itself. Yet the Africans did not simply assimilate to Spanish administrative policy. Instead they adapted interpretations from their collective ancestral consciousness to their new environment.

The Santeria religion has evolved in the Americas due to the mixing of the "Ifa" religion with other African and European cultures. According to Brandon in Santeria from Africa to the New World, there are several reasons why much of the Yoruba culture, including spiritual practices like orisha worship, music, song and dance remain somewhat intact in Cuba. One important factor is that a large number of slaves were from the Nigerian region of Africa, and they had common ideals and were able to communicate in several different Yoruba dialects. The Yoruba were quick to establish strong communities in Havana and they came to be called "Lucumi" after their way of greeting each other, Oluku mi, which means my friend.

This story of survival of the Yoruba religion in Cuba involved the unlikely partnership between the orishas and the Roman Catholic Church and was partly due to the policies of the Cuban Catholic Church. Slave owners were mandated y the church to teach African slaves to worship Catholic saints. The Africans used their pantheon deities through the western cultural matrix of saints. They interpreted each Catholic saint through Yoruban lenses, and identified with the one whose characteristics best compared to those of the Catholic saint. To understand this complex cultural adaptation, a lecture workshop by Radames Jaureguizar on orisha celebration is quite useful. Here he list Santeria characteristics with the equivalent Catholic saint in parentheses:

Oduwa----- first who came to earth; found the earth covered with earth.

Obatala---- peace; owner of 101 body joints; head of the body; wisest; Mercedes oldest; judge.

Ogun---- agriculture on earth; constantly working; never sleeps; owner of Saint Peter iron and work.

Ori---- differentiated between men and women, animals and men; leads the head between joints and body.

Shango---- masculine; intelligent; handsome; provoked war among all brothers.

Santa Barbara

Oya---- created different clothes and colors; rain and thunder; she called for her sisters Yemeya and Oshun.


Yemeya---- mother of the universe.

Our Lady of Regla

Oshun---- queen every woman likes to be; only one capable of getting Ogun from the forrest; owner of the sweet waters.

Caridad del Cobre

Another significant component of the Santeria tradition is how manifestations of transplanted African spirituality were pregnant with music and dance. Hence Yoruba, Congo, Carabali and Arara nations all carried distinct rhythms with their transfer to the Americas to accompany religious ritual. Under the Yoruba pantheon, the deities (orishas) represent the primordial forces of nature, various archetypal human personalities and are personal guides, or guardians. The religious practices of the Yoruba revolves around music and dance. BEMBE is the name of a fiesta celebrating the orishas with music, drumming and dance. The drums are made from the trunk of a palm tree and have one skin that is attached and tuned with heat or fire.

Another type of ceremony called Toque de Santo employs the use of Bata drums. The Bata drums have two heads and are played horizontally seated on the lap. The names of the three different size Bata drums from small to large are, the Okonkolo, Itotele, and the Iya. "The Bata are the most complex of all Afro-Cuban drumming styles and are also the most important of the several different drum systems used in the Lucumi ceremonies as the Bata literally speak the Yoruba language and recite a litany," said instructor and Santeria priest Jaureguizar. Guiro also is a type of religious ceremony practiced by the Yoruba that incorporates three shekeres, a bell and one or two drums. A sub-group of the Yoruba are known as the Iyesa people and they too have their own particular style of drums and specific rhythms.

Out of all the rhythms and dances practiced by the Bantu people, the most common is Palo. Palo is a 6/8 rhythm that is used to celebrate the anniversary of a Palo temple or house, or to commemorate the birthday of a deceased Palero. During slave uprisings, Palo was used as a rhythm to prepare the slaves to do battle. This characterization can be detected from it’s aggressive nature, and tempo. Another popular Bantu rhythm is Makuta. Makuta is a fertility rite and the gestures of the dancers indicate just that. Apart from fertility pertaining to humans, it was also used during planting and harvest ceremonies to encourage and thank the earth for her fertility. The most profane of the Bantu rhythms and dances is the Yuka, and often is cited as an antecedent to the Rumba. The last Bantu rhythm that may be covered is Garabato, which employs three people playing stick parts on a hollowed out tree trunk.

The most lasting contribution the Carabalis have made in Cuba would be the Abakua society. This is a men’s-only secret society, which acted much like a mutual aid organization among Cuba’s impoverished blacks. Not much can be written about it because not much is known to outsiders. However, it can be said that it’s music and dance have , in the opinion of most Rumberos, had the most influence in the style known as Rumba. It should be added that there is a place for women in the Abakua tradition known as the society of Bricamo, which has it’s own distinct rhythms and dances too.

The Arara people came to Cuba from the area known as Dahomey, on the northern border of Nigeria. The Arara were the last group of enslaved captives to arrive in Cuba, with some coming as late as 1862. As a result of their late arrival many say that their customs are the most African of all. They have a pantheon of orishas equivalent to the Yoruba, only with different names and the drumming is some of the most complicated of all the hand drumming techniques encountered in Afro-Cuban music.

In conclusion we need to embrace the depth and magnanimity of the cultural system referred to as Santeria. The significant points to acknowledge are how the enslaved were able to maintain and uphold many of their sacred ancestral rituals, beliefs and traditions despite their general status as slaves, second-class citizens and labor reserve for the dominant colonial culture of Spain. Moreover, it is worth noting that in actuality both Spanish and African elements were incorporated in this new religious system. But it would be misleading, and pejorative to interpret Santeria in the context of Spanish Catholicism. Instead it must be analyzed on its own terms, studied through its own cultural lenses and assessed to its own standard. If we do not, we are merely perpetuating slave mentality, and accepting the worst of what the period offered. But if we embrace Santeria on its own terms Africans have agency and the mental capacity to define themselves.