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 Santerias 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
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.
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 its 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 mens-only secret society, which acted much like a mutual aid
organization among Cubas impoverished blacks. Not much can be written about it
because not much is known to outsiders. However, it can be said that its 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 its 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.