Sunday 17 July 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago I will be posting some of the columns I used to write for the now defunct newspaper 'Noticias', a monthly publication that catered mainly to the Spanish-speaking community in London. Chronologically speaking, today's article was the very first one I wrote. The inspiration for it came from a conversation I had with an old acquaintance of mine from my uni days shortly before I came to live in the UK. He and I had became dominoes partners during the years we were both higher education students, though we belonged to different faculties. We ran frequently into each other at the Havana University Students' Club and never missed a chance to sit down to a game of dominoes. And wipe the floor with our opponents' backsides. We were good. Correction. We were crackingly excellent. If our degrees had been in dominoes as opposed to biology in my acquaintance's case and languages in mine, we would have both, by now, achieved our PhDs.

However, after all those years of seeing each other almost every day, one day R (though I haven't seen him for close to fifteen years, I'll use only the initial of his name out of respect), disappeared. He never came to the Students' Club anymore and when I enquired after him to people we both knew they had no answer either. It was starting to look as if he'd also been part of the group of youngsters who'd left Cuba in the immediate aftermath of the balseros crisis of '94.

One day, all of a sudden he turned up at the club whilst I was having rehearsals with the Havana University Folkloric Ensemble. Physically speaking, he was still the same, but the look in his eyes was different. There was an emptiness in them as if someone had gouged the life from them and left the eyeballs intact. It was when he began to talk that it hit me. He said that he'd found the true path and that for those who, like me, had chosen the devil's way, the only option available was hell. He'd become a Christian, and not just any Christian, but a proselytising, hardcore one. R was black, like me. It occurred to me then and the same idea crossed my mind when I sat down to write the article below that he was rejecting his polytheistic African roots (and you don't have to be a non-believer to accept this cultural fact) for a monotheistic system imposed by the coloniser. It was ironic that our forebears had been whipped to within an inch of their lives and here he was now, extolling the virtues of the very God in whose name we were deemed less than animals.

I don't usually make my race a big deal, either here on my blog or in my normal, offline life. After all my skin colour is as much as result of genetics as it is an accident in and of itself. I could have been of a lighter or darker tone. But, what I look to the most above all is to be treated as a human being, first and foremost; that remains my main identiy. R was impinging on that identity. But also, in doing so, he was reneging on one of his identity markers, namely, his African ancestry. Unbeknownst to him (not that he would have cared anyway), my career as an Afro-Cuban performer was not just out of love for the dance but also respect for and desire to learn about the culture.

That's, then, how this column came about. Of course, R's name is not mentioned once and why should it? After all this short write-up was done mainly to honour those who left their sweat, blood and tears behind, in the sugar cane fields and in the mills and yet still managed to bequeath one of the richest cultural heritages ever to my fellow countrymen and women. R's loss was my gain.

My thanks, once again, to Lise McDermot Jones who translated the text into English. The Spanish original appears first and the English version below. The music today is related to the topic. It is a song by Sintesis, one of the first Cuban bands that mixed Afro-Cuban folklore and pop music. I hope you enjoy it.

Maferefún* nuestro folclor

"... yo soy descendiente de allá,

donde los negros calmaban su dolor al ritmo del tambor..."
Clave y Guaguancó

Cada vez que escucho esa rumba mi sange de negro cubano se hiela. Pensar que el grueso de mi folclor tiene sus raíces en el negocio más ignominioso, vergonzoso y humillante que haya existido en la historia de la humanidad hace que al mundo le salgan ojos aunque solo sea para llorar de rabia.

Entre 1666 y 1776, los ingleses, franceses y españoles eran los principales importadores de esclavos para sus colonias en América Latina alcanzando una cifra de tres millones. Un cuarto de ellos moría en los viajes.

En Cuba la cultura importada que mas influyó en lo que se convertiría en el folclor afrocubano fue la del pueblo yoruba. Yoruba era el término que identificaba a ciertas tribus que hablaban la misma lengua aunque no estuvieran unidas ni centralizadas políticamente. Su nivel de desarrollo urbano y artístico fue uno de los mas altos del África tropical. Tenían un panteón de dioses a quienes llamaban "orishas", cada uno con sus propios rasgos y atributos. Éstos son una fuerza pura, inmaterial que no puede hacerse perceptible a los seres humanos, sino "tomando posesión" de personas elegidas, denominadas "iyawó".

A fines del siglo XVII surge la "santería", sincretización de los diferentes cultos yorubas y la religion católica en un proceso natural y lógico, pues cada orisha tiene su equivalente en un santo católico. A esto le siguió el nacimiento de la Regla de Ocha, producto de la unión de Latuán, negra yoruba y un negro "babalosha" o sacerdote, Lorenzo Sama. A fines del siglo XIX Eulogio Gutiérrez instaura la Regla de Ifá, la sagrada orden de los sacerdotes "babalawos".

A pesar de haber contado siempre con muchos fieles seguidores (tanto abiertamente como en secreto) la cultura y religión africanas en general no han corrido la misma suerte que aquellas traídas de Europa. Esto se ha debido en mayor parte a la imagen inferior, primitiva, insofisticada que la cultura africana siempre ha tenido en Cuba. Sim embargo, un número significativo de los cubanos creyentes profesan un culto africano (o "profano", como tambien se les llama), o incluso practican este conjuntamente con la religión católica, dándose el caso de aquellos que se persignan y dicen "¡Ay, Dios mío!", pero terminan sacudiéndose los brazos y torso en señal de limpieza y exclamando "¡Siákara!" (una bendición de origen africano).

Es ahí que uno se da cuenta de que a pesar de los maltratos, de las largas horas de trabajo y del bocabajo sufridos por los esclavos, nuestra cultura y religión se sienten hoy más que nunca. Y esto se refleja en un dicharacho muy cubano señalando que todos tienen sangre de uno y otro pueblo africano: "Aquí el que no tiene de congo tiene de carabalí..."

Publicado originalmente en octubre de 1999.

* Palabra yoruba que significa "bendito sea" o "viva"

Long live our folklore

"I am a descendant of that place, where black people soothed their pain with the rhythm of the drums..."

Clave y Guaguancó

Every time I hear the sound of that rumba, my black, Cuban blood freezes. The thought that the main art of my folklore has its roots in the most ignominious, shameful and degrading trade that has existed in the history of humanity is enough to make the eyes of the world cry with rage.

Between 1666 and 1776 the English, French and Spanish were the main importers of slaves to their colonies in Latin Ameria, a trade which reached a figure of three million. A quarter of these died during the voyage.

In Cuba, the imported culture which was most influential in what would later become Afrocuban folklore came from the Yoruba people. Yoruba was the term identifying certain tribes that spoke the same language although they were not united or politically centralised. Their level of urban and artistic development was amongst the highest in tropical Africa. They had a pantheon of gods whom they called "orishas", each with their own characteristics and attributes. These constitute pure, intangible force which cannot be perceived by human beings, but rather "takes possession" of chosen people, called "iyawó".

At the end of the 18th century "santería" emerged, which was the syncretisation of the various Yoruba cultures and the Catholic religion in a logical and natural process, so that each orisha has an equvalent in a Catholic saint. Following this the Regla of Ocha was born, product of the union of Latuan, a black Yoruba woman and a black "babalosha", or priest, Lorenzo Sama. At the end of the 19th century Eugenio Gutiérrez established the Regla de Ifá, sacred order of "babalawos" or priests.

In spite of having always counted on many followers (both openly and in secret), African culture and religion in general have not had the same fortune as those brought from Europe. This has largely been owing to the image that African culture has always had in Cuba as inferior, primitive and unsophisticated. Nevertheless, a significant number of Cuban believers are followers of an African (or "profane", as they are also called) cult, or even practise this alongside Catholicism, a case in point being those who make the sign of the cross and say "My God!" but finish by brushing off their arms and torso as a sign of "cleansing", exclaiming "Siákara!" (an African blessing).

It is then that you realise that in spite of the mistreatment, of the long hours of work and the beatings suffered by the slaves, this culture is felt more than ever today. And this is reflected in a popular and very Cuban expression pointing out that everyone there has blood from one or other African tribe: "Here, whoever isn't part Congolese is part Carabali)

Published originally in October 1999.


Next Post: “Lilya 4-Ever (Review)”, to be published on Wednesday 20th July at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. everytime i visited your site, i can't get over the beauty of the dancer. what a perfect body, perfect pose, perfection against almost what is an almost impossibility.

    our roots are so diverse that we could never find its original, but if we did, we'll find that we came from the same.

  2. You know that old cliche about old habits dying hard, right? Well, old beliefs die hard, too! I'd have to say that sometimes, as humans, in order to preserve ourselves we must pretend to believe something we might not necessarily believe. On the other hand, sometimes the hand of subjugation and cruelty is strong enough (and devious enough) to leave some with thoughts of changing who they used to be, if only for self-preservation. The fact of the matter is that we are very much creatures of habit, and we find it difficult to truly change those practices and beliefs that are ingrained in us. I say this, too, with a grain of salt: Only when we choose to change who we are can we truly change.

    I enjoyed this post immensely, Cuban. So much to think about, and so many angles from which to do so.

    Wishing you a brilliant week!


  3. Folklore is a wonderful word. A very rich word. Fiction as truth... I have been thinking a lot about fiction, truth, make-believe, magic, stories, and the recording of our own truths as opposed to reading (and therefore, for a while, living) the recordings of others.
    I love how easily you live inside your roots and outside, on the most exposed leaf and branch of your soul. I don't think R's loss was your gain... I think your gain was/is being true to yourself. Your children benefit hugely from your gain.
    R's loss was R's loss.

  4. A very absorbing and fascinating story, from the dominoes to the orishas...

  5. I recently read 'The Book of Negroes' by the Canadian writer Lawrence Hill, and in that story I was, in the manner of a voyeur, able to have some small inkling of what the slave trade was like from an African's point of view.
    That made me much better able to appreciate what you have written here in your original article.

    I have to say I was quite interested to read something that had been translated for you rather than by you, to see if your voice was altered. But also, since you have written so much since then, your voice must have become more confident and well-established. Oh for gods sake, I'm talking out of my ass. Anyway, I did enjoy it all very much, and the music, too, which had me in the first half-measure.

    It's always rather nice to get personal stuff in a blog post, too, making me feel like I know you better.


    check this out


  7. As usual, your posts illuminate, elucidate and fill in gaps we all have in our acculturation. Thank you.
    I've learned more from this post about Cuba's people than from years reading history books.

    p.s. who is the lovely dancer on the masthead?

  8. This post touches on so many themes I feel strongly about that I almost don’t know where to begin. I’ll just name a few: 1) the unfortunate tendency of some religions to diminish other religions by exalting their own as The Only True One, 2) the contribution of the African diaspora to the New World’s culture, religious belief, etc., 3) the estrangement that can occur between one’s cultural roots and one’s psyche in the process of assimilation.

    I don’t know if your friend’s newly adopted religion was anything like the religion I grew up with, Pentecostalism. Certainly, his stance post conversion is quite familiar to me from my own childhood. I of course have run to the opposite extreme where I accord validity and respect toward any religious belief that is not exploitative or violent.

    If your friend's new religion was Pentecostalism, though, his abandonment of his cultural roots is ironic. As I conclude in the following comparative religion lecture, I have a theory that Pentecostalism’s distinctive ecstatic religious practices have their origins at least in part in the transplanted Yoruba religion. In this position, I probably have few adherents among Pentecostals; indeed, they would decry my theory.

    Once again, Cuban, a thought-provoking post. Thanks.

  9. An excellent thought-provoking post. It was indeed ironic to read about R's conversion to the path he deemed the only right one out. I have never been very religious, but I was born in a Hindu family, and Hinduism is polytheistic. I can understand people believing in one God, instead of multiple, but I have never been able to understand what makes people reject all other religious beliefs except their own. Taking that hardcore a stand, that all paths except the one on which I am, lead to hell, does that really signify a true belief in God and his creations?

  10. Thank you very much for your kind words.

    Ted, that video touched me, man. It pierced my heart in two. Many thanks.

    Greeetings from London.

  11. I like the new look here – what an amazing dancer! I too feel the strongest connection to my cultural heritage, in part due to prosecution of my (Jewish) ancestors. How hard it must have been for you to break with an old friend. It is good that slavery and Christian indoctrination (even if well intended) did not erase the African roots of many others. I love the photo on this post too.

  12. It's not only in Cuba that African culture is denigrated. Wherever there was colonialism and slavery, you will find an insidious doctrine of how African culture was savage, thereby justifying the brutality of slavery and the so-called Christian conversion that went with it. I have witnessed the rejection of African anything by so many of African descent that I don't react to it anymore. Mental slavery has a much stronger legacy than the merely physical. However, one hopeful note is that during my travels, I have noticed a resurgence of Santeria in all it's forms, from Candomble in Brazil to Shango in the Caribbean and Ifa in the U.S. Try as they might, Africa never dies, she just reinvents herself.

  13. What an article.

    I feel for you because you lost your friend to a belief system that alienated him from his own world and culture. That process of conversion is yet another method of control that European people used against black and other people of colour and it's a shame that he didn't realise this.

    I remember doing a talk about reading and literacy a few years ago at the Martin Luther King Jr Library here in Dallas and one of the points I made was that in converting the black slaves to Christianity, the white people were binding them in yet another form of slavery. After all, if you're indebted to someone for 'saving your soul' then you can't object when they sell you or beat you or force you to have sex with them, can you? You're entirely in their control because all they have to do is threaten you with hell to make you do their bidding.

    Believing in a religion or having faith in God is one thing. But being brainwashed or manipulated into it is quite another.


  14. Many thanks for your kind words.

    Greetings from London.



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