Conjunto Folklorico Nacional de Cuba
-text is liner notes from recording courtesy of Bembe Reocrds.
Música Yoruba is an outstanding recording of traditional Afro-Cuban folkloric music. It holds the double distinction of being one of the best produced records of this type, as well as featuring performances by one of the largest assemblage of Cuban folkloric masters ever. It is a classic, both as an incredible aesthetic experience and as documentation of a time that has passed into history.
The batá drums are the most important of the several different drum systems used in Lucumi ceremonies. Batá are a set of three progressively-sized, double-headed hourglass-shaped drums, considered to be one instrument and acting as a single organism. They play rhythms that are without a doubt the most intricate of the Afro-Cuban drum systems. The batá literally “speak” the Yoruba language and recite a litany that is crucial to particular rituals. The largest of the batá is called Iyá (mother). The Iyá is the lead drum which initiates the recitation of the litany,improvises to the dancer’s steps, and carries on call and response conversationswith the mid-sized batá known as Itótele. The smallest of the batá is the Okónkolo. The Okónkolo plays the simplest patterns of the three, emphasizing the main beats. Batá used in the religious ceremonies are considered sacred. Each consecrated set of batá has living within it the deity known as Aña.
The Yoruba People
The Yoruba people of present-day Nigeria have a rich religious liturgy which includes hauntingly beautiful call and response songs and some of the most rhythmically complex drumming in the world.
Residing within the Yoruba cosmology is the pantheon of deities called orisha. Orisha represent the primordial forces in nature, the various archetypal human personalities, and act as personal guardians or guides to initiates of the religion. During the ceremonies (called bembés), which involve music and dance, the orisha come to earth by possessing the bodies of mediums. In this way, the orisha are able to ‘live” amongst their followers, giving them blessings and guidance.
The Yoruba’s Oyo empire collapsed in the early 1800’s after decades of internal conflict and warfare with their neighbors. As a consequence, many Yoruba were sold into slavery and brought to the New World to work on plantations. Strong traces of Yoruba culture, specifically the worship of the orisha, can be found today in Cuba, Brazil, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago.
Lucumi: The Yoruba in Cuba
Cuba, in particular, still has a phenomenal amount of sacred Yoruba music and dance. In the time of slavery, owners purposely broke up the families of slaves and mixed together people from the different African ethnic groups as a way of maintaining control. However, in early 18th century Cuba the Spanish Catholic Church created mutual aid societies, called cabildos, as a medium of entertainment and reconstruction of many aspects of their ethnic heritage. There came to be Yoruba cabildos, Congo (Bantu) cabildos and Arara (Fon) cabildos in Cuba.
Yoruba religious ceremonies were practiced and preserved in the cabildos of Cuba as the slaves seemingly synchronized their masters’ pantheon of Catholic saints with their own pantheon of orisha. Thus, the orisha covertly lived on in Cuba hiding behind a facade of Catholicism. In truth, these traditions did not exactly synchronize with Catholicism, but rather Catholicism was used as a camouflage behind which Yoruba religious practices took root and flourished. While the white slave owners observed the Africans celebrating a saint on his/her particular day, they were usually unaware that it was actually the orisha who was being worshiped.
Today, the terms saint and orisha are used interchangeably in Cuba. The correlation of the Yoruba orisha with the Catholic saints is part of the island’s common culture. For example, Santa Barbara is understood to be the Yoruba orisha Changó, the god of thunder. San Lázaro is synonymous with Babalú Ayé, the orisha of infectious diseases. Consequently, the Yoruba religion in Cuba is often referred to as Santería, or the cult of the saints.
Another common name for this religion is Lucumi, a Yoruba word meaning friends. Lucumi is also the name given to descendants of Yoruba slaves in Cuba, as well as their music, dance and their Cubanized dialect of the Yoruba language.
Yoruban and Christian rites are easily mixed together by Cubans. After all, the genetic and cultural mixing of African and European ethnic groups has been occurring there for centuries. However, little European influence can be found in the dance and music of the Lucumi ceremonies. Also, the Nigerian systems of divination, such as Ifá, remain intact in Cuba.
Songs for Orisha
Elegguá is the guardian of the crossroads, the intersection of the spiritual and material planes. He is the gate keeper, the messenger between humans and the orisha. Some of Elegguá’s most common depictions are that of a trickster and a child. His colors are red and black. All Lucumí ceremonies begin and end with songs to Elegguá. This opening song is appropriately called The Crossroads. Lázaro Ros’ nasal “doublereed” sounding voice immediately grabs one’s attention. His call says: “Baraloure soke eboda, omo onna alguana ko mama kennia irawo e.” Roughly translated, this means: “Elegguá on top of the mountain graciously accepts the sacrifice. Child of the roads, you were once a mystery”.
Obatalá is the father of the world. His color is white and he isrepresented by the mountain. Felipe calls in the piece with the rhythmic creativity that made him famous. In the second section, he sings the prayer:”Baba eleri Ifá, odu mila”, (”Father, witness Ifá’s divination, my salvation”). “(Bobo eworo), eki lala baba so lalao”(”[Attention all initiates], fulfill dreams, father, speak dreams.”)
Yemayá is the deity of the ocean, mother of the world and of most ofthe other orisha. This road depicts the sea in all her aspects, from calm waters to raging storm. It begins with Zenaida calling in Yemayá Asesu,one of the most beautiful Lucumí songs of all time. Her voice radiates grace and power. Asesu is the aspect of Yemayá at the ocean’s surface. She is very serious and is slow in helping her faithful. The song says “You are the owner of the rivers. Why are you crying? Continue to speak of luck.” In the accompanying dance, women move in a circle, swooshing their blue and white skirtsin a wave-like motion. The tempo picks up as Lázaro calls in a new song. The men’s and women’s choruses alternate parts, finally coming back to sing together. The piece climaxes with the fast tempo section depicting the fury ofthe storm.
Changó is the orisha of thunder and lighting, male virility and the owner of the batá drums. The first akpón is Felipe. According to Felipe, this song is a puya. It says: “One time when you were strong, you ate a dove.” A dove is a sacrifice that would not be suitable for Changó. When the fast-paced meta section comes in, Lázaro takes over lead. For the finale, Felipe returns for an elaborate call, an example of brilliant improvisation within this traditional context.
Oyá is the orisha of wind and the cemetery. She is also the river Niger in west Africa and a wife of Changó. Lázaro begins calling this a cappella prayer, which is an excellent example of an akpón talking to Oyá about her various characteristics. She is the gardener and carries people to the cemetery. She is afefe , which means the first and last breath. Zenaida finishes the piece with the song “Oyá de(Oyá with your crown), mariwo (you rustle the reeds) omesa(you make quick and violent changes) loro (you who speak) yokoro(sit and speak).
Orula (or Orumila), possesses the table of Ifá, the highest Yorubasystem of divination. Some of the materials used in this system include cowry shells and kola nuts. Orula traded the ability to dance with Changó forthe table of Ifá . Akpón duties are shared by Lázaro and Felipe. The first words sung are: “Ifá yoko bi obo obi I yalawo”,which means “Ifá, sit and divine with the kola nuts, mysteries of the world”.
According to some, Oddudua is the wife of Obatalá. One myth tells of how the supreme being Oludomare sent Obatalá down to earth to create people. When Obatalá arrived on earth, he landed on a palm tree. There in the tree he drank some fermented palm juice and got drunk. In his altered state Obatalá created deformed people and then fell asleep in the palm tree. Seeing this from heaven, Oludomare was displeased and sent down Oddudua to do Obatalá’s job. Oddudua created people, but when Obatalá awoke, he was upset that Oddudua had done his job and wanted credit for what Oddudua had done. Lázaro exquisitely sings this song for Oddudua.
Babalú Ayé is the orisha of infectious diseases. Felipe is the first akpón. Listen to how the drums “speak” in unison with the singers.The first song says: “Bariba ogede ma, mole Yansa mole ya” (”Bariba [anAfrican ethnic group], present an opportunity, bargain with Oyá, bargain to give way”) The tempo picks up when Zenaida calls in the next road which is borrowed from the Arara system. Lázaro is the third akpón, with the lead vocal duties again returning to Felipe .
All bembés end with a salute to Elegguá. Lázaro and Felipe are the akpóns. Dancing Call and response singing is a consistent element found through out sub-Saharan Africa. This formula is definitely one of the attractive aspects of Lucumi orisha songs. Another delightful element of these songs is their subtle influence from the European tonal sensibility. The introduction of European harmonies makes Lucumi songs a type of musical hybrid.
The lead singer of the bembé is called the akpón. The akpón directs the ceremony, ending songs and initiating new ones when appropriate. The songs refer to the myths about the orisha (called patakins), sing praise to the orisha, or actually insult them. These insulting songs, called puyás, are used when the initiates are unsuccessful in calling the orisha down to earth. Puyas are used to make the angry so they will appear. Traditionally, akpóns have known the meanings of the songs they sing. Some have actually had the ability to speak Lucumi fluently. However, as elders pass away, the meanings of these Lucumi songs are slowly being lost.
The Yoruba have a tradition of playfulness with words. A word can have several meanings, and this fact is utilized in many creative ways. When translating Lucumi songs into Spanish or English, it is important to keep in mind that the translations are approximations. Because Lucumi is a creolized version of early 19th century Yoruba, it is impossible to find an exact translation.
The medley of songs sung for each of the orisha are known as roads. A road often starts slowly with elaborately melodic songs, gradually increasing tempo until finally the songs are very short, consisting of only a few words. It is frequently in that climactic moment of the rapid, short call and response songs that the orisha will possess the mediums.
You can purchase this historic recording from Bembe Records.