Sunday, January 11, 2009

When Santeria Goes Mainstream

As a Iyawo, one way I spend my time is through Facebook. I started two groups on Facebook and like to add photos to my online photo albums (I'm an amateur photographer).

One group I belong to is Orisha-Space. The group has nearly 900 members, and grows every day. It's basically an online crossroads for people to discuss anything related to Ocha/Lucumi/Santeria/Candomble/Umbanda/Quimbada/Ifa.

From discussion postings at Orisha-Space I learned about the "London Lucumi Choir," and then saw a video of the group on YouTube. Apparently, the group is in a national choir competition. On one hand, I feel the awe of the tremendous reach of the Orishas and their power to attract people of all backgrounds and nationalities ... including me. On the other hand, it was strange to see the songs sung as a "choir," when singing to the Orisha is not meant for the stage, or for spectacle.

I shouldn't talk. I've sung for the Orisha on a stage ... more than a few times, when I was the member of an Afro-Cuban dance troupe. But I think about the Tambors I've been to, where everyone is singing, and there is no stage, and if there were, the drummers would complain. Instead, everyone is crowded around the drums, facing the drums -- not the audience, and the only one who's looking out at everyone (besides the drummers) is the Apon, who plays a very sacred role.

It is a very Western thing to take something that is communal, where everyone responds to the call, and transform it into spectacle. I grapple with this issue, because I want to build respect and understanding of The Religion -- and because I myself discovered The Religion through dance and music. I can't be a hypocrite.

Still, I remember my surprise when I was in Cuba for my Initiation, and my most important elder, my abuelo -- the padrino of my padrino's madrina, said I knew too much. I knew too many songs. I knew too many secrets. I loved to sing these songs, but I hadn't realized that these too were secrets revealed in time, to those with lifelong commitment to the Orishas. The songs were to be treated with reverence. Once "inside," one had to learn songs the way we must learn our Ita.

I wonder how it would feel to be an elder in the religion, practicing the ways of my ancestors, and see the sacred songs presented on a stage. Would I be excited to see songs for the Orisha presented in such a "respectable" environment? Or is this the issue: respectable or respectful? Do we want "respect" from "outsiders" so much that we must sacrifice respect for our elders and our rules? And why is a stage considered the "respectable" place?

It would be a shame if the same people who paid for a performance of Orisha music turned around and complained about the Tambor in the house next door ...


  1. Santo! I guess you are not an Iyawo anymore. I came across this blog this minute and was very interested by it. There are alot of points you raise that are very interesting and valid. And As an initiate I have faced many dilemmas concerning the cultural performance of Orisha dance and song. Infact I recently gave a paper about it, however, I have the blessing of my elders and of Oshun who I am crowned with and feel a complete drive to continue this project. Just so that You understand. The London Lucumi Choir is directed and led by Initiates of the Lucumi faith. infact the choir was born when I was an Iyawo and it was very much inpsired by my spiritual journey. The performance of Orisha music and dance is not a new thing, nor is it entirely a Western thing either. In Cuba it has become part of cultural heritage and folklore since the beginning of the revolution with the formation of the Conjunto Folklorico de Cuba. Indeed even before the Revolution and also in the US, there were cultural performances of this tradition, by Initiates, so it is nothing new. What the choir has tried to do, is have a forum where the community can join together regularly to practise and to learn about the song tradition in addition to presenting it in a way that is interesting for public performance. What has resulted is that when there is a Tambor de Fundamento in this country, ( there has only been two, one for Oshun and one for Chango) there is a whole massive communty of people who are able to sing the songs and bring down Orisha. This is amazing since I have been to sacred tambors in Cuba where I have been one of a few who know the words. I have been a Lucumi Practioner for 24 years now and Crowned with Oshun for 6, I don't think what I do is disrespectful to anyone. If you were attracted to this tradition by the dance or the song, surely you must be able to see that there is a function for the Public performances in non sacred spaces.( actually for me, every place is sacred, every song I sing is sacred, I live, breath and will die with this tradition.) We recently sung for a charity in a train station, Ile Ogun. I cannot tell you how powerful that was. We also raised in half an hour £120 for charity researching into Heart conditions. We are a community organisation, I try and act with good character; Iwa Pele is one of the most important notions in our tradition. We recently recorded a CD; this is a comment made by a Babalawo who enjoyed the CD
    "Listening to the new CD by The London Lucumi Choir. It is great! The music of Orisha is very much alive in Britain thanks to this choir. Mo dupe, Daniela De Armas, for the wonderful gift. Ire lona Iponri atiwo Orun... " Fayemisi Adesanya
    So I will finish by referring to a book:
    Divine Utterances: The Performance of Afro-Cuban Santeria by Katherine J. Hagedorn which talks about this dilemma. I also will publish very soon the paper I presented for Huddersfield University about the similar topic.These are my blogs!

  2. PS interesting that you say that your Padrino said you knew too much. There are things that one should not know and learn slowly and surely, but you must be aware that a tambor is open to the public, those that dance at the front must be crowned, but those that are not crowned are encouraged to sing. My godmother has 50 years of Ocha crowned and always encouraged me to learn. The reason why it is possble that there are so many initiates that know very little about this tradition is that there are many that will NOT teach. My humble opinion