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A well-rounded primer about Santeria related material and its resources

Soul Force 101: Yoruba Sacred Music, Old World and New

by John Gray 1999 (

"They threw a party for the gods, and the gods came."

- Iyalorixa, Salvador, Bahia

In Yoruba religion, whether practiced in Ile Ife, Salvador, Bahia, La Habana or the Bronx, music and dance have always been central. They are the mediums which connect the physical world (aiye) of the living with the supernatural world (orun) of the gods (orisha) and ancestors (egun). Oriki - songs and praise poems to the orisha - act as activators, quickening the senses of the faithful and opening a pathway for the orishas' divine energy (ashe). Drumming helps shape the ceremony, channeling the orisha with their special rhythmic signatures, and dance, as John Mason puts it, "is the body's way of singing the praises of the orisha." These are the tools for summoning the orisha; invitations to a party held on their behalf.

For those initiated or born into the religion these functions have always been clear. However, for outsiders - scholars, missionaries, the police, and others - the liturgical music of the Yoruba has long been a mystery and among the religion's lesser studied aspects.

The Literature

Fortunately, some literature on the subject does exist. For example, those interested in the West African side of the equation can seek out Akin Euba's Yoruba Drumming: The Dundun Tradition (Bayreuth, Germany: Eckhard Breitinger, Bayreuth University, 1990) which includes several chapters on sacred drumming for both orisha and Egungun festivals in Nigeria, or Marcos Branda-Lacerda's Kultische Trommelmusik der Yoruba in der Volksrepublik Benin (Hamburg: Verlag der Musikalienhandlung K.D. Wagner, 1988) which analyzes bata drumming for Shango and the Egungun in neighboring Benin.

New World traditions, Brazil and Cuba in particular, have inspired their own body of literature. Although much of the Brazilian material is in Portuguese and/or scattered between numerous book collections and journals there are a few English-language authors who are worth looking for. These include scholars such as Melville Herskovits, Alan Merriam, David Welch, Morton Marks, and Gerard Behague. Each has built upon the work of the other to construct a fairly comprehensive portrait of Yoruba ritual music as performed in the candomble terreiros (temples) of Brazil's most African city, Salvador, Bahia.

Sacred music traditions in Cuba have their own fairly substantial literature, starting with Fernando Ortiz's five volume classic Los Instrumentos de la Musica Afrocubana (Habana: Direccion de Cultura del Ministerio de Educacion, 1952-55) (recently republished in two volumes by Editorial Musical Mundana of Madrid) and Los Bailes y el Teatro de los Negros en el Folklore de Cuba (Ciudad de La Habana: Editorial Letras Cubanas, 1998, c1951). Both of these include transcriptions of performances by the Havana olubata (master drummer) Pablo Roche, which have had a major impact on bataleros here in the U.S. More recent studies include John Mason's Orin Orisa: Songs for Selected Heads (Brooklyn, NY: Yoruba Theological Archministry, 1992) and The Music of Santeria: Traditional Rhythms of the Bata Drums by John Amira and Steven Cornelius . The John Mason work is a compendium of some 550 orisha song texts, preceded by a history of Yoruba sacred music traditions in Cuba. The introduction is particularly helpful as it gives a clear overview of the social, historical and theological functions of Lucumí (Yoruba) musical traditions. It also provides the first chronology I have seen of individual drummers' contributions to the history of the Ilu Aña (sacred drums). There is one caveat though. In Orin Orisa, Mason uses modern Yoruba as his linguistic reference point rather than the Spanish transliterations (e.g., Ayan for Aña, shaworo for tchaworo, etc.) most people are familiar with. Since the author is a leading figure in the so-called Yoruba Reversionism movement which advocates the stripping of European elements (rituals, language, etc.) from New World Yoruba traditions this is not a major surprise. However it does make the text a challenge for those not versed in both Yoruba and its Cuban counterpart, Lucumí.

The other title in this pair, John Amira and Steven Cornelius's The Music of Santeria, is an excellent companion to the Mason work. Though principally directed to musicians seeking an entree into bata performance practice, this work offers much useful information for the general reader as well. The first chapter is a history of bata drumming in New York, including a discussion of master drummer Julito Collazo's contributions. The second examines the make-up of the standard New World bata ensemble and its three double-headed, hour-glass shaped drums - Iya, the mother drum; Itotele, the middle drum; and Okonkolo, the smallest. The third looks at musical structure and one of the other types of drum ensembles - drum and güiro - used in New York santero ceremonies. The fourth, and final chapter, is devoted to transcriptions of the series of rhythmic praises known as the Oru del Igbodu (incitement of the Igbodu) or Oru Seco (unadorned drumming) which is performed in the inner sanctuary of an Ile Ocha (orisha temple) in advance of the main public section of a bembe (santeria ceremony). In this cycle each of 22 major orisha are given tribute via the invocation of their personal drum rhythms. For a clear rendering of these check out John Amira's CD The Music of Santeria: The Oru del Igbodu featuring Amira on Iya, Orlando Fiol on Itotele and Joe DeLeon on Okonkolo. It includes all 24 of the main praise signatures (or "llames") of the Oru together with variations that allow one to clearly hear what the rhythms and ensemble should sound like.

For those with access to the Internet, Luis M. Nuñez's An Overview of Santeria (URL: and Drumming the Gods: Selections from Traditional Santeria Drumming (URL: are both good general introductions to santero music. Ian Scott Horst's two part Orishas in Music (URL: ttp:// and ilebaba/adeleke/music2.html) is a discography which lists both traditional and popular recordings related to the orisha.

Literature devoted to the sacred dances of the Yoruba is even scarcer than that concerning the music which is why Omofolabo S. Ajayi's new Yoruba Dance: The Semiotics of Movement and Body Attitude in a Nigerian Culture (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1998, 251p., $21.95 (pap) / email: is so welcome. Although it includes only one chapter devoted solely to sacred dance, a case study of the annual festivals for Orisa-Nla (Obatala) and Shango, the whole work is of interest to anyone at all interested in Yoruba ritual and performance. Four of the book's five main chapters are devoted to case studies of festivals: the Ebi-Okosi of Ijebuland, a festival of renewal marking the cleansing of the old year in preparation for the new; the Obalogun hunter's festival of Ilesa; and the Agbon dance of Ile Ife's Osara festival. In each case Ajayi explains the religious, social or political background of the festival, followed by a detailed (frequently day-by-day) account of the various stages the festival and its celebrants must pass through. What makes each of these accounts so vibrant is the wealth of ethnographic detail Ajayi supplies, a byproduct of her long years of fieldwork in Yorubaland. The fact that she has a native's fluency in the language probably helped a bit too. All in all, this is a valuable glimpse into Yoruba cultural forms which the author acknowledges are all too rapidly disappearing from contemporary Nigerian society.

The Big Drum or Nation dance of Carriacou, Grenada, although not specifically a Yoruba tradition, bears remarkable similarities to many of the festivals described by Ajayi. In fact, as Lorna McDaniel points out in her recent book The Big Drum Ritual of Carriacou: Praisesongs in Rememory of Flight (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998, 198p., $39.95 (cloth) / Tel. 1-800-226-3822), hints of shared cultural inheritances permeate the event.

Carriacou is a tiny eastern Caribbean island boasting a multi-ethnic population of chiefly West African descent. The nine "nations" acknowledged as ancestors to Carriacou's people include the Cromanti (Akan), Igbo, Manding, Arada (Fon), Moko, Chamba, Temne, Banda, and Kongo. It is to them that the Big Drum pays homage with its fusion of national dance repertoires. The ritual's performers include three drummers, five to twelve singer/dancers, and a chantwell (lead singer) who functions much as the akpwon does in the Yoruba bembe tradition. In this context the chantwell's function is to teach repertoire, introduce the songs, and spur on the drummers and dancers during performances. Although the dance can be performed as a cultural concert for tourists, a political celebration, or a regatta show, it is, first and foremost, a fête for Carriacou's ancestors. Thus it bears a strong commonality with Yorubaland's Egungun (ancestral spirit) festivals. The major difference here is that the ancestors being honored are thought to have "flown back to Africa" rather than maintaining themselves as an ongoing local presence.

In the past each nation (Cromanti, Igbo, etc.) danced only to their own songs. However as the function of the dance evolved, its repertoire grew to include songs and dances of other nations. Various musical and ethnic strains merged, resulting in the loss of specific national characteristics and producing a creolized repertoire which now functions as a unifying medium for entertainment, worship and healing across a broad cross section of Carriacouan society.

McDaniel's stated goal in documenting this tradition is to preserve and disseminate an early African ritual in the Americas. With this book she has achieved that and more via a research paradigm fusing historical ethnomusicology, linguistics, cultural anthropology, and history. Due to the complexities of ritual events such as the Nation dance interdisciplinary approaches such as McDaniel's are essential. Whether her model is the one followed by future scholars only time will tell. In the meantime, I hope that this work finds the broad readership it deserves among ethnomusicologists, Caribbeanists and others interested in the ever evolving ritual culture of the Afro-Atlantic world.

The Recordings

Old World Traditions

For many years recordings of Yoruba sacred music have been far more difficult to find than written materials. Unfortunately, in the case of old world Yoruba traditions, not much has changed. In fact, for the Yoruba of Nigeria, William Bascom's 1951 field recording Drums of the Yoruba of Nigeria (Smithsonian/Folkways; 1-800-410-9815; email: remains one of the lone examples. It covers igbin, dundun and bata drumming from an Oyo religious festival. Of particular interest here are the five unaccompanied salutes to Shango, Oya, the Egungun, Shapana (Obaluaiye), and Eshu, each offering a brief snapshot of traditional Yoruba bata rhythms and performance styles. Also of note are the similarities and differences between the bata ensembles shown here and their New World counterparts. In this instance the two lead drums, Iya Ilu (mother) and Omele (middle) are held horizontally in front of the drummers and struck on the large head by hand and on the smaller with a leather thong, while the small drum (Kudi) is held vertically with the large head up and is struck with two leather thongs. The performers in these ensembles also play while standing so that they can accompany celebrants around the town, unlike Diaspora drummers who keep their bata inside the Ile Ocha (temple) and perform while seated. To hear more recent variants of this ensemble check out the 1996 release Yoruba Drums from Benin, West Africa (Smithsonian/Folkways SF40440). This collects field recordings from a 1987 trip by ethnomusicologist Marcos Branda-Lacerda which focuses on sacred drumming (bata and dundun) for Shango, the Egungun, and others, as performed in Benin. The bata ensemble here is made up of an Iya (mother), Ako (middle), Omele Abo (female small drum), Omele Ako (male small drum) and Eki (a double-headed drum similar in size to the Ako which is held vertically with the large head up).

Yoruba Traditions in the Americas

In sharp contrast to this dearth of West African materials are the numerous New World Yoruba recordings which have come out over the last few years. One of the most recent and distinguished of these is the The Yoruba/Dahomean Collection: Orishas Across the Ocean. This is the sixth volume in Rykodisc's Library of Congress/Endangered Music Project which culls little known field recordings from the Library of Congress' Archive of Folk Culture. In this case the focus is on Fon and Yoruba sacred musics of the Americas. The result is like tapping into a long-buried time capsule as many of the 24 tracks included are among the earliest recorded examples of Black sacred music traditions in Haiti, Brazil, Cuba, and Trinidad. Adding to their historical importance is the fact that all of the songs come from collections bearing significant ethnomusicological and ethnographic pedigrees - Laura Boulton (Haiti, 1947), Melville Herskovits (Salvador, Bahia, 1941-42 and Trinidad, 1939), Josefina Tarafa and Lydia Cabrera (Matanzas and Havana, Cuba, 1957), and Juan Liscano (Cuba, 1940s). On most selections the sound is surprisingly good which allows listeners to hear a few of the ways in which African people have been able to maintain their identities here in the Americas. A detailed CD booklet by Morton Marks helps explain the religious and musicological backgrounds of the recordings, as well as their historical significance.

The songs in this recording also offer some key primary source material for historians of Yoruba tradition in the Americas. For example, the Herskovits material, which was based on his study of the Ketu candomble houses of Salvador, Bahia, now joins his earlier Library of Congress LP Folk Music of Brazil, and a handful of other ethnographic recordings - Amazonia and Afro-Brazilian Religious Songs (both on the Lyrichord label), and The Discoteca Collection: Missao de Pesquisas Folcloricas (Rykodisc RCD10403), as core documents of Afro-Brazilian tradition. Similarly, the Tarafa/Cabrera and Juan Liscano recordings offer new insights into older forms of Lucumí (Yoruba) and Arará (Fon) musics in Matanzas and Havana. These in turn can now be compared with the recent flood of recordings documenting Afro-Cuban sacred traditions of the 1960s and beyond.

Yoruba Traditions in Cuba (Matanzas)

Before discussing this group of recordings it is important to point out that there are essentially two traditions of Yoruba sacred music in Cuba - one based in the more rural, agricultural province of Matanzas, and another, more urban one, in La Habana. Although both capitals, Havana and Matanzas, are port cities, it is Matanzas which was home to the former sugar plantations of the 18th and 19th centuries, and Matanzas which retains many of the island's oldest religious and musical traditions. The performance style usually associated with Matanzas is slower in tempo, less precise in its ensembles and simpler in its rhythmic patterns than that of Havana, as one can clearly hear on the 1995 release Sacred Rhythms of Cuban Santeria. Here the music consists of four orus (cycles of drum rhythms and/or songs for the orishas) from 1983-84 collected in the Ocha houses of Matanzas and Havana. The first, an Oru de Igbodu for Yemaya, is played by the Matanzas bata ensemble of Amado Diaz Alfonso. The second, an oru for Chango, is played by the güiro (gourd) ensemble El Nino de Atocha. The third, also from Matanzas, is an Oru para Todos los Santos performed by the bembe ensemble, Agrupación Ara-Oko, while the fourth is an Oru para Todos los Santos done by the Havana güiro ensemble San Cristobal de Regla. Each of the first three ensembles share the Matanzas stylistic signatures cited above, while the lone Havana group, San Cristobal de Regla, plays with a noticeably quicker tempo, maintains a tighter ankori (chorus), and has more pyrotechnics in its rhythmic approach. The excellent bilingual (English/Spanish) notes by Olavo Alen Rodriguez help to contextualize the music, its history and structure.

In 1996 U.S. audiences were treated to a first ever tour by Grupo AfroCuba de Matanzas, one of Matanzas's premiere folkloric troupes. Now, some two years later, we have a recording to commemorate the event - Raices Africanas/African Roots. Amazingly, it is only their second full-length release, despite a history which dates back to 1957. Since the previous recording, Rituales Afrocubanos (Egrem), was a Cuban release, this will likely be most people's first exposure to AfroCuba and the varied folkloric traditions of Matanzas.

The first thing that strikes you about the group and this recording is the breadth of AfroCuba's repertoire. Unlike most other folkloric troupes who limit their repertoire to songs from the public segment of santeria ceremonies, the Oru del Eya Aranla and various forms of the rumba, AfroCuba covers the proverbial waterfront. They include not only the full range of Lucumí traditions and instrumentation - bata, güiro, and bembe - but also Iyesa, Arará, Palo, Brikamo, Abakua, rumba and their own special fusion BataRumba, which combines the polyrhythms of the sacred bata with rumba's secular tumbador. Since all of AfroCuba's members are members of leading Matanzas cabildos (religious societies) and practitioners of the various religious traditions they perform, they are able to avoid the stiffness and/or staginess which sometimes plagues larger, better known, state ensembles. The strength of the performances here also confirms that, despite the age of the traditions being performed and changes in Cuban society, these are still vital, living, traditions, not simply "folklore." Kudos to Francisco "Minini" Zamora, Grupo AfroCuba's director, and the rest of this talented ensemble for maintaining these traditions with such force and devotion. Thanks also to producer Lisa Maria Salb, formerly of Caribbean Music and Dance Programs, for helping to bring this music to a broader audience.

Yoruba Traditions in Cuba (La Habana)

Switching to the Havana side of things we have Grupo Folklorico de Cuba's classic Toques y Cantos de Santos Volume 1 and Volume 2. According to percussionist Bobby Sanabria in the latest Descarga catalog, this is a set of mid-60s recordings by an early edition of the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional de Cuba, Havana's leading folkloric ensemble. However the 1996 CD re-release Musica Yoruba by Conjunto Folklorico has virtually the same songs as Vol. 1 and is said to have been recorded in the 1970s. Whatever the case may be, the music here is outstanding. While no personnel is listed, the unmistakable voices of Conjunto mainstays Lazaro Ros, Felipe Alfonso and Zenaida Armenteros shine through accompanied by a large and very strong chorus. The result is liturgical music of an exceptionally high order. On the first volume are songs from the Eya Aranla (Elegba through Obatala) performed by Ros, et al., while the second includes a mix of Lucumí, Palo, Abakua, and rumba songs. The only drawback is Cubilandia's unfortunate packaging. Not only are there no personnel listings but the extremely brief liner notes fail to mention anything about the recording itself, i.e. when it was done, by whom, what types of music are included, and what the meanings of the songs are. Nonetheless, this is essential music, particularly Volume One.

In the years since these recordings, Lazaro Ros, Cuba's greatest living akpwon, has taken the music of the orishas all over the world - with Conjunto Folklorico Nacional, the Cuban rock groups Sintesis and Mezcla and, most recently, his own ensemble Olorun. It is with this group, an ensemble of singers and drummers from Ros's home town of Guanabacoa, that Ros collaborates on the first ever recorded song cycle for the guardian of the crossroads, Elegua. Released in 1996, Songs for Elegua covers all of the major praise rhythms and songs for Elegua - Lucumí, Arará, and Iyesa, performed in Ros's distinctive nasal style. Following its release I was informed that Ros would like to do several more song cycles like this for other orisha. Let's hope that this one opens the way. For an even more recent example of Ros's ability to carry the message of the orisha forward check out Chucho Valdes & Irakere's latest recording Babalu Aye. This includes a 16 minute track dedicated to the orisha of disease and healing, Babalu Aye (aka Obaluaye/ Omolu), and combines traditional chants and drumming with synthesizers, horns and other instruments. I find it both amazing and refreshing that someone so clearly identified as a tradition bearer would be willing to engage in such a mezcla of sacred and secular styles. Whether one judges it to be a success, or not, is another question. Suffice it to say that this is not one of my favorite Lazaro Ros recordings.

The final two all-Cuban releases are 1998's Santeria: Songs for the Orishas by Grupo Oba-Ilu and a 1996 title Vida y Muerte del Santero. The Oba-Ilu CD is the more conventional of the two consisting of a straightforward rendering of songs from the Eya Aranla performed by a Havana ensemble led by Mario Jauregui (bata Iya), akpwons Lazaro Hernandez Junco, Pedro Pablo Martinez Campos, and Marta Beatriz Galarraga Eiras. Female akpwons (lead singers) are a fairly rare breed in Lucumí music so Marta Galarraga's strong presence on this CD is perhaps its most notable feature, along with a song for Babalu Aye which is performed a cappella with only hand clapping as accompaniment. Unfortunately the CD liner notes leave out any real discussion of the group and its background. An (English-only) CD booklet by Pedro Sarduy does include the Patakines (orisha stories) for each of the deities saluted - Eleggua, Ogun, Ochosi, Babalu Aye, Obbatala, Shango, Oya, Oshun, and Yemaya.

Vida y Muerte del Santero, on the other hand, is a bit more esoteric. Its brief liner notes indicate that it is part of a project by the Casa del Caribe, based in Santiago de Cuba, to document the various magico-religious systems of Cuba - Santeria, Regla Congo, Vodu and espiritismo. In this instance it focuses on the rituals and music which mark the stages of an Ocha initiate's life in the religion, from birth (initiation, presentation to the sacred drums, etc.) to death (ituto). Uniquely it devotes almost half of its time to songs for the Egun (ancestors) and funerary music, pieces rarely heard in public contexts. As with the Toques y Cantos de Santos CDs there is no mention of who the performers are or what the meaning of the individual tracks might be. Considering the fact that the Casa del Caribe is a research institute and the CD is presumably intended for research purposes it seems a little strange to leave out such critical information. Maybe in the next pressing....

Yoruba Traditions in the United States

Outside of the Caribbean and Latin America Yoruba musics are a fairly recent phenomenon. In the U.S., for example, consecrated bata drums (Ilu Aña) weren't introduced until the late 1950s. In addition, the two men responsible for bringing them, Cuban olubatas Julito Collazo and Francisco Aguabella, only decided to remain here by chance. However, their decision to relocate - Collazo to New York and Aguabella to the West Coast - would be one of the major factors in the migration of Lucumí music to the U.S. For nearly two decades it was their example, coupled with transcriptions from Fernando Ortiz's books and occasional LP recordings, which would dominate American drummers perspectives on the bata. Then, in 1980, with the Mariel boatlift and the subsequent emergence of a new generation of Cuban master drummers, things began to change. Approaches once thought sacrosanct because of their connection to Ortiz or Collazo and Aguabella began to be reinterpreted. The new Cuban arrivals showed alternate performance practices for the bata repertoire and a refreshing willingness to teach non-insiders, something not always found among the first generation of bataleros. The results of this change can now be found in three 1996 releases, each a collaboration between a master Cuban drummer and his mainly American-born disciples.

Spirit Rhythms: Sacred Drumming & Chants from Cuba by Orlando "Puntilla" Rios is the earliest example of this new wave. Although released in 1996, the music here is from a good, but not great, 1987 concert featuring Puntilla and his ensemble Nueva Generación. Two lovely, mostly a cappella, songs, "Aichara Icha" and "Maiseboa," start things off, followed by a series of chants from the Eya Aranla performed with either bata or drum and güiro accompaniment. Aside from a few ragged ankori (chorus) sections it is a solid effort with a nice, intimate feel. In the decade since its recording Puntilla has emerged as New York's leading batalero. On Emilio Barreto's self-produced release Santisimo we get to see how far Puntilla, and his influence, have come. While the personnel is similar to the one found on Spirit Rhythms the chorus here sounds infinitely richer, fuller and more precise. The batas of Puntilla (Iya), Pedro Valdez (Itotele), and Victor Sterling (Okonkolo) are also clearer and more up front in the mix. Add to this the stellar singing of the akpwon triumvirate, Emilio Barreto, Amelia Pedroso and Puntilla, and you have a potential successor to Toques y Cantos de Santo as a santero recording classic. Unfortunately the strength of the CD is undermined by misleading and less than stellar packaging. A track by track description of the song sequences, promised on the CD's back cover, turns out to be only available by mail for an extra $5. For some reason basic track listings have also been left off the booklet. When compared to some of the excellent CD booklets mentioned above these shortcomings are only magnified. Perhaps another label will pick this title up and redo the packaging.

In the 1990s the West Coast has begun to see its own Lucumí renaissance with groups such as Bill Summers and Iroko, featuring ex-Conjunto Folklorico drummer Lazaro Galarraga. Ilu Orisha: Songs, Chants and Rhythms of the Bata is their latest effort. This is an interesting recording which chooses to layer songs from the Eya Aranla over the traditionally unaccompanied drum rhythms of the Oru del Igbodu. The rationale for this, as Summers puts it, was "to protect aspects of the music's spiritual purpose." Thus, we get an "interpretive piece" rather than the strict traditional presentation found on a CD like John Amira's Music of Santeria. The benefit of this approach is that it helps to point up the close relationship between the rhythms of the Igbodu and the songs of the Eya Aranla. A nice bonus is the CD's final track, Se Alafia Ni, in which Summers pays homage to each of the major orisha as well as a litany of great drummers - Esteban "Cha Cha" Vega, Puntilla, Mongo Santamaria, Luis Bauzo, Milton Cardona, John Santos, et al. Definitely worth seeking out.

Yoruba Fusions

This final set of recordings consists of a diverse group of non-traditional efforts united only by their affection for New World Yoruba musical traditions. The most conventional of these is a 1998 release titled Rezos y Cantos Yoruba by Amurá. Since the liner notes offer no clue as to the origin of the group or its background I can only guess that they are from Venezuela, the country of origin for the record label. This is, in essence, a theatricalized version of the bembe ceremony complete with a narrator (Porfirio Torres), akpwon (Ruben Henriquez), bata ensemble and chorus. Twelve tracks, each drawn from the Eya Aranla, are introduced by a narrator who, with the assistance of atmospheric background music, details the biography of each respective orisha. A brief spoken introduction from the akpwon then segues into performances from the full ensemble. Since the soloist and ensemble are competent but not very distinctive the CD remains only a moderately interesting experiment.

Bata Ketu on the other hand, a fusion opera from West Coast percussionists Michael Spiro and Mark Lamson, is a gem of a work. Subtitled "a musical interplay of Cuba and Brazil" its six acts attempt to "tell the story of Yoruba music uprooted from Mother Africa, transplanted in Cuba and Brazil, evolving separately over time, and then reuniting today." To convey this process Spiro and Lamson utilize a number of different approaches. In some cases Lucumí chants are sung over atabaque drumming from Brazil's Candomble tradition, and in others Candomble chants are layered over bata drumming from Cuba. In other instances two versions of the same song, one from each country, are sung back to back, highlighting the similarities and differences of the two traditions. Assisting in this endeavor are a vast array of percussive voices both sacred (bata, atabaque) and secular (samba drums, berimbaus, bird calls). Human voices are also well represented via Brazilian Jorge Alabe who sings the Candomble songs and Bobi Céspedes who takes on the Lucumí ones. Céspedes, a phenomenal singer best known for her work with the Bay Area ensemble Conjunto Céspedes, truly distinguishes herself here. Her phrasing is so strong and confident it kept reminding me of La Reina da la Rumba Celia Cruz at her best. The dual coros and percussion sections are also to be commended for their ability to navigate and fuse these distinctive musical traditions. Let's hope that a smart producer hears this CD and puts Bata Ketu on the road. Such a great tribute to orisha culture deserves to be both seen and heard!

A collaboration between saxophonist Steve Coleman, his ensemble the Mystic Rhythm Society, and Grupo AfroCuba de Matanzas, is not nearly as successful. In fact, the CD which documents their exchange, The Sign and the Seal: Transmissions of the Metaphysics of a Culture (BMG/RCA Victor 74321-40727-2; is more like a noble failure. Coleman's intent seems to have been a marriage of jazz, hip-hop rhythms, and Afro-Cuban folkloric musics. Instead what emerges is a series of rapid-fire conversations in which all of the participants speak but no real interchange takes place. This is particularly apparent during the weak raps offered by Mystic Rhythm Society member Kokayi. Almost uniformly the tracks consist of Grupo AfroCuba playing their folkloric repertoire, both sacred and secular, while Coleman and company simply improvise on top. In the liner notes Coleman states that "this recording is about roots, about a common conception regarding how music is created. It is the African idea of expressing the universe through sound that forms the common bond here..." Unfortunately, the fact remains that there is no one "Africa" and that collaborative efforts to resolve aesthetic differences requires a lot more time than the month or two allotted to this project.

Yemaya Suite, Sacred Songs of Yorubaland by Vancouver pianist Kathy Kidd offers a much more rewarding experience. This 36-minute Latin jazz tribute to the female monarch of the seas weaves together melodies from traditional praise songs for Yemaya with some of Kidd's own material. In her arrangement clarinet, trumpet and violin take the role of female voices, while trombone, tenor and baritone saxes take on the male voices. Although a bata ensemble is included, its role is minimized. My only complaint is that Kidd seems to emphasize only Yemaya's gentle, maternal side, without any of the counterbalancing tempestousness which is also her legacy. Nonetheless, this release should be enjoyed by both jazz lovers as well as fans of Lucumí song traditions.

Eighty-five year-old Chief Bey has long been a mentor to New York's drumming community, both in the realm of jazz and African folkloric music. On his most recent CD, Children of the House of God (Mapleshade 05132; Tel. 1-888-CDMAPLE; email:, he extends that legacy with a novel fusion of spirituals from the African American tradition and chants from the Eya Aranla. For example, a traditional Lucumí song for Oduduwa is married to "Precious Lord," "Old Time Religion" is paired with the Shango song "Onibode," and so on. It's a potent reaffirmation of the connections between African and African American sacred music traditions.

Films and Videos

Although books and recordings are essential resources, only rarely can they can convey information with the same immediacy as film or video. Thus it is a special treat to have documentaries such as Everyday Art and Sworn to the Drum available.

Everyday Art, the longer of the two at 50 minutes, is a testament to the preeminent place of music and dance in AfroCuban culture. From impromptu rumba sessions in Havana's alleyways, to rehearsals and performances by renowned troupes such as Conjunto Folklorico and Danza Contemporanea, to live concerts by Irakere, Los Van Van, Anacaona, et al., the music never stops. Neither do the stream of on-camera testimonials from students and instructors at the Escuela Nacional de Arte, Cuba's leading arts school, and artists ranging from Amelia Pedroso, Regino Jimenez, and Fermin Nani, on the folkloric side, to Chucho Valdes, Issac Delgado, and Juan Formell, on the pop side. All testify to the special role of music and dance in their lives, particularly the folkloric forms derived from ancestral sources such as the Yoruba, Arará, Kongo, Efik/Ejagham. With student after student voicing their love of the arts you begin to question whether this isn't all a bit staged. Then you see an image of 91 year-old rumbera Leopoldina, who still dances, juxtaposed with toddlers in the streets picking up their first dance steps. Or, later on, the image of a five year-old member of famed folkloric troupe Los Muñequitos de Matanzas performing quite ably with older family members during a concert presentation. At that point I was forced to stop questioning and simply left to marvel at the richness of this culture and its ability to maintain itself across so many generations, cultural shifts, and seemingly endless bouts of economic deprivation.

Unfortunately, no really in-depth interviews, biographical portraits, historical segments, or lengthy rehearsals are included, which limits the video's educational value. However, for viewers in search of an entertaining, impressionistic, overview of Cuba's folkloric and popular music scenes this video is worth seeking out.

Filmmaker Les Blank is reknowned for his documentary portraits of roots music traditions, from the Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans to bluesman Lightnin' Hopkins. In his 1995 work Sworn to the Drum he turns the camera on master drummer and olubata Francisco Aguabella. Although only 35 minutes in length, this tribute offers at least a partial glimpse into why Aguabella has been such an influential performer, particularly on the West Coast.

Born in Matanzas Aguabella first came to the US in 1957 as an assistant on one of Katherine Dunham's film projects. When asked how long that initial project was supposed to last, he laughingly responds that each time one of its deadlines would pass he would inform Dunham he was ready to return to Cuba and each time Dunham would ask if he could stay for just one more month, or two, or three.... Finally, he decided to relocate for good, joining such other recent arrivals as Carlos 'Patato' Valdes, Mongo Santamaria, Candido Camero, Armando Peraza, and Julito Collazo. Well known in the '50s as a master rumbero, Aguabella would later emerge as a leading voice on the West Coast Latin jazz scene, as well as one of only two U.S.-based olubata, or masters of the consecrated bata. As scholar Robert Farris Thompson puts it, he has become a virtual "Rosetta Stone" of Afro-Cuban musical thought.

Sworn to the Drum gives us an opportunity to see Aguabella in all of his guises - Latin jazz bandleader, rumbero and olubata. The main performance footage comes from an exciting Aguabella tribute held at San Francisco's Caesar's Palace. This includes a roaring conga drum summit showcasing Aguabella with Patato Valdes, Daniel Ponce, Julito Collazo, and others, brief bata and rumba segments, a descarga with percussionists Sheila E. and her father Pete Escovedo, and a huge finale featuring Carlos Santana, and a cast of thousands. There is also brief footage of a bembe ceremony, possibly from Los Angeles, in which Aguabella makes use of his Ilu Aña (consecrated bata). Most of these performance segments are complemented by talking head interviews with the ever articulate Bay Area drummer and educator John Santos. When combined with the performance footage they help reveal what a treasure Francisco Aguabella really is.

*First published in Oshun: Afrikan-Magickal Quarterly. For subscription information contact: Oshun, 143 Progress St., Lincoln, RI 02865. Email:; bpantry/voodoo/books.htm.

John Gray is an independent scholar specializing in Black culture and the performing arts. He is also founder/director of the Black Arts Research Center an archival resource center dedicated to the documentation, preservation and dissemination of the African cultural legacy. His writings include Fire Music: a bibliography of the New Jazz, 1959-1990 (1991), African Music (1991), Blacks in Film and Television (1990), Black Theater and Performance (1990), Ashe, Traditional Religion and Healing in sub-Saharan Africa and the Diaspora (1989) and Blacks in Classical Music (1988), all published by Greenwood Press. Mr. Gray's current project is a multi-volume bibliography on sacred, folk and popular music idioms of the African Diaspora.

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