This is not the first time I’ve written about music dedicated to the deities known as Orishas: Most recently, there’s “Afro-Latinas sing to the santos, the ancestors, and the culture.” In 2011, I wrote “¡Qué viva Changó !: West African deities in the Americas,” and there is also a 2016 commentary on President Barack Obama’s referencing the Orisha Ochun in his address to Cubans. Prior to that, back in 2014, I featured the massive New Year’s celebration in Brazil in “New Year’s Eve celebration in Rio for the Goddess of the sea, Iemanjá.”
Most readers live within the mainland boundaries of the US, and many live in cities with large Caribbean populations. Often the assumption is made that the religious and spiritual practices of those groups fit into neat Catholic or Protestant boxes. This isn’t the reality: Many practitioners have incorporated both European- and African-derived spiritual traditions. However, when surveyed, they answer demographers with socially acceptable responses, thus many Caribbean Latinos are listed simply as “Catholics.” While they may be attending Mass on Sunday, they were likely also at a festival for the Orishas on Saturday. In Haitian American areas, the situation is the same for practitioners of Voudou, much as it is for folks from Trinidad, where the “Baptist” moniker includes what is known as Shango, or Spiritual Baptists.
The revolutionary Cuban government under Fidel Castro initially attempted to repress African diasporic religious practices on the island, but shifted gears when it became a folkloric tourist attraction. The Conjunto Folklorico Nacional was established in 1962, and there are regional dance companies as well.
To get a sense of the combination of Orisha music and dance, we’ll start with a Yorùbá Andabo performance.
Yoruba Andabo was established in 1961 and since then its prestige, both in the national and international scene, has never stopped increasing. This group from Havana has been named with the identity roots of Cuban nationality. Yoruba: representing the religion of the great African continent that later was integrated into the Cuban culture and Andabo: meaning friend or admirer in language carabalí.
This video illustrates the traditional style of singing, dancing, and playing drums to the Orisha. The dancer’s movements echo the feeling of water and waves. She is dressed in a traditional dance outfit for Yemaya, in her color of blue. Dance is tied to music, for it is during dancing to sacred drums that a priest is “mounted” by the Orisha; that ritual spirit possession is viewed by adherents as an opportunity to speak with or be with the divine.
In this video, you can watch Yusimi Moya Rodriguez, who was a dancer with the aforementioned Conjunto Folklorico Nacional in Cuba, demonstrating some basic Lukumí (Yorùbá) dances for Yemaya, set to ritual drums and songs.
Traditionally, any Orisha event or ceremony is opened with an invocation to Elegua, an Orisha who is both a messenger and the owner of the crossroads. Blues fans are probably aware of hoodoo myths surrounding bluesman Robert Johnson making a deal with Elegua at the crossroads.
This is my favorite a capella invocation to Elegua, from Sexto Sentido.
If you think that songs for the Orisha and other West African religious traditions that were brought here during enslavement have only been maintained among Spanish-speaking populations, meet Ella Andall.
Andall, whose voice is well known throughout the Caribbean and in world music circles, may not be a familiar name for you. Carolyn Taylor wrote this profile of her for Caribbean Beat back in 2014.
Andall was born in Grenada — one dare not ask the date — and moved to Trinidad when she was eight or nine. She found Trinidad extremely different from Grenada. For the first time, she encountered an discomfort with “blackness”, and distrust of anything “too African”. But she had been raised in a home and a family that had inherited the West African traditions of her ancestors, and she studiously resisted any attempts to remove her from those traditions, even refusing to sing in school choirs where she would be made to sing differently. .
Andall is an olorisha, or Orisha devotee. It is a way of life that celebrates the ancestors and the divine in nature, with various aspects and forces of the natural world represented in the Orisha, who are each a manifestation of God, or Olodumare. Two of Andall’s CDs—Oriki Ogun and Sango Baba Wa — comprise oriki, or praise songs, sung in Yoruba, to specific Orishas. Two more collections of oriki, in honor of Oshun and Eshu, are due out later this year. Many of the oriki have been passed down through the generations, while some are original compositions. When the Orisha are invoked through chanting and prayer, you can witness — or experience — the kind of manifestations which Andall’s performances are known to produce. You do not even need to be an olorisha to experience a manifestation — the Orisha do not discriminate by creed, color, or any other classification.
With her suites of oriki to Ogun and Shango, her recordings have filled a void. Oriki Ogun has become the soundtrack for every context calling for an authentic African vibration. Trinidadian filmmaker Yao Ramesar used her music in his film Sista God, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2006. “I have always loved her music,” he says. “For me she ranks right up there with Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Mahalia Jackson, Miriam Makeba, Ella Fitzgerald.”
Here are Andall’s orikis (praise songs) to Yemaya. Much to my surprise, when watching the accompanying visual montage put together by YouTuber Nathaniel Lewis, at 1:56, I saw a photo of myself!
It’s not Orisha-related, but I love this uplifting tune from Andall, which calls upon the power of love.
Bring down the power of love, I say. Bring down the power!
The power of love, I say, is the greatest power!
Stop hell and damnation. Bring down the power!
Love to heal a nation is the greatest power!
A wind of destruction is blowing over this land [Over this land]
And now the earth is a-trembling with man’s oppression of man. [Bring down the power!]
Now the time come to sit down and rediscover what’s life. [What is life]
Show the world the true meaning of real love power, not strife. [Bring down the power!]
Bring down the power of love, I say [Bring down the power!]
The power of love, I say, is the greatest power.
Stop hell and damnation [Bring down the power!]
Love to heal a nation. [Is the greatest power!]
Anyone familiar with Afro-Cuban music is well aware of Celia Cruz, who was known the world over as “The Queen of Salsa.”
Celia de la Caridad Cruz Alfonso – Celia Cruz – was born in 1925 in Barrio Santos Suarez in Havana, one of 4 children. In a career that spanned six decades, Celia became the “Queen of Salsa,” and was central to the genre’s rising popularity.
Celia joined the Tito Puente Orchestra in the mid – 1960’s. Her flamboyant attire and magnetic personality meteorically expanded the group’s fan base. The group was central to the new sound developing in the 1960s and ’70s – music born of Cuban and Afro-Latin mixed musical tradition – which came to be known as “Salsa.” A new record label, “Fania,” was launched, devoted solely to the genre. In 1974, Celia joined the label and recorded “Celia y JohnnyWith Johnny Pacheco. One of the album’s tracks, “Quimbera ” became a signature song for her. Celia was the only woman in the Fania All Stars, and one of the few women to succeed in the male-dominated salsa world. She would go on to perform with the Willie Colon Orchestra and the Sonora Poncena, with Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez.
Celia was a true pioneer of AfroLatinidadfocusing on the African elements of her identity (music, lyrics and dress) at a time when it was not popular to do so.
It should come as no surprise that part of Cruz’s repertoire would be songs to the Orisha. Here she is live, singing to Yemaya, at a 1987 tribute to her and Tito Puente in Puerto Rico.
Paying homage to Orisha continues in popular Afro-Cuban traditions, as a lively tune from Elito Revé y Su Charangon, “Agua pa ‘Yemaya” (“Water for Yemaya”), illustrates.
Orquesta Reve, commonly known as ‘El Charangon de Elito Reve’, is a music legend in Cuba and a worldwide known artist of fame. The Orquesta Reve was founded in 1956 by Elio Reve Matos, a brilliant musician from Guantanamo, who died in 1997. Today his son, Elito Reve, continues the musical direction of the band.
Many of the musicians and singers currently in the forefront of the Cuban music scene, have been members of Orquesta Reve. In more than half-century of history, the Orquesta Reve was not only an incomparable orchestra of popular dance music, but a laboratory from which derived other orchestras, other innovating and successful musical formulas. For instance one can cite Ritmo Oriental, Los Van Van, Dan Den, Pupy y los Que Son Son. When in the middle of the Fifties Elio Reve settles in Havana, he decided to form an orchestra of the Charanga type with the intention of modernizing the traditional Changui.
The video incorporates images of priests on the island, making offerings of water and fruit to Yemaya, both at her shrine and in the ocean.
It’s also great dance music!
This one has me up and dancing around the house. How about you?
Join me in the comments for even more music and celebrating. I wish you the blessings of health and joy today, particularly during the rough times we are all experiencing.