Spring 2002

By Gwdihw, a Welsh specialist in religions who writes about the African religions in Cuba

The purpose of our journey to Cuba was to search for African roots grown by slaves when they reached their new land. Starting at Guanabacoa we touched the soil kissed by the slave ancestors thanking Yemanja The Goddess of the Sea for bringing them to land.

The Museum of Guanabacoa is now the place of Afro-Cuban culture with cases of African deities originally secretly twinned or syncretised with Spanish Catholic saints. Our Guide introduced us to Elegua the Door Keeper and Guardian of the Thresholds and Crossroads. We felt reassured to meet the Messenger and felt he blessed us as he led us to Babalao Aye syncretised with St. Lazarus the Heater, with offerings in the shape of metal symbols; a heart or a penis that needed guidance.

Other Orishas or Deities welcomed us and my friend Debbie lingered at Chango’s shrine. The African scene or Santeria scene included homely altars laden with casseroles and pots with stones standing in rum or brandy; food for the gods. From the sublime to the ridiculous we could not find ‘the guide book restaurant’ but Elegua led us to a window, hidden at first but open for dripping cheese pizzas, a bargain at 30 pesos, about 20p.

No taxis were available at midday but we were rescued by a dark and handsome muscular man in a vest. We returned to Havana in his Buick chariot and he informed us that he was a Chango man and a powerful driver. We sought refuge from the burning sun in the shadowy and mysterious Havana Vieja, full of secret courtyards, pot-holed labyrinths and well-restored buildings.

We were welcomed by a Rasta woman who took us down a narrow maze to Felicia’s Rumba This is a Celebration of the Orishas, when the believers become possessed and dance. It goes way back to Nigeria the original home of Ogun and Ochun. Felicia welcomed us and we watched and listened spellbound. The drumming was wild, Ricardo Lasaro is the best Master Drummer in town, with poise and speed, amazing for one so young, memorable in his Shango red. The singers shone and Miki Cortico voice called to the Orishas.

An added bonus was seeing the African murals of the Orishas painted by Gladys Soto Villa. Havana is divided into zones and Havana Central where we stayed nearby consists of high density living quarters for many people with African roots. The Rastas frequent both areas and are extremely friendly and colourful with their Santeria colours of black, red, green and yellow. We stayed in a B& B in a narrow street and found the sence vibrant and energetic. Sleep was a luxury as often there was all night partying.

Between the Vieja and Central zones could be called Limbo. Here the sophisticated hotels are overshadowed by the Art Decadent Bacardi Tower crowned by a topsy turvy bat, symbolising the fall of Capitalism. Parque Central is surrounded by luxury hotels with foyers full of tourists laden with gold chains, camera and cam corders, capturing the images of the people, but never noticing their smiling faces and greetings; “From where do you come?” Hotel Telegrafico did not escape the African influence as we entered and heard the resonating voice of Maria Cristina of the Group Havan Ritmo, not only did she have a good voice but she was good at improvaisation, up to Calypso style, as she made some witty comments about the guests.

Gery’s percussion was so African as he beat the bongos in this high church conversion bar, with exuisite mosaics everywhere. Another hot group with African influence to make it in Limbo at The Plaza Hotel was Chicuelo Son, their lead singer Anaysy Gregory was gutsy. Visiting Salsa bands frequented the terrace of The Hotel Inglaterra and passers by joined in the partying on the other side of the terrace barrier. Friends persuaded us to go deeper into Cuba and to fly to Santiago over closely cultivated fields, magaical turquoise and purple lagoons and the high mountains of the Sierra Maestre.

Oriente is the most African province in Cuba and the home of the music called Son. Son was born out of African drums and Spanish guitars. Son, Rumba and Salsa all originate from African Ceremonial dances and masquerades or festivals. Santiago was small and compact with lots of strolling musicians wandering round the Parque Cespedes or Central Square. giving pleasure. The Centre of Son was the Casa de Trova where folk jumped with joy to hear bands like Los Jubilados (Olf Age Pensioners) who swing their son and are the envy of younger bands. Son groups played each afternoon and evening and the cost of a dollar a ticket was like a gift. People danced and danced. The rival joint down the street was Casa Artex.

Their son band Son Amoresa included an accordian which produced a more mellow, different sound. The dancers Joannis and Melissa provided the added attraction of break Salsa, sensual as they became entwined. We had gone to Cuba to experience the African roots of Carnival and to masquerade.

We wanted to be caught in the Conga line and to see the little devils in the street, but we were told to come back for this, at the end of the sugar harvest in July. The Museum of Carnival made up for this as they put on a Rumba in the late afternoon and drummers beat African drums from the museum, including bata drums and dancers ecstatically perormed the dances of the Orishas. The call and response of the singers was catching as we enjoyed the dance of Oya under the tropical sun of mid February. Next day we visited the mountain shrine at Cobre dedicated to the Black Virgin de la Caridad, twinned with Ochun the Goddess of Love. We gave her yellow sun flowers and bought little replicas of her smiling down upon little men in a boat, she is the original Patron Saint of Cuba.

Officially Cuba has no religion but we met many people involved in Santeria and churches were also open, so the scene was quite liberal. Santiago fulfilled its African promise. The Centro Cultural Africano displayed the statues of Africa and the Director Marta Cordies Jackson welcomed us and kindly arranged for us to see Fertility and Initiation masks from the Congo, locked away.

Later that day I came across modern carnival masks derived from those very masks in the cupboard, but in vivid colours. Our guide led us to the nearby Casa Caribbean 2 where we saw more Orishas and had our fortunes told be a Santero called Abelardo, he was very Rasta and very African as he thre the cowries. To end our visit we received a great African blessing in finding the sacred Ceiba Tree of thorns, in the courtyard. We stood and thanked Elegua for opening doors and finally showing us this very special African tree with deep roots spread in the rich soil of Cuba.

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