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Friday, 8 November 2013

Santiago de Cuba Diary 5: Afrocuban Santeria



We set out mid Friday afternoon from the Melia Santiago Hotel on foot to the Caribe Culture Centre to see the Afrocuban folklore museum and show. It would be the only performance there during our stay as per the wonderful itinerary Professor Marta put together for us upon my request to see a good top notch cross section of the traditional music and dance of Santiago de Cuba. After so many visits I am no stranger to much of this but this is her teaching subject at the university and is also related to her work as secretary of the Jose Marti Society.


We strolled through the former rich part of town, past the old mansion homes from before the revolution. They have now been converted into schools, cultural, sports and local government ministry offices. Children raced about the school yards and parks, one in which I saw an old Soviet MIG jet, long since decommissioned, stripped down and readily available for them to see and climb about, truly a Cold War relic now put to good use.

Other everyday Cubans wandered about on business. Gaggles of high school students hung out at the street corner parkettes, gathered about the benches. Every student in Cuba wears a uniform depending upon their level; primary, junior, intermediate, and senior. The secondary students were still wearing theirs, late coming home. Their weekend had all ready begun. They were obviously very excited and pleased, posturing, flirting, goofing around with each other as teens are apt to do. It was all very relaxed and exceptionally polite, with an almost quaint like ambiance, such as we might've seen in Southern Ontario back during the 1950's or 60's. Education is free here, but still considered an important privilege, and duty. The teachers and indeed adults in general are treated with deference and respect, due to our help, experience and age. I can't tell you how refreshing this is! A major relief, even when one is just walking past them on the street.


We arrived about an hour before the scheduled show so we could take time to see the museum exhibit with Marta as our guide. It traced the history of the Santeria religion, dating back to the African slaves arrival at the plantations in Cuba, where their servitude required a conversion to Christianity, wherein they hid and practiced their timeless traditional tribal spiritual beliefs. God was only accessible through the spirits, each of whom became known as a saint, evolving into a unique hybrid of Catholic and African symbols, artifacts and beliefs unique to the African Yemen tribes who now populated the huge slave force.


And so we strolled through the galleries of Catholic statues, mixed pretty evenly with tribal African religious artifacts and the like; a mad mix of religious iconology, frighteningly beautiful, indecipherable and scary often in the same measure. In each room there stood little alters consisting of primitive crosses, disfigured dolls, plaster saint statues and carved wooden idols, holy cards and tarot cards and a wide variety of various religious baubles spread out all around. Rocks had eyes, the walls strange symbols painted on them. In one setting we came across a remarkably lifelike dismembered wooden head in a basket. "This is where the nightmares begin", joked my sister, much to my comic relief.


It was remarkably interesting and intriguing as were Marta's explanations of what we saw. However I was anxious to get outside to the courtyard where we could hear the drums being set up. Loud Afrocuban music blasted from a set of old speakers, the whole patio a concert stage of sorts, with simple tables, chairs, a bar, and religious symbols scribbled and painted over the age old cracked walls. Open bottles of white rum cluttered the tables, the local Cuban workers and visitors bringing their own plastic glasses, as they shared drinks on a late Friday afternoon after work.


The men's washroom had a toilet with no seat, running water or lights in an unbearably hot little shack, unlike the women's which had a sink and toilet that flushed. The men kept running in and out of that one too. The doors had no locks so I stood outside to prevent anyone from entering much to Maryanne's relief, and just basically held my breath afterwards when I went into the men's room to do my business. I didn't imbibe any further drinks after that


The show was scheduled to begin at 4pm but that was not to be the case. Cuba is indeed the land of waiting, and tonight was no exception. Special guests arrived, to be heartily greeted, local Cuban athletes, sports figures, actors, artists, government officials and the sort. I knew nobody but heartily joined in the applause as it was a lot of fun and seemed the respectful thing to do.


The opening act was somewhat in congruent, a shirtless Rastaman in ragged jeans with long dreadlocks to the ground, swaying and belting out an improvised Jamaican rap to a heavy prerecorded reggae beat. He was quite lively, engaging and seemed to be a crowd favourite. I went over later to say hola and thank him for the performance. He was quite a polite and down to earth guy.


Maryanne grew quite understandably restless by the time the drum tattoo and chanting began. The first dancers came out barefoot in their swirling colourful traditional Spanish dresses. The men brightly attired or in stripped down African warrior fare. They rapidly danced about in gay sweeping motions caught up, as was the audience, in the rhythm and the beat. She and Marta left after the first act. I was determined to see whole show.


After another skirt swirl amongst much foot prancing,  jumping and leaping about in simply tailored gowns, an African warrior appeared bearing a weathered old human skull held high. The dancers formed a chain of sorts swirling around and around, leaping up and down as he danced with the skull atop his head before he offered it to the audience to see in his out stretched hands. Prostrating himself behind it on the ground in supplication he then arose waving his hands deliriously above his head while the dancers, drums and chanting reached a feverish pitch. A female African chorus raised the chant to a mad rhythmic pitch while the drums roared. Amongst the mad climax, our dancer picked up the skull again, raced about a few more times waving it in the air and placing it on his head before he disappeared into the wings, the dancers soon accompanying him. A lone clarinet player in simple campanero country garb wandered out to blow the final notes, a descending solo on his tinny horn. The the performance was over.


Tonight was undoubtedly a quite abbreviated* if not exciting Afrocuban - Santeria show, followed by speeches from the different Cuban guest introductions in between acts to much applause and hoots. Although quite indifferent and recognizing nobody, though everyone else sure did, I invariably made like the locals and just enjoyed the fun. These sort of affairs are pretty universal, and within Cuban circles a quite star studded one for sure. It did drag on though. After the evenings finale we got a special presentation. A very distinguished looking not to mention remarkably talented clarinet player took centre floor while the special guests were invited up to join the drummers accompanying him in a truly moving performance on the horn.


I wandered out into the night to make my way back under the lamplight and sprawling shadows of the roadside fauna and overhead trees. It was a pretty typical Friday night I suppose, with Cubans of all sorts wandering about the otherwise darkened streets. There was music and laughter in the warm tropical air, that put a further bounce to my step as I strolled past the old mansions to the main street, feeling perfectly safe and quite exhilarated after the fabulous performance. It was truly a Cuban evening to remember!

* Also pretty tame. I have attended various backroom/ back wood ceremonies before. The dancers are scantily clad, more so in skin paint than anything else. An animal sacrifice might be included, with the participants smearing the blood over their bodies and symbolically beating each other with palm fonds as they dance and leap about. The drums and chanting, among the audience and the participants reaches a delirious pitch, with folks rolling their eyes back into their head, waving their hands in the air and screeching in different voices.


The similarity to Haitian Voodoo ceremonies come to mind, of which I haven't any particular knowledge or experience. However, the religion itself is not focused on evil, although the saints can be appealed to for both good and ill and steeped in much superstition. A lot of the religious thrust is on ones personal relationship with the spirit world for centering, healing and good fortune, rooted in various African tribal and Catholic icons, traditions and beliefs.

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