Senegal-born baker makes best baguettes in Paris

Djibril Bodian from the Grenier à Pain bakery on the Rue des Abbesses, Montmartre, has plenty to smile about. The French baker of Senegalese origin has bagged  the official title of “Best baguette in Paris” for the second time since 2011. The prize comes with €4,000 in cash and the honour of baking a fresh batch for the presidential Elysée palace every day for the next year. 

Rethinking African Religions: African Americans, Afro-Latinos, Latinos, and Afro-Cuban Religions in Chicago By Jadele McPherson


Spring 2007, Vol. 26, Issue 1, pp. 121-141 

Copyright © College Vanderbilt University. Department of Spanish and portuguese Spring 2007.

One day, after studying abroad in Havana, Cuba, I saw a familiar yet seemingly out-of-place object on my mother’s windowsill. I was confused as to why my mother would have a statue of Santa Barbara in her room. One would more likely find this figure on a Catholic altar or maybe on an elaborate altar of a practicing santero or santera, both of which my mother is not. “May I take that Santa Barbara for my boveda?” I asked her. Eyes and the corners of her lips dancing, my mother did not crack a smile. “Santa Barbara does not leave the house,” she announced. It had been there since before I was born, at times accompanied by perfume, rum, and cigars.

Like many practitioners of Afro-Cuban religions, my parents silenced my mother’s history with Regla de Ocha and Espiritismo (Spiritism) during my childhood and teenage years. As an African American with Caribbean ancestry (from my mother), growing up in African American, Latino, and Caribbean communities in New York City and New Jersey has led me to probe family silences around our religious practices and connections between our genealogy in the Deep South and throughout the Caribbean. These silences are informed by popular ideas about culture and race, and are also related to the silencing of intersections between African American, Afro-Latino, and Latino histories and cultures in academic migration histories and ethnographies. Investigating religious practices within these communities in the United States provides new perspectives on contemporary urban race relations, urban communities, and African American, Afro-Caribbean, and Latino identity constructions. This article attempts to break some of these silences by exploring African American and Latino relations and comparative race relations in Chicago’s Afro-Cuban religious practitioner community.

Rethinking African American Appropriation of Orisha Practices in the United States

Among the plethora of scholarship about Afro-Cuban religious practices, as well as their origins and development, there is a silence concerning how African Americans and Latinos have formed multi-ethnic religious communities through Ocha, Palo, and Spiritism in the urban United States (Trouillot 53). Frequently, Afro-Cuban religious studies do not take into account interrelations of Ocha to Spiritism and Palo practices, which are also linked to the ethnically and racially diverse body of practitioners. Afro-Latino and African American relations have reshaped their communities due to significantly increasing migrations within and immigration to the United States, especially in the past two decades. These silences are exemplified in the lack of scholarship about Ocha, Palo, and Spiritist practices in African American and Latino communities in Chicago.

Chicago variations on Ocha, Palo, and Spiritist practices incorporate common narratives that link local African American and Latino experiences to the Afro-Atlantic Diaspora. Yet Chicago Ocha, Palo, and Spiritist practices also show that Afro-Cuban religions cannot be indicators of whether a cultural group (practitioners) is more authentically African than another. Local cultural identity, race relations, and migrations primarily inform how African American and Latino practitioners connect ideas of blackness, Africanity, authenticity, and ancestry in Ocha, Palo, and Spiritism to popular and academic African American and Latin American historical narratives.

Critics often characterize United States African American Ocha practice as an attempt to reclaim lost African identity. This loss of African roots is tied to a particular anthropological narrative about the cruel and inhumane Atlantic Slave Trade and North America. Slavery becomes an ambiguous trope within typical historical narratives: slavery, abolition, nation-state independence, and subsequent emergence of a new nation-state that defines its multi-racial population through national identity. Marronage, or the formation of free runaway slave communities, as in the case of the Saramaka of Suriname, also challenges the traditional slavery to nation-state narrative. This trope is often connected to ideas about “preservation” of African culture and “tradition.”

Herskovitzs’ scale of “Africanisms” created after his return from Suriname in 1929 first established the trope of the Saramaka as “the most African” in the Western hemisphere (Scott 277-78). Richard Price’s First Time: The Historical Vision of an Afro-American People (1983) about the Saramaka fifty years later would become a hallmark in American anthropology, also asserting that the Saramaka were the most “African” of African Americans. Socio-historical processes of African enslavement that developed along distinctive trajectories throughout the Afro-Atlantic world cannot account for differences between African American cultures alone. The narrative that protestant Anglo-American colonial societies did not permit as much transmission of African cultural identity as did Caribbean and Latin American slave societies commonly treats U.S. African Americans as the least “African” of African Americans (277-78). It downplays structural racism in Latin America and the Caribbean; defining African American cultures according to what European colonial societies “permitted,” rather than recognizing that African Americans consciously developed cultural identities and historical narratives through varied processes in all slave societies. In this way, nationalist historical narratives and identities can be problematic for interrogating African American cultures. Too often they superficially insert African history and culture, negating African Americans’ roles in development of the nation-state through political and other spheres, and fail to account for the violent histories of oppression and marginalization of African Americans throughout the hemisphere. These narratives create separate cultural imaginaries for U. S. African Americans and Afro-Latin Americans (Dulitzsky, qtd. in Dzidzienyo and Anani 48-50).

Additionally, ethnographies celebrate Afro-Haitian Vodoun, Afro-Brazilian Candomble, and Afro-Cuban Ocha religious practices as the ultimate signs of African cultural authenticity in the hemisphere. Practitioners have popularized Afro-Atlantic religions by connecting them to broader historical discourses in the Diaspora, exemplified in the focus on ancestry in Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Latin American religious practices. Rather than examining Ocha, Palo, and Spiritism as African “survivals,” ethnography illustrates how practitioners from Cuba to Chicago continually develop systems of belief hinged on differing racial ideology and cosmology from dominant society.

Walter King of Detroit, founder of Oyotunji Village in South Carolina, is often described as the “first” African American to become initiated as a priest into Afro-Cuban Regla de Ocha, which he did in Matanzas, Cuba in 1959. Focus on the unique Oyotunji African American community has allowed him to discuss African Americans in Afro-Cuban Lucumi practice (Palmie 77).

It still remains unclear exactly how long African Americans have collaborated with Cubans and Puerto Ricans in shared rituals, as African American and Latino practitioners have disagreed on aesthetics and ideologies in Orisha practice. Presently, in Chicago, some factions of African American practitioners apart from Oyotunji priest(esses) reject Cuba and Puerto Rico as authentic centers of Orisha practice and refer “directly” to Nigeria. This theology legitimizes Nigerian Yoruba practices, challenging the Caribbean as an authentic center of Yoruba religion. It is a root of tension among African Americans and Afro-Latinos in overlapping Yoruba religious practitioner communities (Nigerian Ifa vs. Afro-Cuban Lucumi). Yet many African Americans (as well as some Afro Anglophone Caribbean) houses in Chicago consistently work with Afro-Cubans in Lucumi rituals. However, whether practicing Ifa or Lucumi, African Americans have a point of entry into Ocha, Palo, and Spiritism that challenges the characterization of appropriation of Afro-Latino religious practices in historiography. As Zora Neale Hurston addressed in her ethnography on African American folk religion in Florida, known as Hoodoo, the silencing of cultural connections between African Americans and Afro-Latinos contributes to a skewed narrative about African American appropriation of Afro-Latino religions. Though Oyotunjians were interested in Orisha worship as a means to acquire “lost culture,” many African American practitioners embrace Orisha worship as a genuine recuperation of cultural heritage because it mirrors common beliefs and practices in African American culture rooted in the Deep South. Generally, African Americans in the United States do not view Hoodoo as a “religion.” They prefer to identify with Black churches, which condemn some aspects of Hoodoo practice, while incorporating others like “catching the spirit” as Christian and labeling cleaning a house with sage, incense or talking out loud to deceased family members as “cultural” (which African Americans do not always connect to being African) rather than religious practices.

In Chicago, African American Ocha practitioners are most certainly aware of Hoodoo, and many have strong kinship and cultural ties to the American South. Thus, local and cultural ideas about blackness and African cultural identity also inform authentic Ocha and Spiritist ritual practice, even in non-black Latino communities. As far as scholarship on the majority non-black Latino practitioners in Chicago and other cities, what motivates appropriation of Afro-Cuban religions has hardly been interrogated as it has been in the case of African Americans.

Eggun: Afro-Cuban Origins and Problematizing Authenticity

In The Altar of My Soul (2000), Afro-Puerto Rican author, scholar, and Ocha priestess Marta Moreno Vega narrates her story of initiation into Ocha in Cuba. During this process, she becomes part of a long family line of active and committed women santeras and espiritistas. Vega’s story recognizes that enslaved Yoruba Africans were not just brought to Cuba, but also to Puerto Rico (and other Caribbean islands), contributing to a conversation about legacies, tradition, and authenticity in the Afro-Atlantic Diaspora.

In Afro-Cuban religions, ancestry is a pivotal concept that privileges the Yoruba and Congo as African ethnic legacies. These ethnicities have become associated with African cultural “survivals” in specific Latin American and Caribbean regions. Despite the large populations of present-day Yoruba and Congo enslaved Africans brought to Cuba and Puerto Rico, these ethnic identities developed during what Stephan Palmie calls “ethnogenesis,” which describes the process of acculturation enslaved Africans negotiated to develop a common culture and identity in order to communicate with one another and to survive. Yoruba and Congo derived religious practices are not specific to Haiti, Brazil, Cuba, or Puerto Rico (they also exist in Colombia, Trinidad, Venezuela). As J. Lorand Matory demonstrates in the case of Brazil, Afro-Brazilians strategically formed Yoruba identity through transnational relations throughout the Afro-Atlantic world.

Within Brazilian and Cuban societies, there are local regional contestations around Orisha and Spiritist practices. In Cuba, Havana and Matanzas-style practices or heavily Haitian-influenced from the Province of Oriente represent main regional variations on Ocha, Palo, and Spiritism. Regional differences in the Caribbean influence Ocha communities in the United States, in part because Cuba, like Brazil, remains a cultural symbol of “pure” and authentic African survivals of religious rituals. Cuban migrations that increased post-1959 have also resulted in a Cuba-centric Ocha, Palo, and Spiritist practice throughout the United States.

Undoubtedly, Afro-Cuban ritual performance and music have also significantly impacted U. S. Orisha communal ceremonies. In Chicago, ritual performance ceremonies reify certain notions of Afro-Cuban authenticity while practitioners locally negotiate religious boundaries between Ocha, Palo, and Spiritism. While this article cannot explore extensively the influences of Cuban music on popular U. S. cultures, the commercialization of Afro-Cuban music has also led to the popularity of Afro-Cuban religious aesthetics in the United States and abroad. Examining dynamic contemporary race relations between African Americans and Latinos contextualizes contemporary relations in Ocha, Palo, and Spiritist communities, when there are growing U. S. born generations of Cubans, Puerto Ricans and Afro-Latinos after the 1970s.

Afro-Latinos: Shifting Communities and Cultures

In cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Detroit, and Milwaukee, especially after the Mariel Boatlift (1980), Afro-Cuban religious practices have thrived among non-traditional memberships. Outside of New York and Miami, African Americans, and more recently Mexicans, represent the majority of practitioners (McPherson 6, 9). Afro-Cuban religious communities challenge our notions of U. S. Latino and African American communities. This is also the case when considering the silencing of the Afro-Latino experience within Latino migration histories and Afro-Latino’s influence on African American and Latino communities.

While Cuban centrism exists throughout Ocha, Palo, and Spiritist communities, in Chicago non-Cuban or Puerto Rican initiates contribute to a unique local practice while also legitimately practicing Afro-Cuban religion (McPherson 7). For example, Chicago Latino practitioners often place the statue (or candle) of San Martin de Porres, an Afro-Peruvian Catholic saint, on Ocha and Spiritist altars. Since San Martin de Porres is not part of the Afro-Cuban Catholic Orisha pantheon, practitioners use this saint aesthetically in altar spaces because he is a black familiar to the many Chicago practitioners who have emigrated from Latin America. While ethnography could reveal how Afro-Peruvians and indigenous Peruvians may use the saint in local religious practices today, the use of San Martin de Porres is also important for Peruvian, Ecuadorian, and other Latin Americans in the United States, whose national identities silence African heritage and culture (35). Ocha, Palo, and Spiritism practices allow Latinos from these regions to positively acknowledge a legitimate African heritage and past, which may have become important to them after experiencing racism and socio-economic hardships as immigrants in the United States.

Latinos who identify as black or African have long linked the African American and Latino histories and communities in the United States. The scholarship on Puerto Rican and African American relations in New York City, and emerging scholarship on African American and Afro-Cuban relations before the Cuban Revolution are exceptions to this historiographic silence in migration histories. Afro-Latinos and African Americans have experienced racial discrimination and oppression in the United States, but historically Afro-Latinos could occasionally leverage national “foreign” identity to access social privileges usually off-limits to people of African descent.

Assata Shakur, activist and writer, now lives as an African American exile in Cuba. In Assata: An Autobiography (1987), she recalls a time when her mother, not wanting to disappoint her daughter’s expectations of leisure, resorted to pretending to speak Spanish at the entrance of a “Whites only” amusement park in the South (during the 1960s). The stunt worked, and Assata and her family were admitted into the park on the grounds of being foreigners. “Foreign” nationality can trump black racial identity in the United States, where black is often synonymous with being U.S. African American. These nuances characterize both Latino and African American migration histories and community identity formations; Ocha, Palo, and Spiritist communities are also no exception to these nuances.

Ocha and Spiritism-Palo: Reshaping Race and Community in Chicago

While racial segregation separates residential communities of practitioners within the active Ocha, Palo, and Spiritist community in Chicago, prominent iles (“houses”), or centers of Ocha practice, have become multi-ethnic and multi-cultural spaces, especially over the past fifteen years. Another well-known and respected house of Ocha and Spiritist practice on the Southside has predominately African American elder priests and priestesses, yet includes African American, Anglo-American and Latino godchildren. An emerging practitioner house, located on Chicago’s Northside, is predominately Latino and Filipino and growing steadily. The elders in this house are a Puerto Rican priest of Chango and his Filipina wife, a priestess; there are also African American and Afro-Latino priests in their leadership. As these examples illustrate, it is difficult to find a large active house in Chicago that does not include both African American and Latino practitioners.

In all the aforementioned cases, and amidst a racially and ethnically diverse body of practitioners, a head godparent or priest/ess of the house is Cuban. Most of the multi-ethnic membership houses are recognized as legitimate Ocha, Palo, and Spiritist centers outside of the local Chicago (and Midwest) practitioner communities. A prominent priest, Reinaldo, neither Cuban nor Puerto Rican, was found slain with his remains stuffed into a suitcase in an ally two years ago. He was a well-known and respected Ocha, Palo, and Spiritist priest and continues to be important because of his status among Latinos in a Cuban-centric practitioner community; he also initiated many godchildren, mostly Spanish-speaking non-Caribbean Latinos.

Reinaldo was infamous for his elaborate tambores (Orisha drum ceremonies) that provided a rare ritual communal space, including African American, Afro-Latino, and Latino practitioners annually. Reinaldo’s large feast ceremonies always included new initiates called Iyalochas (bride of the Orisha) being presented to consecrated drums, demonstrating the growing number of initiates in Reinaldo’s large house. The ceremonies also showed the wealth in his house, required to hire prominent musicians, rent the space, and provide food for such an elaborate event. Prominent Afro-Cuban musicians (many born and raised in Cuba) from Miami were hired, and some Chicago priests were connected to Miami through ritual kinships.

An interesting example of such ritual kinship links lies outside of the traditional godparent-godchild relationships. Omo Ana (Sons of Ana) is a fraternal group of ritually initiated drummers who are the only authorized community members that can play consecrated drums at ritual performance ceremonies. As Omo Ana is a selective group, Chicago Omo Ana have a privileged link to important ritual networks of priest/esses in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Miami, and New York. The existence of Omo Ana in Chicago also demonstrates that Cuban centrism is perpetuated through ritual links to New York and Miami Ocha and Spiritist communities. Chicago priest/esses will only hire Omo Ana drummers to play consecrated drums for local ceremonies as in Cuban practice, while practitioners knowingly diverge from “traditional” Afro-Cuban ritual performance in other ways.

Chicago houses honor varying ideologies that bind initiated godchildren as well as different houses of practice. To address racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity among godchildren, Latino and African American priests/esses emphasize that anyone can be initiated into Afro-Cuban religions regardless of race and culture. For Chicago practitioners there is a tension between the acknowledgment of Afro-Cuban and Puerto Rican origins of Ocha, Palo, and Spiritism and the romanticized notion of “raceless” Latin American societies. Common views about race among Latino priests/esses (many born abroad) influence practitioners, usually marking the United States as the originator of black-white racial conflict and negating racism, racial inequality and ideas of blackness in Latin America. Many Chicago practitioners then embrace the idea that Afro-Cuban religious practice is “raceless” (or a practice that is not influenced by race) based on the potent misconception that Cuba (and Latin America) is more racially equitable than the United States. These ideas about race can foster relations among godchildren who would not otherwise interact due to racial and cultural segregation in Chicago. Yet race, as in Cuba and throughout Latin America, marks practitioner relations and what are considered “authentic” Ocha, Palo, and Spiritist religious practices.

I spoke with Briana, a well-known Puerto Rican owner of a botanica on the Southside, about the racial and ethnic diversity in her house of Ocha, Spiritists, and Palo initiates (McPherson 26). She revealed approaches to Ocha and Palo that mirror Afro-Cuban history among a majority of Mexican practitioners. She is the daughter of a long line of Spiritists and descendant of a great-grandfather who was born in the Congo, and she feels that all people, regardless of race, gender, or sexuality have spiritual sensibilities to become Spiritist mediums. While she is a “lighter-skinned” Puerto Rican, she and her children genuinely acknowledge their African heritage through religious practices and beliefs. Her children are Puerto Rican and Mexican, a mixture common in Chicago, and all are initiated priests/esses into Ocha. Her eldest children are also initiated in Palo, and are Spiritists, married to fellow practitioners.

In Briana’s house anyone of any racial or ethnic background is welcome. Briana’s family history legitimizes her as the head godmother of the house and links her house’s religious practice to an authentic Afro-Puerto Rican past. For many of her godchildren, a similar Latin American family history and racial identity also legitimizes them as practitioners; they are mostly Mexican and Salvadorian, Puerto Rican, Dominican, and African American. Yet especially her Mexican godchildren cannot afford to become initiated into Ocha, and so practice Palo, diligently, as it has cheaper initiations and rituals.

According to Afro-Cuban ideology, Ocha is a “higher” spiritual practice than Palo, since it deals with royal deities, the Orishas, who differ in temperament from nfumbe or dead spirits in Palo (McPherson 14). These religious distinctions stem from privileging certain African ethnicities over others during slavery and colonialism. Spaniards and white creoles in Cuba privileged the Yoruba as a more “regal” and “civilized” ethnic group over the so-called “Congolese.” Because Congos were often runaway slaves, they were thought to be more “wild” and “untamed” like the wilderness, they sought refuge from sugar mills, coffee, and tobacco plantations.

Many Ocha houses in Chicago do not practice Palo and do view the practice as one that is often used to harm people. It seems that many more non-Cuban and Puerto-Rican practitioners in the United States may have had intensive experiences with Catholicism or Protestant Christianity. Relating the Judeo-Christian “good” and “evil” to Ocha (good) and Palo (evil) may explain why United States practitioners are more likely to perceive Palo as a “dark” religious practice, and reject its ritual connections to Ocha and its validity as a religious practice. I have spoken to some Chicago Ocha practitioners who feel this way about Palo, while others still participate in communal cajon pa’ muerto ceremonies with fellow practitioners that are initiated into Ocha and Palo.

Despite the historical tensions between the Yoruba and Congo legacies, the tendency to equate Palo with tendencies to do wrong seems to be balanced with a view that Palo is a religion that “works faster” and is very spiritually “strong” in Cuba. And in this way, Palo and Ocha are understood as complementary systems of belief, and do not seem to correlate to ethnic or racial discrimination in Cuba (Palmie). Currently in places like Marianao, Cuba, the fact that ritual musicians often specialize in a single practice shows Cuban practitioners recognize the depth of each Ocha, Palo, and Spiritist ritual knowledge which takes years to acquire. Unlike ritual singers in the United States who often sing at Ocha, Spiritism, and Palo ceremonies, Cuban ritual singers specialize in one musical genre of Abakua, Arara, Ocha, Palo or Spiritism.

Nevertheless, in Chicago, African American and Latino houses alike tend to practice just Ocha and Spiritism. Spiritist and Palo, as well as ritual music and communal ceremonies are combined into ritual performance ceremonies known as the cajon pa’ muerto (ceremony for ancestors). In Chicago, this common ceremony also illustrates how practitioners condense Spiritism and Palo into one coherent practice (Spiritism-Palo) in ritual performance, since Palo ritual performance ceremonies are rare (McPherson 10-12). During all ritual performance ceremonies, spirit possession is an important focus.

Race in Chicago Ritual Performances

For example, certain priests, the majority of whom are black males, have earned legitimacy through consistent spirit possessions that Chicago practitioners consider genuine. Reinaldo’s large tambores were also racial performances, where skin color factored into the legitimacy of Orisha spirit possession displays led by Afro-Cuban musicians. In all of Reinaldo’s ceremonies, an Afro-Cuban male dancer (not always the same person) is hired to dance the ceremony, understood to be a spirit possession specialist among priest/esses. In Chicago, a dancer is often not hired for local ceremonies; while as in Cuba, certain dancers are known as spirit possession specialists in the community. Ritual kinships, reputation, race, body movements/gestures, dance, and extensive knowledge of ritual languages are the determining factors in the legitimacy of Chicago spirit possessions. Black practitioners of Ocha, Palo, and Spiritism, regardless of ethnicity, are typically viewed as the most legitimate practitioners to embody spirit possession during ritual performance ceremonies.

As Spiritist and Palo ceremonies focus on African and Native American legacies and ancestry, there are typical archetypes that practitioners have as “spirit guides” that are manifested during ritual performance ceremonies: Congos, (enslaved Africans), gitanos (Spanish gypsies), indios (Native Americans), and arabes (Moors). These spirits are manifested during ritual possession in Spiritist “masses” (misas espirituales) when several prayers are read, practitioners smoke cigars, and Spiritist mediums give individual and communal advice, after identifying their race/ethnicity, giving their name and purpose for “arriving” at the ceremony (McPherson 17-19, 25). In some instances, the period before or after a ceremony reveals racial dynamics that inform sacred ritual spaces.

At the end of a Spiritist-Palo cajon ceremony, musicians begin to play Afro-Cuban rumba; the majority of practitioners are Cubans, a rarity in Chicago ceremonies. During an energetic part of the rumba, a black Cuban priest begins to dance. After he dances, people become excited, and another man (considered mulatto in Cuba and “black” in the United States) also dances a solo. After this, all the black people (mostly Cubans) in the room are encouraged to dance one-by-one by the host group of white Cuban santeras (McPherson 32-33). Instead of everyone joining in to dance, the dancing becomes an obvious performance, while the majority of attendees watch intently.

The rumbita is neither social nor purely removed from the preceding ritual context, occurring in a liminal space between the ending of the ceremony and the beginning of the social time when practitioners eat and enjoy each other’s company. The encouragement of black practitioners to demonstrate Afro-Cuban dances, which are difficult to learn, is in part a valorization of the Afro-Cuban origin of the ceremonial music and ritual context. The rumbita is an acknowledgment of the black practitioners as authentic representations of cubanidad (Cubanness) and Afro-Cuban religious ritual performance knowledge within a community of Latinos that identify as white (McPherson 32).

During ritual performance ceremonies in Cuba, specific songs and sequences are used in all contexts to “induce” a “genuine” spirit possession. In Chicago, while some practitioners are aware of this type of orthodoxy, it does not exist in the majority of active Latino houses. While musicians attempt to abide to these sequences, practitioners are generally unfamiliar with Afro-Cuban ritual songs. As a result, spirit possession is not so much induced when a specific spirit is “called” by musicians as in Afro-Cuban practice, but rather when a priestess begins “feeling” the music until they are unable to control being “overcome” by their guardian Orisha/spirit at any time during the ceremony. The timing of spirit possession is not observed in Afro-Cuban practice, beginning when the singer starts the Ilamada al santo, or calling the Orisha or spirit, through specific song sequences. Chicago spirit possession may happen during an oro cantado, sung at the beginning of an Ocha ceremony, while in Cuba, practitioners generally recognize that the oro cantado is the time to salute their guardian Orisha and the drums.

Spirit possession is intimately tied to knowledge of ritual language and dance movements, yet in Chicago it remains difficult for the majority non-Cuban and Puerto Rican initiates to learn lyrics to ritual songs sung in ritual performance ceremonies. This is often frustrating to local and visiting musicians. Ritual songs are usually sung either in Spanish with specific Caribbean vocabulary (“Manda humo pa’ la loma cachimba”) or in the Lucumi (Cuban Yoruba) or Congo (from Kikongo language) ritual languages (Warden 106). Afro-Cubans grow up exposed to Lucumi and Congo ritual songs and languages, while both Cubans and Puerto Ricans have strong knowledge of Spanish Spiritist songs. Many Chicago practitioners, especially those who did not grow up in Cuba, Puerto Rico, or with family or Cuban or Puerto Rican godparents learn ritual language as adults. As Briana says of her own godchildren, “In time, they always learn,” recognizing that it takes effort and dedication on their part to learn songs and the Puerto Rican “white-table” (mesa blanca) Spiritism practiced in her house.

On one occasion Maira, an Ecuadorian priestess of Yemaya who has initiated mostly Mexican godchildren, hosted a tambor in the Chicago suburbs. She is married to a Cuban Ocha and Palo priest, and before becoming initiated into Ocha and Palo by black Cubans, she was racist. Now Maira teaches racial equity and tolerance to her godchildren through her experiences. Maira became spiritually possessed with her guardian Orisha Yemaya during the tambor and she silently gestured her advice and demands to her godchildren. Priests present interpreted her gestures into advice and ritual objects she desired for her counseling (rum, molasses).

Although it is common to make requests for ritual objects and give advice during spirit possessions, Orishas normally speak through priest mediums in ritual language to communicate in Afro-Cuban practice. The speech of the Orisha is a ritual language that symbolizes a particular racial archetype, usually Spanish infused with “African words” and an accent known as bozal. In Chicago, Latino priests/esses that racially identify as “non-black” rarely attempt this racialized speech, and mostly Spanish is spoken during Latino ritual performance ceremonies (McPherson 11). Maira is recognized as a legitimate priestess in the community, but some priests present said while “silent” Orishas are typical in Chicago, the minimal dancing and lack of gestures associated with possession made them dunk her spirit possession was questionable.

Certain gestures characterize a “legitimate” spirit possession in Chicago: priests scratch their heads, their eyes roll backwards into the head, breathing becomes pronounced and heavy, and their bodies tremble fiercely. Additionally, in Afro-Cuban practices, certain dances identify the spirit or Orisha that is “coming down” or being embodied by the priest/ess. Many Chicago Latino initiated priests/esses only perform select dance movements that identify an Orisha or spirit, exposing a different form of spirit possession. While African American practitioners also often learn ritual songs and dances as adults, in Chicago many of these practitioners have learned ritual songs, gestures, and movements associated with “legitimate” Afro-Cuban possession. African Americans are often viewed as embodying legitimate spirit possession in Latino ritual spaces. This past February, during a guiro ceremony thrown by a recent initiate of Obatala (Briana’s godchild), an African American priest partially performed a legitimate spirit possession. Many attendees knew basic dance moves and ritual songs at the guiro. Despite this, no one was moved to spirit possession, except for an African American priest (Warden 141). He began to move and sway as is typical in ritual possession, yet right before his Orisha completely “arrived” he ran out of the room. This is typical in Cuban and Puerto Rican spirit possession but usually practitioners will not allow the person to leave the space, as the person is thought to be in an important transitional state. An elder Cuban priestess of Obatala chastised those present “!Despues de todo el trabajo que hicieron los muchachos, los dejan irse!”

Perhaps, as the practitioner was visiting another house, he did not know who would tend to him in a “possessed” state, or the second singer could not “call” his Orisha to induce spirit possession. Convincing dancing and gestures and the priest’s reputation from a well-known African American Ocha and Spiritist practitioner house still meant that Latino practitioners viewed the act as genuine spirit possession. They created an open space for the priest to dance energetically in front of the musicians, and began moving and clapping more enthusiastically with the priest while watching him intently.

In Chicago, spirit possession remains important to Spiritism-Palo and Ocha ritual performance ceremonies as it allows practitioners to interact with spirits they revere. Practitioners are aware of the ways spirit possession may differ in Chicago from other cities, yet both African Americans and Latinos have linked blackness, ritual language, and dance to a legitimate possession as is common in New York, Miami, and Cuba. However, blackness in Chicago is defined by local identities, and thus is usually only associated with the most dark-skinned Afro-Cubans, Afro-Puerto Ricans, and African Americans. Outside of Chicago, where there is more knowledge of ritual song and dance, blackness may be defined very differently in ritual spaces.


There has yet to be an extensive published study of Ocha, Palo, and Spiritist practices in Chicago. In these multi-racial and multi-ethnic communities, practitioners embrace theology that does not restrict membership to African Americans and Latinos, who are the majority of all Chicago practitioners. Within these communities, race does play a role in the legitimacy and authenticity of practices, yet more ethnography would also be required to discuss racial tensions and problems within the community. Ocha, Palo, and Spiritism are innovative as well as varied. They are part of a socio-cultural system that African Americans and Latinos utilize to create their own narratives of their cultural and historical legacies in the United States and abroad. Ocha, Palo, and Spiritism are also defined by local migrations, immigration, and histories. Practitioners of all backgrounds relate to the importance of ancestry as emphasized in Native American and African narratives of oppression and marginalization. Uncovering silences in popular culture and academic historiography about Afro-Latino, African American, and Latino social networks reveal complicated relations and identity constructions. Further ethnographies in cities like Chicago on Ocha, Palo, and Spiritist communities will advance Afro-Atlantic Studies, scholarship on Afro-Cuban religious practices, Latino migration histories, comparative race relations, black and Latino identity construction, and U. S. urban communities. In Ocha, Palo, and Spiritist communities, African Americans and Latinos relate in private, closed, and intimate spaces wherein sacred practitioners negotiate and reconcile the practical with the magical.

If a latinx tells you they don’t speak Spanish, leave it at that. Don’t say “but I thought you were ___” “aren’t your parents ___” “you’re not a real latinx!” It sucks for some of us that can’t connect to our culture through language; please don’t make us feel anymore crappy than we already do


Mississippi Masala is probably not the first film dealing with India’s diaspora (in the movie’s case a double diaspora) but one amongst a clutch of much discussed diaspora films of the 1990s (X, X). It is also well documented on tumblr so the images are a bit superfluous. Except to say that Mina’s wardrobe is very much 1980s influenced “ethnic chic”, kind of a Gurjari in Greenwood aesthetic. With a dash of Janpath market (pic 3). It combines this with 1990s American fashions (that denim…) and a nod to Africa in some of the prints Mina’s parents wear as well as the African wax print furnishings in Mina’s room (pic 5).


This outfit was inspired by the Balmain Fall 2014 Ready-To-Wear Collection (x)

wearing: f21 croptop, vince camuto shoes, natasha necklace

makeup: smashbox photo ready illuminating primer, mac studio fluid fix nc42, buxom illuminator, nyx eyeshadow natural palette, nyx matte cream lipstain in copenhagen, anastasia beverly hills eyebrow pomade in dark brown, nyx matte bronzer, nars blush in liberte

photographed by gaby v.


Test Shots by Rog Walker.

Test Shots is an ongoing series of portraits taken in the studio with photography couple Rog and Bee Walker. Each photograph, taken mostly of their close friends and fellow creatives, is as striking as it is simple.

Opting for a sombre and dark background, coupled with poised and pensive subjects, Walker’s shots manage to maximize on the simplicity of the traditional portrait style by making use of a medium format camera that provides an image quality which, despite the powerful stillness of each individual, vividly brings the details of each photograph to life. This brings out both a sense of strength and vulnerability in each picture, alluding to the intimate two-way dialog between subject and photographer.

"This is the most organic method of communication I have. Photography is the way I speak…It doesn’t get more personal than another human, and that’s what I’m looking to capture, that connection between humanity." - Rog Walker

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PPW Q&A | DarkMatter and Movement Building

Photo By Nerdscarf Photography | Interview By Lissa Alicia 

DarkMatter is a femme, non-binary South Asian poetry duo based out of Brooklyn.

What advice do you have for young people who are struggling with gender identity, and may not have a fostering and understanding support system?

Young trans people, especially trans people of color, experience constant invalidation and erasure in the most intimate spheres of our lives.  We just want to extend love and affirmation for all the things young gender nonconforming and trans folks are doing to survive and thrive. There is no one way to be trans and everything you are experiencing is valid.

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On the Oppression of Diaspora Peoples

This is a bit off theme for this blog, but it needs to be said. There is not enough attention paid to the treatment of diasporas in Social Justice. I’m not just talking about Jews. I’m talking about the Romani, I’m talking about the various African diasporas, and, most specifically in this case, I’m talking about the Kurds.

The Kurds had their land conquered by the Ottomans, and when the Ottoman Empire collapsed after WWI, the Sykes-Picot agreement divided Kurdistan between four other countries, dividing the people and putting them under the rule of other countries. What has been done to them? Here are just three highly simplified examples.

1. Saddam Hussein gassed the Iraqi Kurds, killing thousands of them.

2. Turkey tried to destroy their ethnicity, forcing Kurds to be re-educated. When they refused, Turkey began violently attacking them. This led to the 30 year conflict between the Turkish government and the PKK, which lead to the deaths of tens of thousands of Kurds.

3. ISIS is murdering Kurds by the thousands RIGHT NOW.

I follow several Kurdish blogs. I see their posts. I see their frustration with the apathy their plight receives. I see more posts criticizing the fact that the US is supporting the Kurds than I do criticizing ISIS for killing them. This pattern reflects what I’ve seen with regards to anti-semitism, anti-romanism and other oppressions faced by diaspora peoples.

So just to express my point further, Diaspora peoples, IE people with no safe home country, tend to be treated as unwanted aliens in the countries where they live. Without a safe place to go back to, they are FORCED to live at the sufference of majority cultures that consider them outsiders. Diaspora peoples usually face three basic forms of destruction from the majority populations:

1. Forced assimilation. In the United States, for example, White Jews are offered conditional white privilege in exchange for assimilation. The more we abandon our Jewish identities, the less Jewish we look and act, the more easily we are accepted and given a piece of the White Privilege pie. This is not a violent extermination, but it is an attempt to destroy us as Jews. This is what Turkey attempted to do to the Kurds in a much less subtle fashion.

2. Expulsion. This is another common tactic. Diaspora peoples are not welcome and are driven out. This has happened to the Jews several times as well. England expelled its Jews in 1290. Spain expelled its Jews in 1492. Many countries in the Middle East and North Africa expelled their Jews between the 1940s and the 1960s.

3. Annihilation. The Holocaust was an attempt to destroy two diaspora peoples by Nazi Germany. They wanted to conquer the “native” populations of Europe, but they sought to murder the Jews and Romani and were quite efficient in doing so in large part because the “native” populations of Europe were all too happy to stand by or collaborate when the landless peoples of the continent were being systematically exterminated. Nazism’s reach in that regard even stretched out to affect Jews in the Middle East and North Africa, through both direct and indirect means. 

The problem with the current SJ discourse is that it mostly views people in terms of two dichotomies: White/PoC and Colonized/Colonizer. Exiled peoples fail both dichotomies due to a lack of a land and due to the ethnic mixing that comes with being dispersed to many lands. Without the recognition for the kinds of oppression faced by diaspora populations, we are all too often ignored when we plead for help. 

In many cases, Diaspora peoples have not been allowed to exist as a people by the countries in which we live. And in those where we are it comes in the form of segregation be it the dhimmi status faced by Jews in many Muslim countries or the limitation of Russian Jews to living in the Pale of Settlement during the Czarist era where they lived in constant fear of pogroms.

These are the questions non-diaspora peoples need to ask themselves: who are the diaspora peoples living in our midsts? Are we treating them as equal citizens, unwanted guests or dangerous invaders? Are we forcing them to assimilate? Are we driving them away? Are we killing them? If we do drive them away, is there any good reason that we shouldn’t be held at least partially accountable for what they have to do to survive? 


Interview: Somali Photographer Amaal Said Uses Her Lens to Create Beautiful Portraits Of Inspiring Young WOC.

After catching sight of her beautiful portraits of fellow women of colour, on instagram, I felt compelled to send Amaal a message gushing at the beauty of her work. Centered on capturing women of colour, or ‘small beauties’ as she refers to them, each portrait is as delicate as it is striking. Not only a poet with words, but through the fruit of her lens, my ‘fangirling’ led to intrigue and curiosity. With that, it only made sense to get to know Amaal and her equally inspiring project a little better.

Can you tell us a little bit about you - who is Amaal Said in a nutshell?

I’m a Danish-born Somali girl. I was born in Denmark and I lived there until I was eight. I’m nineteen, I’m a writer and I’m also a photographer. Growing up, Iwas the kid in class constantly scribbling something in the back of her book and I guess it stuck. I live in London now and I call it a home.

You fell on my radar after I happened upon your photography on instagram. It’s always so refreshing for me to see Africans in and from different parts of the globe and continent producing work in the creative arts. Have you always had an interest in photography and the arts in general? How did your venture into photography come about?

We have huge family albums and I can’t remember a time growing up where my father didn’t own a camera. Sadly, he doesn’t believe in photography very much anymore. When I brought my first film camera home a couple of months ago he said, ‘what’s the use of that now?’

I remember the excitement of getting the prints of film back when we were kids. We moved from town to town and house to house so my parents took all the pictures they could to root us someplace.

I also remember being fascinated with water. I’d get super excited. I’d hold the camera too close to the water and cry when it broke. I don’t remember how many family cameras I’ve broken. I’ve been an arts/photography lover for a long time. I dwell in galleries and spend a lot of money on books.

It’s interesting to hear about your personal relationship with photography and how it impacted your childhood. But now it seems that you’ve crossed over to a point of taking it more seriously, especially with your portrait photography project focusing on talented and inspiring Women of Colour (WOC) you know. Where, when or how did the idea for this project come about?

I was standing in the photography section of the Tate Modern bookstore with a friend. I remember asking her, ‘imagine if we opened a book up and saw women that looked like our mothers and aunts?’ There is something so warm about looking at a picture and being able to recognize yourself in it.

My initial idea was to capture black women in a gallery space. I wanted to make them part of the art, to take up space in an institution that wasn’t speaking to us. It ended up becoming a much larger project and I wanted to involve the subjects more. So I asked what their favourite scarves or pieces of jewelry were, and which things connected them to their homes.

That is so inspiring and such an important perspective. How do you go about choosing subjects for this series?

The women are mostly my friends, women close to my heart. I’m a poet and being part of collectives has brought brilliant women into my life. I also do this thing where I send messages to random women who have something warm about them and ask to take their portrait. We end up going to tea and becoming friends. The photography has made me braver. So being engaged in the process of the work has introduced me to the most amazing women as well.

Why is it important for you to photograph (talented) women of colour specifically? Does it relate in any way to your experience as a WOC in the UK?

My work is absolutely about filling a void. I keep asking myself, ‘if you don’t take the pictures then who will? Who’s going to photograph the women you love in a light that is fair to them, in a way that they recognize themselves?’ There was the realization that I had to take the pictures, that I couldn’t afford to wait around for someone else to represent us.

It also has a lot to do with my identity. There’s a lot I’m working through when it comes to pinning myself down somewhere, whether that be country or town. I’m coming from a specific place. I’m a Londoner. I’m the eldest daughter of parents who are immigrants. I’m Somali. These factors are all specific to me, but what ties me to the women I’ve photographed is that we are all British WOC.

I’ve noticed that a lot of your portraits feature flowers - is there any significance to this?

I’m drawn to flowers. The initial reason for opting for flowers was to put the person I was photographing at ease. I think it’s easier when you have something in your hand, or at the side of your face. Then I was doing a shoot with my friend Belinda Zhawi. She had such beautiful braids and I stuck a few flower pieces in her hair. We’re never seen as delicate things as black women. Putting those flowers in her hair meant something. It was more than just beauty, but what beauty meant being a black woman. Every shoot is different. Sometimes flowers work and there are times when other things are more suitable, but I ask ‘what things do you like? What makes you feel beautiful?’ And we just go from there.

Who and what are some of the people and things that influence you and/or your work?

I have to start with Alfredo Jaar. He said, ‘images are not innocent.’ I’ve always known that photography is political but his work showed me how important it was to be conscious of what you were photographing and in which way you were portraying your subjects, which stance you were taking.

I’m also in love with Malick Sidibe’s work. His portraits are incredible and they make me want to hold on to and keep old pictures of my parents safe. Most recently, the photography of Hernan Diaz has my heart. I feel something when I look at his pictures. I don’t know which words to use yet. I’ll just say that I felt like I knew Cartagena when I was flicking through his collection, ‘Cartagena forever’.

Then there are photographers whose work I follow: Andre Wagner, Sanaa Hamid, Nadine Ijewere, Jalani Morgan, Emmanuel Afolabi, Alex Webbe, Krissane Johnson, Rog Walker, Matt Eich, Dexter R. Jones, Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson. There are so many more. I’m constantly falling in love with photography and finding inspiration in so many places.

You write poetry too, can you tell us a little bit about your writing and the subjects you explore?

The writing came out of nowhere. I don’t remember when I started. It’s my way of trying to understand why things happened in my family and why there was so much silence growing up, why so much shame came with womanhood. I keep writing about my mother. I keep writing about my father too. I have a lot of questions in mind, like what they were like before they had children. I’ve been making up their former lives in my head.

I’m working with a couple of amazing poets on a project about translation. I finally get to sit down and ask my parents about particular stories. I’m looking at what’s lost in translation, what’s gained, what we make up and what we try our hardest to forget.

I came off the stage recently and a woman told me, ‘that was so violent.’ I found myself wanting to apologize, to take back the words, to give her something lighter. But i’m discovering a very violent history and I’m writing through it. I keep having to remind myself that there are people who have died because of their writing, who might also have been imprisoned or beaten. There is so much to write about, so much to document and I realize now that I shouldn’t apologize for the work.

Find more from Amaal on instagramtwitterfacebook on tumblr.

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Africans in India

Kumina is described as one of the most African religious expressions in Jamaica. Standing the test of time, Kumina has managed to survive the influences of Western culture. The language and the dances of Kumina are so undiluted that they can be traced back to tribes in the Congo in Africa.

The influences that shaped Kumina landed in the 1850s with the arrival of African indentured immigrants from the Congo region of Central Africa during the immediate post-emancipation period. Kumina took root in St. Thomas where a large number of the immigrants settled. However, the religious spread to the parishes of Portland, St. Mary, St. Catherine and Kingston.

Kumina rituals are usually associated with wakes, burials or memorial services, but can be performed for a whole range of human experiences. Kumina dances are used when help is needed to win a court case or for winning a lover.

The dances associated with Kumina are also viewed as an intrinsically Jamaican art form and are performed for entertainment value by several Kumina groups and even the distinguished National Dance Theatre Company.

However, Kumina is sometimes viewed with suspicion as a form of witchcraft or “bad obeah” because of the trance-like state some of the participants fall into during the ceremonies. Those that are more informed about the religious expression have rubbished these superstitions but have warned against misuse of Kumina rituals.

In this excerpt from an article in The Gleaner, a reporter speaks to the leader of a Kumina group in St. Thomas:

“When asked if the members practised obeah, Ephraim Bartley, the group’s leader gave an emphatic “No”. Obeah, he says is always for bad, while Kumina, despite being sometimes used for bad, is always meant for good.

According to the leader, persons have been healed and there are even some who have been raised from the dead.”


Both men and women are able to assume leadership of a Kumina sect. The men are called ‘King’ or ‘Captain’, while the women are referred to as ‘Queen’ or ‘Mother/Madda’. The leaders must be able to control zombies or spirits and assume leadership after careful training in the feeding habits, ritual procedures, dances, rhythms, and songs of a variety of spirits, from their predecessor.

Renowned ‘Kumina Queen’ Bernyce Henry balances a lit candle on a tin as she leads the Port Morant National and International Kumina Dancers at ‘Falla Backa Mi’ in 2005.


One of the distinct features of Kumina is the prominence of dance and ritual as a form of religious and cultural expression.

Dance and rituals are used to invoke communication with the ancestral spirits. The rituals involve singing, dancing, music and sacrificial offerings. All of these are used to create an atmosphere favorable for spiritual possession, known as ‘Mayal’.

One is said to “catch ‘Myal’” when possessed by one of the three classes of gods- sky, earthbound, and ancestral zombies- the last being the most common form of possession.  Each god can be recognized by the particular dance style exhibited by the possessed, and by songs and drum rhythms to which it responds.


The captivating sounds of Kumina emanates from several rudiment instruments, some that were transplanted from the Congo and others that were repurposed for these ceremonies. Here is a list of the instruments and songs used in Kumina ceremonies:

Kbandu (battery of drums) - Larger and lower pitched drums, on which the rhythm is played with emphasis on the first and third beats.

Playing Cast or lead drums - The most complicated and specific ‘spirit’ basic rhythms are played on this set of drums. The drummers on the Playing Cast are respected as they must be knowledgeable and competent in playing the variety of rhythms which invoke, repel, and control the many spirits or deities.

Scrapers - An ordinary grater that is used as an instrument.

Shakas - A gourd or tin can rattles.

Catta Sticks - Used by the ‘rackling men’ to keep up a steady rhythm on the body of the drum behind the drummer.

Songs - Singing is a critical part of Kumina ceremonies and is divided into two types, Bailo and Country. 

Bailo are songs in Jamaican creole and are less sacred, these songs are used for performances and exhibitions. On the other hand, Country involves the use of the Ki-Kongo language and is used to communicate with the spirits during mayal. 

The Queen engages in call and response with the King/Captain, singing of both Bailo and Country songs.  Call and response means one line or verse is “raised” or sung then repeated by others in response. 

In Edward Kamau Brathwaite’s examination of Kumina in the Jamaica Journal, he says that persons who perform Kumina for entertainment purposes are warned against using particular drums. It is also recommended that certain words in the songs be changed. 

Regarding the Ki-Kongo language, in the mid 1950’s Edward Seaga in the course of completing a research project submitted 48 words from Kumina Country songs to The School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Forty-one of those words were identified as Congolese.


An article from the Jamaica Journal outlines what happens at a Bailo dance: 

“At Bailo dances, the spirits who are called make their presence known by ‘mounting’ or possessing a dancer; whose given dance style helps in identifying the spirit, but can span all possibilities of movement.  

The basic dance posture constitutes an almost erect back and propelling actions of the hips as the feet inch along the ground.  The dancers move in a circular pattern around the musicians and centre pole, either singly or with a partner.  

The arms, shoulders, rib cage, and hips are employed, offering the dancers ample opportunity for variations and interpretation of the counter-beats or poly-rhythms. Spins, dips, and ‘breaks’ on the last beat are common dance variations.”


Kumina has been brought popularized by several performance groups such as the Seaforth Dust to Dawn Kumina Group in St. Thomas and the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission (JCDC). However, Kumina was brought to the world stage by the efforts of the National Dance Theatre Company and the efforts of one of its founding members Rex Nettelford.

Nettleford, in 1971, exposed the entire company of dancers, singers and drummers to the ceremony in Seaforth. The NDTC’s interpretation of Kumina is the signature piece of the NDTC and arguably the most performed dance-work in the repertoire since it was commissioned by Carreras Limited in 1971.

In the photo above, members of the NDTC perform ‘Kumina’.

Kumina is a ritualistic medium through which our African ancestors are celebrated and appeased. It’s an art form combining dancing, singing and drumming, and has distinctive movements and cadences that make it easily recognisable. The hypnotic sounds of Kumina drums is not easy to imitate, and very hard to duplicate.

Dr Layla Zakaria Abdel Rahman

Tributes paid to world-renowned scientist and researcher who revolutionised sugar industry

Tributes have been paid to Sudanese-born Dr Layla Zakaria Abdel Rahman, who studied at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST).

A renowned expert in the field of biological technology, she passed away at her home in Didsbury aged 59 last Saturday after a fight against cancer.

Dr Layla, a mother-of-two, uncovered a radically new method of growing sugar cane.

The breakthrough meant the plant could be grown from seeds rather than the conventional stem cutting methods.

It led to cheaper and more productive cultivation in developing countries.

Friends said Dr Layla, who won national awards and earned global recognition for her work, was much-loved within Manchester’s Sudanese communities.

A funeral service took place at a mosque in Victoria Park yesterday (Tuesday) ahead of burial at Southern Cemetery in Chorlton.

Dr Layla, the granddaughter of a Sudanese tribal king, moved to Manchester to study in the late 1980s after completing her education in Sudan.

She had graduated from the University of Khartoum in Sudan and went on to complete a Masters degree and a Phd at UMIST.

Ed’s note: This was the first time I saw someone and thought “Hey, she looks just like me” … we need more of this.

A Brief History of Cumbia and its African Roots.

Like many dance and music styles that have emerged and have been popularized throughout Latin America, and in Latin American diaspora communities, Cumbia has its backbone and roots in the culture, traditions and practices of the enslaved Africans brought to this region of the world.

Although there are many forms of cumbia ranging from cumbia Peruana and cumbia Argentina, to cumbia Chilena and cumbia Mexicana (named after the respective countries they emerged from), the heart and origins of traditional cumbian music and culture lie mostly in Colombia’s Afro-Colombian community. Many musicians, dancers, and historians say that cumbia’s percussion represents the African influence, its melodies and use of the gaita or caña de millo (cane flute) represents the Native Colombian influence, and the dress represents the Spanish influence.

Birthed from a cultural style of music known as Folclor Colombiano (Colombian folklore music played by Afro-Colombian musicians), Cumbia has developed to become an amalgamation of musical and cultural blends that reflect the mixed cultural heritage of Colombia. The very word ‘cumbia’ is said to have come from the word "cumbé" which was (and continues to be) a dance form Guinea. In 17th century Colombia, enslaved Africans (mostly from West Africa) would carry out a type of courtship dance that, altered by various influences throughout the years, began being referred to as ‘cumbia’ in the 1800s.

Where it began using mostly West African percussion and vocal styles, Amerindian and Spanish instruments, clothing and other cultural traits, as it progressed began to become a more widepsread practice, new adapations of the original form of cumbia were birthed. Cumbia has since become reinvented in both style and sound, leading it become the backbone for various other Latin American music styles. 

(continue reading at Global Conversation, Discover Colombia, Grupo Fantasia)

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