The scene was pretty far removed from the tropical heat and crowds that marked my one trip to Rincon, outside Havana, on the pilgrimage for Babalu Aye in 1993. My journey on a freezing New York night, 17 years later (appropriate since Babalu Aye’s date is the 17th), took me through one of the many still-industrial zones of the Bronx, along the heavily potholed service road that tunnels underneath the Bruckner Expressway, turning onto Westchester Avenue, crowded with discount footwear stores, hair and nail salons and bodegas underneath the elevated train tracks, and then onto a small, nondescript street that veered off on an angle past a few more barely-solvent corner groceries. El Fogon, a newly established cultural center and bar in a section of the Bronx sorely lacking in such facilities, was sponsoring a “Feast Day for Babalu Aye” organized by well-known (at least in some circles) Cuban dance teacher and folkloric performer Felix “Pupy” Insua.
This in itself was not so unusual. The greater New York area is home to a large, well-established, multi-ethnic community of believers and practitioners of the religion known, variously, as santeria, regla de ocha, orisha religion and Yoruba religion. December is a busy month, since it encompasses the feast days for two much-venerated orishas, Chango and Babalu Aye. I have been interested in how the religion is celebrated outside of specifically ritual contexts — since New York is not only home to thousands of creyentes, but also several dozen folkloric performers who often stage shows or spectacles around the feast-days for Chango and Babalu Aye.
These events, in my view (I have attended several over the years) serve as kind of “hybrid ritual” or perhaps a form of “santeria lite”. While they are organized as performances (sometimes in explicitly theaterical settings like an auditorium at Hostos College) most of the performers are santeros/as and/or ritual performers. The
attendees include people who are new to the religion — they may be Cuban music aficionados or people who have taken a few Afrocuban dance classes — as well as santeros and santeras (both Cuban and non-Cuban) whose ritual kin networks are in Cuba, and who might not be tied into the networks of toques de santo, what one musician friend calls “the bembe circuit”. And so audiences usually include people “representing” the religion — resplendant in their white garments and elekes (beaded necklaces, each representing one of the orishas). They sing along, dance or gesture in place and frequently the performers (or whoever has arranged the show) will set up an altar in the lobby or entrance. Technically these are usually not “altars” in that there is no fundamento, no consecrated ritual object, but other than that, they look just like the altars people make in their homes or rented ritual facilities, complete with the appropriate flowers, candles, fruits, sweets, and so forth. In less formal settings (such as nightclubs or restaurants that don’t have fixed seating), the events are much more interactive, improvisatory and participatory, and often many of those in attendance will join in singing and dancing much as they would at a tambor (drum ceremony).
In last night’s celebration the boundaries were even blurrier… (continue reading after the break below)
… When I arrived there was an altar on one side of the entrance, at its center a small statue of San Lazaro on a pedestal, surrounded by flowers, candles, and a large straw basket. However, the mood was anything but joyous; about a dozen people sat on the comfortable chairs and sofas (like most of the furnishings, salvaged from the streets) quietly chatting and sipping wine or beer. No musicians, no Pupy, no evidence that anything much was happening or going to happen. My friends Juangot and Hector and I started to play rumba, including a little medley for Babalu Aye, just to “levantar el espiritu”.
When we finished, Pupy’s companion Jennifer, came to the stage and we soon found out what had happened — Pupy, who had been slowly but steadily recovering from pneumonia, had been readmitted to the hospital when he had developed a fever earlier in the day. The musicians who were supposed to play had been booked for a religious ceremony honoring Babalu Aye in New Jersey. Jennifer said that she had spoken to Pupy in the hospital and he wanted everyone to stay and continue with the celebration, as Babalu Aye is the orisha of health and healing, and that the musicians were on their way and he had given them a list of songs he wanted them to sing. A few minutes later two of the santeras who were present — one Cuban, one African-American — came over to say that they thought we should do a prayer and a cleansing for Pupy, even though we were not in a ritual space. They took a quick census of the santeras and creyentes present, then commandeered some styrofoam plates and moved into action mode. They counted out the ritually prescribed number of plates (17) and started to fill them with mixtures of dried beans that had been brought by some of Pupy’s godchildren who had made a brief appearance and worked on the altar a bit. One plate was filled with popcorn kernels, another with ground coffee. There were consultations about whether we should fill a glass with water, with white wine or one of each (we settled on the latter). Was there a jicara (a small bowl used in rituals, usually a half coconut shell or gourd)? No. Well, Babalu Aye would know what was in our intention, they reasoned, and would understand that we didn’t have all the elements. Satisfied with the results, they then gathered everyone and announced that they were going to lead a prayer and cleansing. We crowded around the altar and one of the two women took the cup of water and dribbled some drops out as she recited a very short version of the “omi tutu”, a set of ritual prayers in Lukumi that are usually recited at the beginning of ceremonies. She then lifted her arms and continued to pray aloud, mostly in English sprinkled with Lukumi and Spanish, asking for health and healing for Pupy, his family and all of us. She then explained that everyone had to pass before the altar and grab a handful from each plate in succession, using the right hand for one plate and the left hand for another plate, and cleanse oneself from top to bottom, passing one’s hands (full of beans, or corn, or whatever) over one’s head, body, limbs to collect the malas energias and then throw the beans, corn, into the large basket near the center of the altar; the contents would be disposed of at the end of the night. So, one by one we squeezed past the others and everyone cleansed her or himself, some obviously more practiced than others. Some tossed coins or bills into a smaller basket on the altar, and many ended by taking a small white candle from a box, lighting it and placing it on a tray at the far side of the altar. As the cleansing started, Gina, formerly a professional folkloric dancer and dance teacher, started to sing, “Bariba ogue de ma,” and those of us who knew the right response joined in, “Mole yansa mole ya”. This short verse is usually the first song to Babalu Aye at a ritual. She and I traded off singing lead, and others who knew the songs joined in. When we ran out of songs for Babalu Aye (neither of us is an experienced ritual singer) I switched to Eleggua (when in doubt, it’s usually a safe bet to throw in some songs for Eleggua as the one who can open paths). The santeras were last, and then the two most senior santeras did a special cleansing/healing for Pupy’s companion Jennifer.
Not long afterwards, the musicians finally arrived from New Jersey, singing as they entered. Slapping out rapid-fire rhythms on drums, wooden boxes and chekeres, they sang several songs for Babalu Aye and then moved into songs for Chango, the orisha that Pupy has crowned. Everyone who knew the words joined in and those who didn’t tried their best; some marked Babalu Aye’s dance steps in time with the music. As we were singing, Jennifer had apparently called Pupy in the hospital, and soon I saw that she was standing on the small platform in front of the musicians holding up her phone so that Pupy could hear the music and vicariously participate in the hybrid ritual.
This kind of mediated ritual exchange, of course, is not especially new; since the explosion of digital media technologies over the past decade, it is not uncommon for participants in a ritual or performance in Matanzas, New Jersey or elsewhere to either record the event to share with friends and kin in other locations (increasingly these videos and photos show up on Youtube and Facebook) or to place a call during such an event and simply hold up the phone as Jennifer had — suturing geographic and social distances, at least for a moment.
Yet there was a twist here too: Jennifer switched to speakerphone and put her phone in front of one of the microphones so that Pupy could speak to us. He said he was content that we were all there; that he was feeling okay but had gone to the hospital as a precautionary measure. Everyone listened attentively, although Pupy’s son Stevie, visiting from Italy, cried openly but silently as he listened to his father’s voice. Pupy has a tendency to be somewhat long-winded, especially when he switches into “teacher” mode and starts elaborating about religion, dance and music, which he started to do last night, but we were saved from a full-fledged lecture when one of the musicians grabbed the phone from Jennifer and started a song for Chango, singing directly into the phone. Ritual song, mediated through cellular technology, trumped over folkloric discourse.
For the next few hours, praise songs for the orishas, some in the Arara style, alternated with full-throttle rumba. Even when the owner started to shut the lights and pack up the instruments, people were reluctant to leave the warmth (physical and otherwise) that we had created, and the cathartic rhythms and sounds, and we ended by returning to the very roots of music, the sounds made by human voices and bodies, circling together and accompanying ourselves with syncopated hand-clapping. After a brief discussion about how to correctly dismantle the altar and dispose of the osobos (bad energies), we packed up and headed off in our various directions, into the Bronx night.
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