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In Memoriam: Katherine Hagedorn, Divine utterances: The performance of Afro-Cuban santería (2001)

Cultural production, daily life, music, Religion, Tales from the field No Comments »


Hagedorn cover  As many scholars of contemporary Cuba have learned to their shock and grief, we have recently lost one of our dearest colleagues, Katherine Hagedorn.  While a more comprehensive memorial to her life and work is available here, suffice it to say that Katherine was not only a creative, honest, and insightful scholar, but also an extraordinarily generous being, and we are left much diminished by her absence and with deepest sympathies for her family.  Having recently re-read her book as my own personal memorial to Katherine, I remembered all over how delightful it was to read in the first place, and how many of her insights rang true ethnographically even to someone not particularly well versed in either ethnomusicology or Cuban religious practices.  With that in mind, I write this post to recommend that you either take the time to read, or re-read, this rich text, Divine utterances: The performance of Afro-Cuban santería.  It will, I promise, be time well spent.



Two new volumes at the intersection of Cuban history and ethnography, fall 2013

By Paul Ryer, History, history of anthropology, Religion, Space & Place No Comments »

shade-grown_slaveryTwo recently published books about the Cuban past may be of interest to ethnographers of Cuba, although in very different ways.  The first, Shade-Grown Slavery: The Lives of Slaves on Coffee Plantations in Cuba, by Luis Pérez, Jr.’s student, historian William C. Van Norman, Jr., comes from Vanderbilt University Press.  By focusing on coffee, rather than sugar, plantations, as well as in siting the research in and around Matanzas, I found the perspective of the book to bring a welcome contrast to more conventional reads of Cuban history through the lens of the production of sugar.  This is also a straightforward historiographical work, lucid, informative and without the theoretical angst of many of us contemporary cultural theorists.  cooking of history

The second volume, The Cooking of History: How Not to Study Afro-Cuba Religion, by Stephan Palmié, University of Chicago Press, is, predictably, a slower read, but well worth the effort.  Taking on the anthropological production of knowledge about Cuban religious practice, from Ortiz onward, the volume challenges us anthropologists to rethink just what we do, and why.  (In this sense, I am reminded of David Scott’s critique of the external production of narratives about the Caribbean past in his classic “That event, this memory”, 1991, Diaspora 1:3, but of course, the metaphor of “cooking” is in part a nod to Sidney Mintz).  Most welcome, for me, is a sense of reflexivity about the object of study, much more pronounced than in Palmié’s earlier work.  Thus for instance, while I am still leery of the use of the term “Afro-Cuban” due to the way so many non-Cuban scholars carelessly conflate it as both a classification of cultural practices and a category for persons (who sometimes resent being so labelled), here Palmié is careful to indicate his own doubts about the adequacy of such a label–the introduction title actually puts “Afro,” “Cuban,” and “Religion” all in quotes.  Most immediately, then, the book speaks to others studying Cuban religious practices, and indeed, questions the nature of “anthropology” as well, in a sophisticated yet readable way.  One thing I’d like to have seen more of is consideration of the way present-day Protestant and evangelical religious movements in Cuba fit into the picture Palmié is drawing–in the sense Trouillot described of the “present in the past.”  And while Fidel Castro’s famous description of Cuba as “un país latinoafricano” is deftly brought into the story (p. 85), surely much more thinking could be done about the relation between a distinctive revolutionary African-Cuban present and contructions of an African past.  But again, this is a text worth wrestling with, probably more at the graduate/professional level than for most undergraduate classes, and I’d love to hear other colleagues’ takes on it.

Truth in motion: The recursive anthropology of Cuban divination, Martin Holbraad, U Chicago Press, 2012

Cultural production, new book, Religion No Comments »

Joining a growing collection of anthropological work on Cuban religious practice, Martin Holbraad’s Truth in Motion: The Recursive Anthropology of Cuban Divination, U Chicago Press 2012, has just been released.  More than simply presenting ethnographic data, Holbraad sets out to use his ethnographic insights to rethink disciplinary presumptions of anthropology as well.

From the web:

Embarking on an ethnographic journey to the inner barrios of Havana among practitioners of Ifá, a prestigious Afro-Cuban tradition of divination, Truth in Motion reevaluates Western ideas about truth in light of the practices and ideas of a wildly different, and highly respected, model. Acutely focusing on Ifá, Martin Holbraad takes the reader inside consultations, initiations, and lively public debates to show how Ifá practitioners see truth as something to be not so much represented, as transformed. Bringing his findings to bear on the discipline of anthropology itself, he recasts the very idea of truth as a matter not only of epistemological divergence but also of ontological difference—the question of truth, he argues, is not simply about how things may appear differently to people, but also about the different ways of imagining what those things are. By delving so deeply into Ifá practices, Truth in Motion offers cogent new ways of thinking about otherness and how anthropology can navigate it.


Review comments:

Andrew Apter
Truth in Motion is very much an intellectual journey, a rigorous engagement with Cuban divination and theories of meaning. It is extremely original, innovative—indeed daring and radical—in its invitation to replace our entire bedrock of representational semantics (and its associated distinctions between words and objects, signifiers and signifieds, judgments and facts, substances and attributes, etcetera) with a more generative ontology of ‘inventive definitions.’”–Andrew Apter, University of California, Los Angeles

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New book: Carlos Aldama’s Life in Batá by Umi Vaughan and Carlos Aldama, Indiana University Press

History, music, new book, Religion, traditions and folklore No Comments »
UPDATE: It is a pleasure to announce that Carlos Aldama’s Life in Batá: Cuba, Diaspora, and the Drum, by anthropologist Umi Vaughan and Carlos Aldama, is now available from Indiana University Press, in both paper and hardback.  It seems that there may also be a significant discount available, so in a nice change, this may actually be affordable!  As always, please feel free to send comments and reviews, and congratulations to Umi!

From the publisher’s description:

Batá identifies both the two-headed, hourglass-shaped drum of the Yoruba people and the culture and style of drumming, singing, and dancing associated with it. This book recounts the life story of Carlos Aldama, one of the masters of the batá drum, and through that story traces the history of batá culture as it traveled from Africa to Cuba and then to the United States. For the enslaved Yoruba, batá rhythms helped sustain the religious and cultural practices of a people that had been torn from its roots. Aldama, as guardian of Afro-Cuban music and as a Santería priest, maintains the link with this tradition forged through his mentor Jesus Pérez (Oba Ilu), who was himself the connection to the preserved oral heritage of the older generation. By sharing his stories, Aldama and his student Umi Vaughan bring to light the techniques and principles of batá in all its aspects and document the tensions of maintaining a tradition between generations and worlds, old and new. The book includes rare photographs and access to downloadable audio tracks.


Chronicle of Lisbon’s Workshop on Afro-Cuban religion (4/20/2011)

By Grete Viddal, Conferences & CFPs, Religion 2 Comments »

Grete Viddal presenting at the top of the table

I just returned from the 2nd Workshop on Afro-Cuban Religion held at the Instituto de Ciências Sociais (ICS) in Lisbon, Portugal. The theme for this meeting was “Creativity, improvisation and innovation in Afro-Cuban religion.” The event was organized by Ana Stela Cunha and Diana Espirito Santo, currently post-docs at the ICS and CRIA (Centre for Research in Social Anthropology), respectively.

A dozen scholars of Cuban religion gathered for two days to share work in progress, debate ideas, talk theory, practice, and participation, and network. Many participants were at the dissertation-writing stage or post-docs, and established scholars also attended. Discussants from ICS, Universidade de Lisboa, and Universidade Nova de Lisboa provided thoughtful feedback.

Participants included scholars from the US, Portugal, Spain, Cuba, Greece, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Brazil, and Colombia. We spoke in English and Spanish, sometimes switching between languages mid-sentence during Q & A.

The delights of Lisbon pulled us in during evenings, as we ate wonderful food and quaffed mojitos and caipirinas in a friendly, lively, bohemian city with picturesque neighborhoods and charming architecture.

Lia Pozzi, Andrea Antonelli, Anastasios Panagiotopoulos, Katerina Kerestetzi, Géraldine Morel, Diana Espirito Santo, and Jalane Schmidt in an Alafama neighborhood cafe

Panels included: (see below)

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Todd Ramon Ochoa’s Society of the Dead

By Linda Rodriguez, new book, Religion 2 Comments »

After I began reading Todd Ramón Ochoa’s doctoral dissertation on Palo practices in Cuba, I became captivated, unable to part from the text and hurriedly flipping through its pages. I was especially happy, then, to learn that a revised version of his thesis has recently been published by the University of California Press under the title Society of the Dead: Quita Manaquita and Palo Praise in Cuba.

Ochoa’s vivid detailing of the “praise of the dead” drew me into the dissertation along with descriptions of the objects (known as prendas) and ritual practices that allow for the “immanence of visceral experience as the privileged zone from which healing and harming are conjured.” Through crystalline and evocative prose, Ochoa writes of the lives of his two main Palo teachers – Isidra and Rodolfo – and the lessons they impart to him. I was struck by the craft of Ochoa’s own writing, an eloquent counterpoint to his argument that Palo seeks power in both the art of crafting material objects as well as the discursive art of creating “shapes of fear.”

Learning about the intent and measured practice behind these shapes of fear illuminated a world that had remained mostly dark and unknown to me even after I had lived in Cuba for some time. As the book brings Ochoa’s scholarship to a wider audience, I can only imagine that many other readers will share my experience.

* Linda Rodriguez is is a PhD candidate in the Department of History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University.

Babalú Ayé in the Bronx

By Lisa Maya Knauer, greater Cuba, Religion 4 Comments »

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)

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Honoring San Lázaro in Santiago

By Grete Viddal, Religion, traditions and folklore 2 Comments »

Every year on December 17th, Saint Lazarus’ feast day, drums, or sometimes violins, can be heard throughout the evening in many neighborhoods in Santiago de Cuba as ceremonies (referred to as “bembés”) are held to honor this saint. San Lázaro’s statue is dressed with decorative cloth and offerings of foods, flowers, candles, and cigars are placed at his feet. Violin music is considered “sweet” and pleasing to him. San Lázaro protects devotees against disease and misfortune. This photo was taken in 2008 at the home of an espiritista (Spiritist) of Haitian descent. She held a combined feast for San Lázaro and Santa Bárbara. The violinists are a father and daughter.

In Santiago, the connection between San Lázaro and his Regla de Ocha/Santería counterpart Babalu Ayé is not emphasized. For example there was no mention of Babalu Ayé during the Vodu-inflected Spiritist ritual where I took this picture.

In 2008-2009, I lived for ten months in the home of a Santiagueran santera, a scholarly person who was very familiar with varied manifestations of Cuban religion. She prepared a large ceremony to add San Lázaro to her spiritual pantheon. Those officiating remarked that this ritual was “new” in eastern Cuba and more typically associated with Havana. In fact, some of the objects necessary for the event were brought from Havana, as they were difficult to obtain in Santiago, specifically the cazuelas or clay pots needed to house San Lázaro’s spiritually charged items, called fundamentos. Babalu Ayé was not emphasized during this ceremony either; participants referred to the ritual as “receiving San Lázaro.”  In Santiago, eastern Cuba, Santa Bárbara and her Santería counterpart Shangó are clearly connected, but San Lazaro’s link with Babalu Ayé appears to be less established.

Preparing for San Lázaro in San Luis, the Spiritist way

By Ariana Hernandez-Reguant, By Gisela Roeder, By Grete Viddal, Religion No Comments »

Gisela Roeder sends us pictures of the Casa Templo La Caridad, in the city of San Luis, in Santiago province, during the festivities leading up to San Lázaro. Founded by Antonio Nieves, this is a temple apparently devoted, among other religious practices, to the Spiritist faith (there is another temple in San Luis exclusively devoted to Spiritism; not so this one, which seems to be more eclectic).

Below see the schedule of events, as well as the “norms” posted at the temple’s entrance, and as all  norms, they say more about what people do than about what people do not do.  Also interesting is the fact that these norms are said to derive their legitimacy from the fact that the temple falls under the oversight of Cuba’s national Constitution, ergo visitors should not carry knifes, drink or show up nude.

Espiritismo (Spiritism in English) became popular in Cuba and much of Latin America during the mid 19th century as books on communicating with the deceased through mediumship by Hippolyte Rivail, a Frenchman who published under the pen name Allan Kardec, became popular. In Cuba, Spiritism mixed with other religious practices and today there are a number of variants including “cientifico,” “de cordon,” and “cruzado.” Some branches closely follow Kardecian teachings, others incorporate practices from Afro-Cuban belief systems. Although common throughout Cuba, Espiritismo is particularly associated with rural areas and the eastern provinces.

This is another picture taken by Gisela Roeder at La Caridad. It shows the December 16th mass for San Lazaro, according to the “espiritismo cruzado” practice. If you are interested, do not miss her 8 min video of this event, on youtube.

HERE you can watch a video of San Lázaro’s crowning (“coronación”) at this San Luis temple. The video is also authored by Gisela, who has been visiting this community for many years.

For more on espiritismo en Cuba, check out the chapter on spiritism included in the book Creole Religions of the Caribbean: an Introduction from Vodou to Santeria. Diana Espirito-Santo, a graduate of University College London and a professor at University of Lisbon has conducted fieldwork in Cuba on espiritismo. One of her articles, entitled “The Enactment of Self and the Nature of Knowledge Among Mediums in Cuban Espiritismo” can be downloaded HERE. Just this year she published “Spiritist Boundary-Work and the Morality of Materiality in Afro-Cuban Religion” in the Journal of Material Culture (March 2010).

Santa Barbara Day

By Grete Viddal, Religion, traditions and folklore 8 Comments »

In Santiago de Cuba, Santa Bárbara (December 4th) is honored with a procession that begins at the casa templo of the spiritual family of Reyneiro Pérez, prominent local practitioners of Regla de Ocha/Santeria, in the Los Olmos neighborhood, and proceeds through the city’s narrow streets to the central plaza, called Parque Céspedes.. Dressed in her signature colors, crowned, and grasping a sword, Santa Bárbara is carried on a palanquin. As the procession passes, people gather on their stoops and balconies to watch and throw perfumed water on the statue. If they can afford it, they drink white wine and toast each other. Everyone dresses up, preferably in red and white, because these colors are sacred to Shangó, the Santería deity associated with Saint Barbara.

Santiago de Cuba, Santa Barbara Procession, Dec. 3, 2008 (all pics by Grete Viddal)

New Article on Cuban Kongo Culture

new article, Religion No Comments »

By Todd Ramon Ochoa in: Cultural Anthropology Vol. 25, # 3, pp. 387–420, Aug. 2010

ABSTRACT. In “Prendas-Ngangas-Enquisos: Turbulence and the Influence of the Dead in Cuban Kongo Material Culture,” Todd Ramón Ochoa queries the ontological status of complex “agglomerations of the dead that take the shapes of urns and iron cauldrons stuffed with healing and harming substances” called “prendas,” “ngangas,” and/or “enquisos,” and their role in Cuban Kongo affliction practices. The article includes a deep historical analysis of the negotiation of value in  nineteenth-century Cuban slavery and manumission, considered alongside what is known about pawn slavery among BaKongo people prior to and during the slave trade. Ochoa outlines the difficulties to explain prendas-ngangas-enquisos, most frequently considered as “fetish objects”  and points at “the influence generated in prendas-ngangas-enquisos as a problem for Euro-American materialism.”

A Vodú Party for the Gods

By Grete Viddal, Cuba Haiti, Religion, Tales from the field 6 Comments »

I went up a mountain, near Santiago, to houngan Pablo’s party for the gods. He lives in a place called Pilon del Cauto, near the river Cauto, about two or three (depending on road conditions) hours from Santiago, accessible by jeep, truck, or legs.

Guests arrived, some carrying a borrowed mattress to spend the night…

Pablo has a tonnel or space for ceremonies and parties. He has rented a sound system, and folks dance. Also there is much buying of goats: goat prices are based on weight. At the designated space, there is a  “mangemort” or altar table for the dead and another table for the “mangebla” or “mesa blanca” (called a manje blan in Haiti), with cakes and treats for the “sweet” spirits.

The white goat for the “mesa blanca” ceremony is consecrated with perfume and herbs. Tato and Pablo supervise the consecration of the fowl. Tato sprinkles the birds with a mix or holy water, perfume, herbs…

Houngan Pablo Milanes, mounted by the spirit Gran Bwa, sacrifices the goat. His son, behind, helps hold the animal steady. Gran Bwa then blesses congregants, while he is sitting on the body of the goat. He then dances the merenge with one of his assistants… Finally the goat is butchered and the meat readied for a night time feast…

NOTE on the usage of the term VODÚ: In the Cuban context the correct spelling for this religious practice is “vodú.”  (The Dominican spelling is often Vudu, in scholarly books in English it is Vodou. In French is Vaudoux. When writing about folk religion in the U.S. South, scholars sometimes term it “hoodoo.” Voodoo is an outdated and pejorative way to refer to Haitian spirituality.

Oyotunji African Village, 1970-2010

By Ariana Hernandez-Reguant, greater Cuba, Religion 5 Comments »

Oyotunji African village is turning forty. At the height of the Pan-Africanist movement, Oyotunji was established as a kingdom in 27 acres of South Carolina soil to honor Yoruba traditions.

Oba Ernesto Pichardo has shared with us a historical picture of Oyotunji, In 1978, he initiated a series of trips to the village which culminated in a 1984 ceremony in which the land and the temple were consecrated to Babalú Ayé, an Orisha that was not present  in the village before.

See below an image documenting that first tambor to Babalú Ayé (with Oba Pichardo singing and Oyotunji’s King dancing).

Later in the 1990s, anthropologist Kamari Clarke, then a graduate student at UC-Santa Cruz (now a professor at Yale’s Dept. of Anthropology), conducted ethnographic research there for her doctoral dissertation. Her resulting book, Mapping Yoruba Networks: Power and Agency in the Making of Transnational Communities, was published by Duke University Press in 2004.

For a review of recent writings on Yoruba revivalism, you can download here on .pdf Kenneth Routon’s 2006 essay “Trance-Nationalism: Religious Imaginaries in the Black Atlantic” (Journal Identites 13, pp. 1-20).  The article includes a review of Kamari Clarke’s book, as well as James Lorand Matory’s Black Atlantic Religion, and Christine Ayorinde’s Afro-Cuban Religiosity.

© Ernesto Pichardo 1984

In Honor of the Living Gods of Haiti

By Ariana Hernandez-Reguant, Cinema, Cuba Haiti, music, Religion No Comments »

Between 1945 and 1953, Maya Deren shot  many hours of footage of Voudou ceremonies. The result was a documentary film put together after her death. Although it lacks the experimentation that characterized her film work, Divine Horsemen. The Living Gods of Haiti has become an inescapable reference to all anthropologists investigating Caribbean and African religions. The entire film is on youtube in six part, but the quality is awful. A better quality copy can be watched HERE in its entirety and without cuts (for some reason it will not embed properly in this blog).

Here is a preview:

More recently, ethnomusicologist Lois Wilcken has spent her professional career documenting the music associated with Voudou, both in Haiti and New York, in ways that recall the work documented on this blog by scholars like Berta Jottar on the Cuban rumba. Wilcken has put together a marvelous website that constitutes a virtual journey through the religious music of Haiti and its diaspora. The website, with a wealth of audiovisual information and reference, is called Voudou Music of Haiti.

The 2010 Letter of the Year

By Ariana Hernandez-Reguant, Religion No Comments »

Another year has rolled around, and babalawos from around the world have met to issue “The Letter of the Year” for the country or region in which they live. Normally, there is agreement among them. In Cuba, however, every year there are at least two: one issued by the oficialista group of  the Yoruba Association, and one issued by the dissenting group of the so-called Miguel Febles Padron Commission. Their signos, governing divinities, and predictions are often different.  Cultural anthropologist Kenneth Routon wrote the most informative analysis of these differences, examining the power struggles and political conflicts among the two main groups of Cuban priests concerning the letter. I very much recommend the read, linked here. He published it in Ariana Hernandez-Reguant’s Cuba and the Special Period (Palgrave 2009).

Here are the links for this year’s Letters with predictions for Cuba:

ASOCIACION YORUBA DE CUBA (Governing Yemayá, accompanying Changó)

ASOCIACION MIGUEL FEBLES PADRON (Governing Obatalá, accompanying Oyá).

In addition, HERE’s the letter issued by the Miami-based Sacerdotes de Ifá “in representation of most of the religious families of the United States”, for the United States.

(Thank you to Oba Ernesto Pichardo and to Lisa Maya Knauer for sending the links)

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