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La Nueva Mujer: Akpon, Rumbera & Batalera

Eggun: Locating Legacy and Place for Afro-Cuban Women

"Are those spoons?" I asked. "Si son cucharas, yeah." My godfather answered. I watched in awe as she played. Kata takara taka ka kada. She played with such ease, you could barely see what was in her hands. She, the great Amelia Pedroso, during a rehearsal in Habana (Vieja) with Clave y Guaguanco in a large room in a house off a side street that my godfather was walking down until he heard the lovely sounds of rumba. The drum's call is so powerful it guides the footsteps of those who are in tune to its rhythm so deep that our heartbeat becomes our walk. He captured it on film, spectacular.


As she sang filling up that big billowy, echoing room I reveled in the all the vibrations of the voices bouncing off those walls and each other. Her power reaching my depths with so many miles between us. Amelia is a legend. She teaches me through my godmother Naivis Angarica, who learned, sang and played with her for many years. Whenever she recalls a story of Amelia her face lights up with adoration and respect, and she pauses in that awe Amelia invokes in us all.


Hailed as a pioneer who challenged religious rules concerning women and the drum, Pedroso is not well known outside of the Afro-Cuban arts world. Pedroso taught herself to play all 3 batá drums by ear. Whoever has seen bata live or has embarked on the journey of learning to play them, understands To play by ear is proof of Pedroso's musical genius. Yet Amelia first established her musical genius as a singer, and particularly as an akpón, a singer of Afro-Cuban Yoruba religious ceremonies. It was only in the last several years of her life that she began to play, and organized a group of women who played aberikula during ceremonies (most often played only for the Dia de medio in ceremonies in Cuba).


The majority of working women akpones in the U.S. have been/are Cuban, growing to include African-American, Puerto Rican and Caucasian women. Of course there is a larger group of women singing (and playing) in Cuba. Yet most of all of us are related through ocha ramas, friends, families even before it comes to personal relationships which connect us as well.


Two of Cuba's most cherished women akpones became legendary: Mercedita Valdes and Celia Cruz. These women established akponing as an important musical basis that enables its singers to perform any genre of music. Although she didn't pursue popular music, Amelia Pedroso is the rightful heiress of their magnitude. Had she stopped from criticism from men in all aspects of the tradition, we would not be able to celebrate her legacy as the most important female akpon & batalera in contemporary history. Amelia teaches us patience and perseverance.


She presented my godfather Liván to the drum, which traditionally is done sometime in the iyawo year. He says of Amelia: "Amelia Pedroso una gloria de esta religion. Su voz de oro que no se olvida. Voz sagrada para llamar el fluido del santo a la tierra. Testigo de mi consagración. Fue la que me presentó al Aña. Decansa en paz.


El Yambu: Slow and steady wins the race

My godmother's eyes light up when she speaks of Amelia and there is also a softness in her voice. There are few she speaks of as such. Since Pedroso, Naivis Angarica has been hailed in Havana as one of the best female akpónes today, she plays as well. In a world where men's names are quickly thrown out whenever one mentions tambores and their singers, the akpón, guides initiations where the suyere or prayer song leads the primary communication between devotees and the supernatural world of ancestors and orishas. This direct line between people and God is what American black folks in the church refer to as "the main line" where you can "call Him up and tell Him what you need...."


An akpon's knowledge base relies on: mastery of the Yoruba language, mastery of sequences or tratados of songs for every orisha, mastery of melody & improvisations, and last but never least, mastery of clave and rhythms for the orishas. Yup it's a whole lot.


Most akpones start at a young age and Naivis Angarica was no exception; growing up in the neighborhood of Pogolotti in Havana, Cuba her brother, Papito Angarica, quickly became recognized as a powerhouse of sound and knowledge through his recordings with Abbilona (where she is one of few women lead vocalists as well) and Papo Angarica. She was outcast as a woman initially while married to the great Candido Zayas' son, Jesus Corto Zayas another brillant akpón, and father to her first child. They both began to recognize her budding talent. Eventually neighborhood elder the late André Chacón gave her the first opportunity to sing tambores on his infamous Aña drum, Ifalache.


I was struck very deeply by the recording she did with Andre, his only recording Ire Ire -- and encouraged by my padrino Memo, I went to go meet her in Havana a decade ago. I was struck by her humility, shyness and how she did not understand the magnitude of her own powerful talent. So common amongst great women. Her journey has not been easy. Like so many gems, she is confined by politics of nation, Cubanidad and blackness, and the world at large has yet to know her as one of our greats.


Guaguancó: Go ahead, don't be shy

One evening in Pogolotti during a visit a few years ago, Naivis was too tired to accompany me to a guiro, but encouraged me to go with "the boys". I arrived w/ well-known and loved tamboleros led by Lachi, neighborhood drummaker and Aña owner in Pogolotti, and Andre's lead apprentice up until his death in 2000. He told me I needed to meet this singer who would be there, "Yo creo que ella vive allá...en el yuma," he encouraged. We arrived after driving past La Lisa to the outskirts of Havana to a small home, I immediately saw my abure Modupue singing. Before I could enter the room he called out to me "Jadel, canta, canta algo pa' Ochun".


Damn.Coño. How'd I get myself into this. I'd always wondered why anyone in Cuba would want to hear me sing, amidst such profoundly rooted musicians who with each stroke of the drum, each breath and canto teach me something. I am a happy sponge blending into the brown shades of my people, enjoying spirit, community and a good bembe. It reminds me of my mother and aunts shuddering in Bronx and Harlem project apartments in the 1960s when things were done with the utmost secrecy.


Similar to my close friends who are children of Marielitos from a "religious background", the Cubans who practiced espiritismo, palo and ocha coming in the 1940s and 50s, did so with a high level of secrecy. Dr. Mirabal's work on the Club Cubano illustrates other distinctions about this generation in NY. They were also known for being exclusive religiously, many refusing to initiate non-Cubans. Dr. Marta Moreno Vega and Dr. Berta Jottar's scholarly work documents how Afro-Cubans began entrusting religious & musical knowledge first to Puerto Ricans and African-Americans in New York. Even in my own family, Cubans maintained espiritismo, ocha and palo among the blood and a select others close to the family strictly. Raised in the 80s within my mom's Afro-Bahamian, Cuban family in the South Bronx (Mott Haven), I first inherited certain conocimiento as a young girl.


Ain't nobody tell me I was gonna be no akpon! It is a path like all in life, one that you choose before you know, and one that chooses you before you know. I sang for Ochun in that guiro until a high, powerful voice swooped in, teaching & supporting me in every way. The voice was the beautiful Martica Galarraga, daughter of Lazaro Galarraga (y la hermana de Afimaye Galarraga:-); who have also graced me with their wisdom. Modupe.


It was an unforgettable evening with Martica singing rumba w/ Modupe, dogging people out with playful improvisaciones and hilarious coros about lust and general Cuban guapería. The conversation we had afterwards will always be with me. She confirmed she thought I was right for the job, before giving tips about little things here and there. She told me stories she and Naivis went through. Like so many nights in Havana, I got reminded of my path.


The next day we all gathered for a tambor for Eggun by a godparent of Martica's who (I believe) lives in Pogolotti, which remains an important Afro-Cuban religious enclave. Chachi, Jennyselt Calvo's father, was singing. It remains one of the most profound religious moments in my life. I swear to God that tambor was so good the floor and all of us were levitating. Flying 'round Havana you hear me?!


Certain things just haven't made it here to the U.S., and it is through Eleggua that we can find peace in this great contradiction of practicing here, a spiritually from there. Once we embrace reality, our hearts are wiser, and spirits more humble.


Chachi is a revered Eggun singer in Havana, and his depth of knowledge was overwhelming. But nobody let me get caught in the moment, I was ordered to keep time and sing each and every coro by Naivis and Martica who guided me through the ceremony. It is these, among many, acts of sisterhood that shape the foundation I have in ocha and as an akpon. The women in Havana, Matanzas, Santiago and beyond who carry Afro-Cuban traditions forward comparten la herencia de estas tradiciones por la sangre. Son los mayores que vieron a su talento crudo quienes las apoyaron llegar al conocimiento verdadero, para llevar las cosas como son. (Some thangs we gotta put in español:-)


It's time for us to join together from the Bay Area, Miami, Atlanta and New York (add on if y'all know) to create interdisciplinary projects that open new spaces for akponing and Afro-Cuban arts for women. Mi China de Oro is just one glimpse of my experiences and as a playwright, scholar, akpon & actor, there are more to come.


While I see performance work celebrating femininity, orishas, and even rumba, I too often miss the presence of black Cuban American women alongside women of color raised with the intimacy of upbringing and cultural knowledge of these practices. I simply cannot support work that does not to mentor an emerging generation of artists and spiritual leaders. I have too many women spirits that I still have to answer to.


I do not create work with the best dancers and the best singers; I don't believe in "the best". I believe in storytelling. I believe in the root. I will not wait for anyone to open doors for me or for the promise of including me when they think I am ready. Ya yo tengo la llave, nació conmigo y vino de Olofi.


Columbia: Mi China tiene un diente de oro que yo se lo regalé....

LukumiArts is creating a body of work that celebrates Afro-Cuban women's legacies by archiving, revising histories, embodied memory and performance. It is not enough to wait until we die, alone and unremembered. We must celebrate one another today. We must demand through collaboration the respect that we deserve, even through our personal differences, styles, approaches. This is why at the end of Mi China de Oro we call the names of the Afro-Cuban women doing this work in Cuba, Europe & the U.S., past and present. I embrace you all, todas son mis hermanas!


Our performance work, interviews and workshops w/ artists like Rita Macias, Marisol Blanco, and Neri Torres is not the culmination of a few years on the rumba/tambor circuit in NY. It is a life legacy of building w/ other women like Yomaira Mella, niece of Amelia, carrying on the rhythms of our mothers, abuelas, & tias who we've admired. And we get emotional because every time we look up someone is publishing a book, having an event, speaking on a panel or traveling to Cuba or forming a musical group without a care or thought in the world about an Afrocubana or other Afro-Latinos and Afro-Americans born here who are a new generation.


Let me tell you that no amount that we charge to create a new space for our voices will amount to the descaro of money charged for false ceremonies, incorrect Afro-Cuban folkloric knowledge passed on in educational events by people who are half informed -- not to mention the produced musicals created by people who have been to Cuba for all of 2-3 weeks. Ha! No amount that we charge to support a new generation of Afro-Cuban women's voices could pay us what we are owed and deserve from being silenced by machismo, incorrect interpretations of religious protocol, anger and jealousy directed towards us every two seconds that has sent a few right into the hands of the Evangelical Church.


You see our livelihoods and families are at stake, but in the face of truth, lies crumble.


Acts of sisterhood in works such as Mi China de Oro hold us up through the difficult moments of this journey, and we thank you for the support through this process. Art is created through process wherever we find ourselves in the world. There are really talented women whose voices must be heard, and as we continue running iles, dance companies, collectives, writing books, raising children and making ish happen that is crucial to our lives and this earth, we will also create art.


Cipher/Outro/Epilogue: Aqui entre las flores...

As I have begun to reach out to Pedroso's godchildren here in the US, principally through Elizabeth Sayre, a generous spirit who I first met in the Ibiono Project, who knew her presence was divine, her knowledge truly sacred -- I feel her spirit watching over us all. I listen to her frequently and her voice guides me through space and time, healing my spirit as I oscillate on this here plane of my own journey through music, sound and song. Pedroso will always represent women, yet her blackness is key to understanding her position, her marginality and the ways in which she was silenced. We must search to dismantle the illusions around Lukumi's universality, because its greatest pioneers were sparked out of silence, oppression and violence in the black experience in the Americas.


The space between being black, being woman, being akpón, being a priestess, speaking out, challenging and asserting is the truth where I live. And Amelia will always embody the truth I seek in this life and the next. I love you sister of light, batalera, akpón, Oni Yemaya, you are powerful and you are remembered, buen viaje rumberita, I know I'll see you on the other side.


Para mi mama y mi tia Aleida. Felicidades, las quiero.



©Jadele McPherson.

Founder, Lukumi Arts


Sick and Tired: Ta Nehisi Coates, Public Policy and Routes to Liberation

How can we fix it? Make it better? Now that we’ve deconstructed everything surely we can get some answers, we can get some results, we can move forward, we can get to where we’ve always wanted to be. I write pretty strong on spirit but the last few weeks of confronting institutionalized racism in my work as a teaching artist and as an MFA graduate student has been overwhelming. And as is common, I’m not feeling too well as a result. My body is not fond of white supremacy and as Coates called it the “weight” of existing in a system that criminalizes your body, the historical weight of black criminality has manifested in a mild illness. I considered black criminality and black spirituality in my essay The Trap of the Secret when I was struck by the particularities of a young, black mother Shaquan Duley, and the lack of understanding of her body, her predicament, her illness.
As William Julius Wilson sat on the panel with Coates at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard today, I remember why I left academia, and social sciences, as Wilson’s required research sat in such a deeply unsettled place within myself. I knew the answers to these kinds of questions could never be found in methods or within the framework of the academy. I knew these deep sicknesses couldn’t be remedied by numbers and theories, I needed something more. My time away provided great context, and taking place at Harvard as one of few academic sites where I’ve shared my newest works as a scholar, allowed me to genuinely enjoy many of the points Wilson made. Now so many years later I could appreciate why I began to dread people pointing me to his work, who made him King of us I sarcastically retorted, as his work seemed outdated to me as a young woman. It reminded me of a more conservative black era and politic. Yet I gushed as Wilson, an elder and one of most important social scholars to contribute research on blackness and poverty, drew links between joblessness, poverty and lack of resources. He went on to re-frame Coates comments within the contemporary reality of “income segregation” or the reality that the African-American community has become more class stratified in the face of mass incarceration and sharp increases in poverty. There he had me.
As an member of the black educated elite, yet impoverished since I am an artist, I think about class stratification in our community often. This has to be one of the basic reasons black neighborhoods become gentrified so quickly and also one of the reasons we are having trouble, with the absence of middle and upper class blacks, fighting for historically black spaces whether they are residential, a school or a theater. As I see many Dominican friends return to the neighborhoods like the Heights after prestigious educational tracks, and many black and Latino peers return to places like Miami or Chicago, I see a different trend in the Northeast among African-Americans. Many black professionals rarely return “home” nor choose to live in black communities at all in urban America. We move into white neighborhoods, many of us, “escaping”our reality. I was glad to cling to Wilson’s recent research which proves this observation into fact, for the people that proof.
Today’s poor black families, research shows, differ as they do not enjoy middle class and upper/wealthy black families as neighbors. This increases the deprivation that motivated this topics explored by the panel, namely mass incarceration and the disproportionate number of African-Americans incarcerated. Coates latest book Between the World and Me frames contemporary #BlackLivesMatter activism, and why young black college students across the nation are deeply questioning institutionalized racism. In late night convos friends blame this on Desegregation which makes me cringe. I trust we fought against laws that didn’t have our best interest at hand, and hate the idea that we have to turn back the hands of time to seek liberation. No we don’t. We can move forward, we can get through this time. There is a deep trauma and of course newfound mobility across America that keeps young African-American professionals out of black communities. We need to dig deeper for the why. We can also recognize that young, middle class black folks moving into historically marginalized black neighborhoods they were not raised in, can agitate stratification. I think many are creating positive spaces so this doesn’t become the reality, and feel a real call as a community to work on displacement of black communities.
We needed Coates literature and Wilson’s statistics for a young 30-year old Duley in 2010. Perhaps the judge sentencing her could have heard these interventions to contextualize the soft spoken woman that grabbed my heart in her interview with Oprah Winfrey just a few years ago. (I have some serious questions for Oprah about that too and the capitalizing off of publicizing black pain and trauma in absence of what seems to be the right “tools” to create genuine healing. I mean can she ever go somewhere and not record?) After all, I understood why Duley had snapped and drove herself and children over a bridge after smothering them underneath water in her bathtub at home.
I am one of few peers who is not a mother in my 30s, I very much appreciate the kind of stress that Duley must have experienced not as a “single black mother”, but as an active, parenting black woman. Ta Nehisi’s book of letters to his son could have been an incredible resource for those sons she smothered, saving her eldest girl child. Just 5 years too late. How many more are we too late for?? Wait, this as deliberate as it was and heinous, is starting to make sense. How does one parent black boys in the face of mass incarceration? I understood the stress of Duley’s lengthy unemployment, as we black women face unemployment perhaps more than any other group, but I forget what the exact statistics are I hope this doesn’t make my “argument” less “credible”. Does it?
I know the slouch of depression that creeps after the first few job searches just don’t pan out. I know the questioning of self-worth, the darkness shed on America when one is a black woman applying for a job. Knowing when one is qualified but didn’t get hired. Was it my hair? Oh yes, when I was unemployed not too far from the time Duley was incarcerated I read the NYtimes article, after being completely worn, that stated that despite education levels, blacks in New York are less likely to be hired than any other racial group. But I know what the experience is, it is much worse than any statistics can convey and yes it always, always results in illness.
And I am very equipped to deal with illness, as an herbalist, as a Yoruba priestess, as an educated woman with access to medical help, albeit marginalized, as a black woman who knows how to be in community and to reach out when I am in need or hurting. While I never met Duley -- her story jumped at me through the miles of experience that separate us. In absence of family & peer support systems I have had, as a mother of 3, living unemployed I may not be immune to snapping and doing heinous things I thought never imaginable.
Through Duley’s young round face, a large woman encompassed literally by the crushing weight of black criminality I see myself. I felt that we have failed Duley, failed my sisters on the brink of insanity without refuge, without access. The incident made me more diligent about spreading my voice and my methods for self-care through a black girl lens, an African Diaspora lens. Duley took me to Harvard to present a paper born out of this in 2013. Duley in turn saved me, through a redirection of my work. Her story was the face to the theories of how dire our current reality is; it was the necessary affirmation of my deep seeded compassion for my people that drives me to the edges of society. There I imagine what healing for us black women looks like, our bodies and spirits in line, to dare to live beyond the confines of institutions that value my worth at just a little bit more than my great-great-great grandmothers, like Ma Margaret who was brought to Mississippi to work as an enslaved African for the rest of her life. I think about what she must have passed on to my great-great grandmother Reina, who was the best of healers, an African often dressed in all white, she read the sky and consulted both whites and blacks in her radical free space “up ‘dere on the Indian hill” as the older people would say, and I would hear through stories by my Father raised by her until he was about 5 years old. What did Margaret tell Reina that got her to freedom? Reina knew how to be free so good when so many of us withered in Reconstruction, in illness, in not enough to eat, or sleep or clothes to wear.
I know she taught her charity. Grandma Virginia always cooked more food than just for her 9 children opening her table to hungry children in the neighborhood. Some of them spoke as grownups in my Uncle Roscoe and Aunt Mae’s backyard on Chicago’s Westside for her 80th birthday. I didn’t think then she wouldn’t make it to 90 as tall as she stood that day. A true Queen. They rose and spoke about “Mother” who gave me cornbread and cussed me out when I was out here acting a fool. They thanked her they loved her as we did, they were a real part of our family. That value I learned and practice in my own home. My doors are never closed to my sisters and brothers, trans or homeless, who are in need as we have sacrificed at times to do. That is the Mississippi in dis here New Yorker.
And who were Duley’s peoples? I get along with some close girlfriends with peoples from South Carolina, we Mississippians a special people, we’s resilient but I like those South Carolina folks. South Carolina been talkin’ up a storm just like Mississippi did in those Civil Rights. Who was the girl’s great-great-great grandmomma? Surely, we got something in common, our people made it from up under on over, and now this baby is in an orange jumpsuit. I wish I could save her. I wish I could rise up like the white actors in all their white Hollywood movies when they give the monologue of a lifetime and it changes the judge’s mind and then everything is peace again. I wish I could just explain “Your honor, this is clearly a case of poverty meets underprivileged circumstances coupled with the historical weight of black criminality which manifests in illness, mental and physical, clearly exemplified in my client’s case and see the day she snapped all that was operating with postpartum blues. And if someone enslaved your people, then set them free, then created policies to keep them enslaved even though they’re technically free then a few generations after realizing this and doing the best you can it’s very understandable how someone would snap. In fact Your Honor it’s no wonder every black person in America hasn’t snapped the necks of more living beings in pure frustration and angst through the weight of black criminality over the past 250 years. Your honor please see here Ta Nehisi Coate’s theorizing on black criminality here in the Atlantic. What’s that? Yes, my client is free to go? Thank you Your Honor.”
Or something like that. I know now my contribution won’t be just more statistics, won’t be trying to convince any institutions that these are real historical problems that manifest and have everything to do with today. Except the DOE, okay, well a few. I was burnt out by that weight and academia through the violence of white, elite institutions by 24. I needed us, I needed blackness, I needed spirituality -- which is not God for my black atheists. Coates is an atheist like my Aunt, who was the first black atheist I met -- but sitting in holy, err I mean revitalizing black spaces whether it be a concert or dinner-- is to be born again and face another day in strength and love. I turned heavily like many to orishas and a deep Afro-Cuban spirituality that my grandmother brought, followed by my mother in this here America. So I sit in the questions around healing for us, our families in the face of poverty, in the face of police brutality, broken educational and other resources that have become worst in the past 40 years, which is the entire span of my life thus far, and I come back to culture. I’ve always come back to culture and healing as how we may survive the systemic violence.
In Lukumi there’s lots of promise, despite the petty rifts in the practitioner community on style, authenticity and protocols. I think about the ways people are divorcing our practices from race, (ha!) and the ways it was a real healing system for Afro-Cubans; the result of medicinal, psychological, and cultural resistance in Cuba just like the Black Church in America. I think about the medicinal herbal components as well as the cosmological concepts that can be communicated across religious beliefs and atheists in our generation seriously invested in black liberation, a holistic liberation and not just a superficial political one. I guess I am a political atheist, I don’t believe politics is always the strongest frame for black liberation. Spirit is huge. I believe in us. I think about the power of using natural plants to heal the body and bring it into balance, and how we’ve moved away from traditional cultural knowledge which we readily change for books. Books may contain the most western and Eurocentric coded methods for sharing our ideas about black political projects and liberation.
The irony of it all. When did we start replacing what we’ve traditionally, culturally known as black people, West African descendants, with Eurocentric forms of knowledge? There is no one determinate moment when this happens it’s a process of acculturation, syncretism, molding, of course even Anthropologists recognize that, but did we always give more weight to other forms of knowledge before our own?? If my grandmother knew how to plant medicinal things with a third grade education how is it that just 2 generations later I didn’t learn this skill set? Why didn’t I? I spent massive amounts of time with her in her gardens. She loved plants, planted all over the Westside of Chicago, I mean where my grandmother was there was living, green life, luscious as the fields she must’ve picked cotton in as a young sharecropper. When did getting into Yale become more important than our gardens?
I say this, recognizing I was raised by some old time religion folks as young as I am, to also recognize the dangerous departures from traditional black cultural knowledge. Integration, legal and political changes most definitely have effected our generations being cut off from more traditional black cultural knowledge, cultivated in the South or as my Puerto Rican grad school Professor Agnes Lugo Ortiz called it, “El circumcaribe.” That Deep South, Caribbean, Central American & South American coastal routes of trade, and cultural connections that are the true heartbeat of our hemisphere, and perhaps even of contemporary Afro-Atlantic black consciousness.
How could people be as so ignorant to think of places like Cuba or Haiti as isolated? As if deep medicinal knowledge is not an Africanism also embodied in a Mississippi or South Carolina blackness, because folks weren’t playing bata or involved in mass processionals like the rest of the Hemisphere. As if our American blackness is isolated from the rest of the hemisphere and thus less African. I confront this notion almost daily, and it alone is exhausting. In fact living here in New York for most of my life what I can say is that the invention of the black American experience as less African, ‘specially here up North, is that there is a growing disconnect with our historical cultural experience in the South. Chicago’s West Side and even Baltimore seem more African to me in that sense. Although our language and consciousness may not reflect it, the community experience of blackness is more rooted in the traditional ways of the South and the cultural pride from that experience.
Yes New York has a longer history of earlier migrations and yes an abolitionist narrative about freedom and the North as a space more “removed” from the institution of slavery than the South. Oh yes a deep study of the black American contemporary experience across urban, black communities seems needed. Anybody working on that? While New York superficially feels like a center for blackness, its diversity and heavy Caribbean immigration create a unique narrative that puts us closer to our Circumcaribe sisters and brothers, yet distances us from traditional and Southern African-American history and culture through erasure.
This erasure has been exacerbated by appropriating Afro-Caribbean culture and religion and privileging international modes of blackness (which are so very important) over African-American ones in a way that devalues the black American experience. This painful truth is one that once we set the field right with Afro-Latino and Afro-Atlantic studies, then we must circle back. The fact is that a 3rd generation Puerto Rican or Jamaican has more cultural pride than our 12th generation African-American young people. How can we re-instill cultural pride that would be necessary to support collective healing from mass incarceration and massive inequalities facing black and Latinos of African descent in America. If we can’t count our black population outside of jail correctly, we probably don’t have the stats we need on Afro-Latinos identifying and not, who are imprisoned. African-Americans and Latinos need to rally with one another if we want to funnel our cultural healing into political, structural changes.
What is African-American cultural pride? What are the traditional African-American rituals, knowledge, cosmology that we want to pass on? What tools have we created in the South but have gotten away from? Our desires to forget a painful Southern existence for many black migrants, including family “left behind,” can reel traumas forward several generations just like immigration. This geographic movement, coupled with a diverse cultural real life experience steeped in sophistication and nuance, is what connects the African-American experience to Latinos (of color), and to the world. Without our indigenous cultural knowledge, which is just as valid as other cultures, no less African even if our clave is riffing in electronic hip-hop beats; we have no key to the world, no key to the doors from which we came and thus no way out of this mess.
It may not be the entire answer, but is surely a significant part of our current work. How can we and young people understand blackness without real African cultural knowledge? We focus on this in terms of language, dress, yet not with plants or foods where the connections stare us smack in the face. In the absence of ethnic cultural African identities, we in the Diaspora have re-created cultural traditions majestically and brilliantly, yet have been made to feel ashamed and less than. We are not proud of Georgia and the Carolinas in newer generations like others rep flags, and we mistakenly only interrogate this through the lens of nationality. There we lose unlike any other African descended group, African Americans cannot access the patria, the nation home state which is always romanticized from abroad through space and time, and thus the Deep South is seen as still inextricably tied to the America many of us reject because we have never had liberation on this soil. Yet this is deeper than nation-states and languages, geography in the African Diaspora and the routes we’ve taken have never been confined by colonialist borders imagined by violent European conquest.
They are the cultural borders, the safe spaces and gardens, the ring shouts and nighttime juju or palo rituals that defines and connects us. This recognition is a form of liberation in and of itself in the African-American context, and one that also causes us to redefine black America as we have generations of Afro-Cubans, Afro-Puerto Ricans, West Indians and Africans, indigenous and Europeans deeply rooted in our cultural experience. We tend to focus on the most recently immigrating populations, rather than stretch our historical imaginations to the days of slave codes and staggering “emancipation” dates. These history changing events that scared slave owners throughout the Hemisphere and caused us to run, to move, to shift, to hide between nation-state borders, which also has not yet been recognized in our collective narratives and celebrations.
Hell! Assata ain’t new, she went to Cuba like Eldridge and them went to Algeria and Mario Bauza came to Harlem from Havana, all searching for the same thing, seeing familiar faces as we go along. Hell! We is an international people before we even knowed it and like everything good they done took it away. We done let it fade hoping the hurt might be less for the new babies taking up the charge, but they don’t know who they is, they ain’t never seen a popular tree only seen strange fruit in a book. Most black chiren today ain’t neva growed up swimming in a lake or a river, so how could they know an Yoruba vision of God so deeply tied to the natural world black urbanity often looks down upon. Where will we plant new gardens and food? Come swim to liberation with me young Afroatlanticites. I love you like I love myself, and when I close my eyes to die alls I gonna wish is that we be free.
~Ashe Jadele McPherson

Moving Mountains: AfroCuban Arts, Faith & Community

Dearest Members/Queridos miembros,

As many of you know, Corinna Moebius is an incredible community force and as the founder of AfroCuban Dance Network: it truly reflects a woman who bridges communities, promotes unity, positivity and love with every ounce of her being. Yet community work is challenging -- we experience rifts, divisions, and petty dramas no matter how deep our desires for unity resonate within. We can also feel alone or overwhelmed by the hours of tireless work we put into organizing events, reaching out/connecting with folks, offering a listening ear, and building community.

So I knew Corinna (CJ on the site) was serious when she reached out for help with Afro-Cuban Dance Network and understood that it had nothing to do with her dedication to our community. Since I founded our growing arts collective, LukumiArts, just four years ago, Corinna has been with us every step of the way. I have counted on her presence, support and input on numerous occasions.

A deep motivation for creating LukumiArts was to support/connect elder and emerging Afro-Cuban artists based in the U.S. and Cuba. My mentors and spiritual elders were suffering in silence despite their talent, depth of knowledge, shine and passion in maintaining and defending Afro-Cuban culture. I thought, what is at the root of my elders pain? The very mentors who interpret a Yoruba/Lukumi proverb, oriki/songs, percussion rhythms and dance have taught me the very foundations of the world, the wisdom of my eggun/ancestors and inspire me daily as a woman, artist, activist, friend, and iyalosha.

Yet, the reality is that many Afro-Cuban elders in the U.S. are silenced by the lack of sufficient professional outlets for their work, the lack of resources to fulfill their artistic visions, and overall lack of institutions that genuinely support the transmission, knowledge and fundamentals necessary to create new generations who will carry on the traditions. Thus, many pioneering Afro-Cuban artists as well as an overwhelming number of artists of color have built careers by using their own money to create dance classes, rent studios, to make costumes, and to promote and put on performances.

As a result of so much effort, varying class sizes and not knowing when the next gig may come through; many Afro-Cuban arts professionals feel stressed, frustrated, unappreciated and upset by the growing commercialization of our culture. On the flip side I also hear students and musicians complain that certain master artists are "bad" communicators, too "temperamental" and have challenging personalities. Machismo/male chauvinism not only erases Afro-Cuban women's contributions to folkloric arts, but also tends to silence women by confining us to spaces that must open up. All of these barriers are part of a larger history of exploitation of artists of color that we must all strive to understand and work to dismantle. This requires our communities to be in better standing.

Our artists need support via translators, income, counseling, legal advice, education and transitional resources. Many of us take on these roles as students and friends when we least expect it. Now, more than ever, it is time to create balanced, open spaces that genuinely respects Afro-Cuban artists' knowledge and worth.  We hope to honor Afro-Cuban culture by avoiding the trendy online topics that often do not result in moving our community forward. Here we can spark new dialogue that is still rooted in the values of Afro-Cuban elders. Our short-term goals for the website include:

  1. increasing the platform for Afro-Cuban cultural elders and experts to expand their work
  2. sharing work/artist residency and funding opportunities 
  3. creating an open forum for dialogue on community tensions/divisions 
  4. highlighting connections between Afro-Cuban culture and Africa/African Diaspora
  5. connecting people in a way that results in forming new community spaces/events                                                                                                      
  6. improving the educational info on Afro-Cuban religious/cultural history

We are an incredible international community of one of the most open, multicultural forces our world has ever seen. Everyone's voice is vital. It also means agreeing to disagree, brainstorming, weathering difficult conversations, reaching out when hopelessness, loneliness and even bitterness surfaces because the path of an cultural arts professional or dedicated student ain't easy.

It requires the tight knit sense of community, support and love that I know within my own ocha and blood family who have defied the odds from the ghettos of Pogolotti, Marianao to the South Bronx. I embrace you all as my family embraces me, with open arms, a mountain full of faith in the ancestors, in the divine, and in the unseen promise of tomorrow.

Love, light, health, fuerza, salud y ashe ~

Jadele, LukumiArts/ACDN Lead Administrator


Our Creative Process: Eggun, History and Vision

I began writing the script for our first project Dancing Graves in the beginning of 2008. At the time I definitely didn't think of what I was doing as playwriting nor of the project as a theater piece. Thankfully it has been beautiful to continue building with that same cast who have supported the first snapshot of a vision. I am truly blessed.

The artistic process is challenging and should reflect our own layered experiences.

Much of my motivation to write this story was the freshness of my iyaworaje, which blessed me with healing from the very painful experiences I had as an Afrodescendiente, woman, thinker, and organizer in the Midwest. The decision to tell the story of a Afro-Cuban family in the heart of the Westside, where my paternal grandmother migrated to escape racial violence and oppression in the Deep South, creatively explored Afro-Diaspora connections in the ways I embody them: thus, connecting my grandma's experiences with those of my Cuban/Bahamian maternal grandparents who immigrated to Afro-New York, where I was born and raised.

I wonder what my history sounded like, looked like; no one ever gave me the pleasure of laying it all out at once. Like our ancestors, our histories are presented in broken, fragmented parts. After all, I could hear it walking down the isolated streets of the Westside by Cermak, in the inflection of my grandmothers instructions to get a plant out of her garden in a place where many assume nothing can be grown nor cultivated. Where there are green plants taller than myself, and I can emerge with a white flower that I was ordered to "wrench off dat branch" to cover a wound, as band-aids are taboo for our kind of Mississippians.

My grandmother is a Mississippi Osainista, and surely herbal knowledge and timely predictions make her one among the greatest espiritistas in Chicago. Indeed my African pasts merge, they are so fluid they run through my blood and body water crashing into one another, and I can imagine mi abuelo jugando domino smoking a cigar mountin' Siete Rayo in grandma's southern baptist church. I puzzled the Chicago ocha/palo/spiritist community at first where folks mounted by "spirits" would racially profile me at many a misa, assuming my skin color meant I couldn't understand Spanish -- leading to entertaining experiences, but surely got me thinking. Yea.

How could one be a spiritist or priest/ess without acknowledging an African past? How could one practice ocha or Spiritism and despite being Latino/a not have any black friends...wasn't that problematic? Did it matter, or was I "just making a big deal" out of it. If we couldn't talk about it, I had hoped, maybe if I can hear my history, listen to my eggun, I can begin to tell some part of my story, our story.

All the rich sounds, touches and gazes of beauty during the sacred rites of making an ocha and birthing an iyawo were fresh in my mind then. My motherly/daughter exchange with an elder who was crowned at 4 years old, now resting on the floor of the throne, she shares that she is a great-grandmother with over 60 years in the priesthood, and that when she was the first woman ordered to be initiated in palo in her family, it was the real sha-bang! The mirroring eyes that gazed with love and rememberance during my Dia de Medio, as one cannot see themselves dressed in the outfit of the orisha they were just initiated or crowned to; nor can you see your reflection in a mirror, although many iyawos being intiated in these times cannot escape accidental glimpses of ourselves (in the urban U.S.) A reflection in a shiny downtown window reveals what others may see, remaining a mystery to us.

These challenges represent the daily struggles the iyaworaje and our journey as priests/esses present to all, as well as the beauty of our spiritual culture. While many cling to notions of tradition, correctness, uniformity and what is "right," I've always felt the immense power of our practices exists in its flexibilities, in its grey areas and incredible openess. In response to the violent nature of European colonization and the transatlantic slave trade, and their aftermath, how fitting that we Afrodescendants would resist oppression in creating belief systems where collective decision-making reigns; where values and cultural survival were not threatned by varying ritual styles, customs, languages and outlooks.

Today, how much time/energy is lost arguing over things that were created to be different in the first place?

This cultural process has occured at every generation of Afro-Cuban history as well as for all Afrodescendants. Stephan Palmié refers to this process as "ethnogenesis" in Cuba in describing how multiple ethnic groups: who as multilingual, multicustomed West Africans did not initially view themselves as one people, thus creating "neo-African ethnic identities" (p.63 Brown, Santeria Enthroned) reflected in socio-religious institutions, cabildos. Perhaps we can further complicate ethnogenesis -- as surely this process is ongoing, as now many initiates have formed institutions and businesses rooted in a premise of Yoruba or Lukumi identity and being Afro-Cuban or even an Afrodescendant no longer defines who can start such organizations nor who produces our present leading ideologies around what and who is Lukumi. As an emerging generation of Yoruba and Lukumi practitioners within an International Diaspora, we are constantly reflecting/defining who we are collectively through Our Creative Process.

Given this, LukumiArts focuses on Our Creative Process as a primary method for creating performances rather than a commercially viable end-product. A process that blurs lines between performance and our sacred spaces, and spirit reigns. A process where political, economic and social justice explorations are infused with color, energy, and beauty bought to life by the aro for Yemaya or in chorus responses to espiritista songs. A process where we can be moved to tears to re-consider the conditions of the plantation in recalling our contemporary moments of otherness, abuse, torment, fear, intimidation, silence and rejection. A process where we cannot identify, locate nor package ourselves racially nor within national identities alone, our bodies of color proving the survival of what should have been impossible, with all the odds stacked up against us. A process where we can be honest to explore what has been lost, stolen, and also hidden from us; oceans connecting our ports of origin where family histories have gaps, names of relatives are lost, and recessive genes reveal features whose origins we cannot exactly pinpoint, but we still are, still be, still free.

Indeed West Africans and their descendants who became Afro-Cubans (and also Afro-Brazilians, Trinidadians, Haitians, etc.) in the realms of the ingenios, sugar plantation cities, valued artistry -- reflected in the building of thrones, beading, detailed trajes y ropa de santo and in creating not just functional ritual spaces, yet beautiful ones, alive with color, honor and feeling. Given those circumstances of enslavement, one must revere those ancestors who swallowed fundamentos or hid secrets in the china cabinets of the plantation "masters" as the very people who served, cleaned and prepared dishes for the fine china they owned. We took incredible risks to enjoy ritual objects we now causally refer to, such as soperas for our orishas. Cloths, linens, and any fabrics for outfits and thrones must have been luxurious commodities for most enslaved and even free workers, but they nonetheless acquired them in the least expected circumstances beyond our imaginary -- all actions that embody a degree of sacrifice we must all be grateful for.

We are a courageous, beautiful people.

It is that beauty that I knew would bring our culture to life on stage to touch the person who is initiated and the novice alike. A healing power that our nation is so in need of beyond sacred ritual spaces alone, which too are thriving. In creating that first project we had conversations and breakthroughs around aesthetics and representing our culture. All actors were not initiated or practitioners either, and they too wanted to be accountable on these same levels.

Among a cast of majority Afro-Cubans, Afro-Puerto Ricans and Afro-Americans, it was beautiful to see performers communicate and embrace who didn't speak the same language. It was beautiful to see how our narrative transformed with sharing experiences, and to witness those who had never had any formal arts training to work alongside a master artist. I felt our interactions, in segregated Chicago, where Afro-Latin@s are present yet incredibly silenced, in a divided ocha community in terms of practices, race and culture -- were truly revolutionary. The majority of feedback we received did express this sentiment. Just our presence together, I am still sure, meant something profound.

This experience definitely rooted Our Creative Process which restores hope that we can affect issues some say will never change -- like the lack of resources for Afrodescendant master folkloric artists, and our societal responses to natural disasters, racism, death, aging and diverse spiritual ways of life.

Our Creative Process presents us with those same challenges that we confront in the iyaworaje and also in our streets, schools, neighborhoods, workplaces, parks, and on city trains and buses, even when avoiding one another. Yes we will clash, we will experience conflicts, differences and strains yet we can also heal, make-up, reach common ground, and negotiate with that same magical creative energy.

LukumiArts was birthed by envisioning the power of Our Creative Process in leading us to social change via performances of our silenced stories, strongly rooted in our spirituality. As we push towards that vision in our educational and performance work, we are growing.

Since then we performed in She Be Hip Hop by Sage Morgan Hubbard, built an installation for Chicago's First Life is Living Festival, performed for HIV/AIDS awareness day hosted by La Casa de Don Pedro in Newark, for Latino Heritage Month at the Brooklyn School of Music, at Afro-Latin@ Institute reception and at the National Council of La Raza's Youth Summitt, and we've recorded a live-uncut rumba session with rumberos from all over NY. This year we launched Obini Odara, a series on Afro-Cuban women contributions to our community, and have been editing our first video collections which will share the legacy of our collective's spiritual elder, the late Andrés Chacón, an omo aña, babalorisha, palero and Abakua initiate who lived in Pogolotty, Cuba.

Now, many have begun to inquire about our work. What is it exactly that you do?

Steeped in communities of Yoruba religious musicians, practitioners, social justice advocates, hip-hop educators, theatre and performance artists, and all the very different, quirky spaces we embody, our vision is to create breathing, living work that bridges communities. This is the invisible natured work that defines not only what we do, but also who we are.

It's not about producing work frequently to show we are "busy", not about creating a product for our brand that everyone can jump on board with, not about dominating a segment of interest in Afro-Cuban or Afro-Diasporic arts, not about the commercialization that seems to be seeping into every aspect of our lives today. This is about collective healing, telling stories that wouldn't otherwise have a voice, creating collaborations and casts that wouldn't have otherwise shared the same space, embracing non-initiates of African descent to introduce a new sense of Afro-identity and culture. We are pushing for a space, and to spark a dialogue, an honest one.

Our process of storytelling and performance cannot be grassroots and organic without taking time to grow, to reflect and in the absence of a true commitment to supporting all of dope, dope arts, activist, healing, educating work out there. You all inspire us.

The patience to guide Our Creative Process to be as much about personal accountability and reflection I owe to my father, ibae bae tonu, who has recently transitioned to live with the ancestors, and my to crown, Maferefun Obatalá. They feed my art and creativity in divine ways, and there are so many stories to tell. The questions are: with who will we work and learn, how we will communicate the messages of our community, what gifts can we share that leave lasting memories for both our audiences and performers? As we struggle to build true solidarity through the miscommunications, divisions and hang-ups, our ancestors smile, shining that divine light on the less traveled path, so that we may be blessed to stumble, grow and blossom. Ashe.


Obini Odara Workshop Series

Obini Odara: Afro-Cuban Song and Dance Workshops

In recognizing Afro-Cuban arts and culture are increasingly growing and becoming more accessible to multicultural audiences in the U.S. Lukumi Arts has launched a dance workshop series this week (@Los Pleneros de la 21 Space, 1680 Lexington Ave. Rm.213 New York, NY) featuring Afro-Cuban women artists based in the U.S. After co-organizing workshops for Freila Merencio Blanco, we strongly advocate that Afro-Cuban performance promotes community values of unity, collaboration, understanding and acceptance pertinent to human existence. We acknowledge the cultural diversity in the Afro-Cuban arts community as a positive force, which reflects a community that upholds these values. Nevertheless this cultural process has also rendered problematic stereotyping, appropriation and power dynamics that often marginalize Afro-Cuban artists themselves as is typical throughout Afrodescendant arts communities. Our series, Obini Odara, features Cuban-born Afro-Cuban women dancers alongside an emerging generation of American-born women akpón singers of Cuban/Caribbean descent including veteran Rita Macias (dance), emerging vocalist/performer Yomaira Garcia (song) and Jadele McPherson (organizer/song). Our collective presence will further promote a sense of awareness, respect and appreciation of the contributions of women in Afro-Cuban arts not just historically, but also those made in the present. These women artists will be supported musically and by a student base that reflects the multicultural Afro-Cuban arts community still plagued by racism, sexism, homophobia and their intersections, which particularly marginalize women of African descent. Obini Odara is one of our positive, hopeful interjections to this contemporary silence which we will continue to address through our new projects for 2011-12.

Rita Macias, Master Afro-Cuban Dancer

Macias is a renown, veteran Afro-Cuban dancer, choreographer and teacher born and raised in Havana, Cuba. In Cuba Macías studied with Evelio Puerta de Aspirina and began her career in 1968 dancing with renown groups such as the Teatro Latinaoamericano of the Marti theatre, Grupo Pataki, Grupo Plaza de la Revolución, and the Afortunados. After relocating to New York with her family over 20 years ago she began her career as a dancer in New York becoming an integral part to a resurgence in Afro-Cuban arts in the 1980s joining the founding of Nueva Generación directed by the late Orlando “Puntilla” Rios, the Conjunto Afrocubano with Pedro Mollejón, and Raices Habaneras a group that received a Grammy nomination in 2003. She has also performed with Carambú (bomba y plena), Son de la Loma with Armando Sanchez, and Ochun Oba Yeye that toured for several years in Puerto Rico beginning in1983. She specializes in orisha and rumba Afro-Cuban styles and is one of the best Afro-Cuban female performers residing in the U.S.

Rita Macias Oyá