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Thursday
Feb182016

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.

 

Ashe.

©Jadele McPherson.

Founder, Lukumi Arts

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