The Yoruba slaves, brought to Cuba during the latter end of the 18th century, recreated many forms of life, traditions and customs in this part of the New World just as they had been observed previously on the African continent. One of the most important cultural aspects that these slaves brought was that of the religious system of the Orishas, professed in Africa by the Yorubas people. The results of these re-establishments were never completely equal to their African counterparts; subsequently, in time a different religion brought itself to light in Cuba called Santería. The new name does create the illusion that it pertains to the saints of the catholic religion professed by the Spaniards that conquered, colonized and populated Cuba after the discovery of the New World by the Europeans.

Orishas, Dance, and Musical Instruments

In Santería, practitioners revered the same African gods or orishas—which includes Babalú Ayé or San Lazarus which are not Yoruban deities but rather Dahomeyanan (Ed. note: Dahomeyana is a kingdom in western Africa that flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries in the region that is now southern Benin). But, as opposed to what occurs in Africa, each African God is also identified with a catholic saint that parallels in significance. The original intention of the African slave was to disguise before their masters the devotion to the Orishas; however, this began the deep process of syncretism among both religions (an African and the other European) that gave birth to Santería. It’s also rather surprising that this new religion was steeped in Cuban philosophical elements, forms of devotion, establishments of hierarchies and social relations that had their lineage placed indistinctly in the two continents indicated above. This fact allowed, as time passed, that not only the descendants of Europeans but also Africans (and the sum of both is greater than the population of Cuba) could easily participate, if they so wished, in this new religion.

Nevertheless, the artistic forms of Santería, specifically the music and dances that it joined, preserved the customs and esthetic attitudes of the Africans. For example, in spite of the fact that the Spanish language is used for the worship services, the songs utilized in Santería are still sung today in the Yoruba language. Likewise the music consists of the mixed song form of a soloist that alternates between a chorus under the structural principle of “call” (soloist) and “response” (chorus). The accompaniment of these songs is often carried out with different ensembles of drums where the concept of a rhythmic guide organizes the musical structure. Here the harmony, that is the primary organizational concept for European music, remains completely out of the artistic execution.

The dance is carried out for individual dancers, or groups that form a diverse choreography utilizing predominantly lines and circles from the African dance form. It remains completely devoid of the couple-style dance from the European style. Traditionally, in Santería, there are three overall instrumental types that are used for three different types of activities:

The batá drums used for the ceremonies of greater religious importance.

The gourds or abgües used for not so important activities of the worship.

The bembé drums, today substituted by the Cuban conga drums (or simply congas), used for the secular activities linked to the religion.

The facts that led Santería to be considered a religion pertain to very diverse stratagems of the Cuban population that permitted their artistic forms, of evident African ancestry, to be transmitted to individuals whose customs and preferences were very different—therefore they were found closer to those of the Europeans. This process of Africanization that occured in Cuba (that of course does not remain geographically inside the African continent) permitted the incorporation of born esthetic behaviors from Africa to intermix with artistic forms that are clearly Cuban. In this process Santería played a fundamental role, however, similarities occur with other Afro-Cuban religions like the “Regla de Palo” (or, Rule of stick) that is of Bantu ancestry.

The artistic forms of the ancestors, above all their music and their dances, have nourished and still nourish a good part of the professional music of Cuba today. So much so that it is known as Cuban popular music on par with the classical music or concert music created in the country. Not few attitudes and esthetic behaviors that characterize today the Cuban individual were born in the framework of this religion and many of their symbols of identity have passed also to be constituted as symbols of identity for Cuba in general.

Essentials of Cuban Hand Percussion

Cuban Masters Series - Cuban Tres