On Dec. 4, the sound of drumming and singing will fill the air across the Caribbean and Latin America, and in neighborhoods here in the States where there are practitioners of African diasporic religious traditions, often called “Santeria,” but more properly “La Regla de Ocha” or Lukumi. Because forbidden African religious and spiritual practices were masked behind Catholicism during enslavement, African deities were and are still celebrated on specific "saint's days." In the case of Dec. 4, that saint is Saint Barbara, who is the public face of Changó (or Shango or Sàngó), the Yoruba deity of fire and thunder, drums, and dance. This Catholic syncretism differs in Brazil, where Saint Barbara is syncretised with Iansã, the goddess of winds and storms.
I took a deep dive into the history and meanings of Changó back in 2011, in “¡Qué viva Changó!: West African deities in the Americas,” and have explored some of the music here in this series in “Afro-Latinas sing to the santos, the ancestors, and the culture.”
Join me today in listening to the rich music, singing, drumming, and viewing the accompanied dancing and celebrations for Changó. You don’t have to know Spanish or Yoruba to get into the groove!
”Black Music Sunday” is a weekly series highlighting all things Black music. With more than 180 stories covering performers, genres, history, and more, each featuring its own vibrant soundtrack. I hope you’ll find some familiar tunes and perhaps an introduction to something new.
Our first musical offering dates back to 1949 in Cuba, with the music of Celina and Reutilio. Robin Denselow wrote Celina González’s obituary for The Guardian in 2015:
Celina González, who has died in Havana aged 86, was revered as the finest exponent of Cuban country music. She was brought up listening to música campesina, the rural form of son, the Cuban fusion style in which rhythms brought to the island by African slaves were matched against Spanish verse forms and melodies. These were songs performed in farms and country towns during the sugar-cane harvest and other festivities, and González made them popular across the island and beyond. She was, she insisted, always a country girl at heart, even after she had moved to the capital.
González had a powerful voice and a versatile style, and was equally successful singing in a small acoustic group or in a big band, backed by brass and strings. She was also a highly successful songwriter, and her best-known composition, Santa Bárbara, which she wrote in the late 1940s, was a reminder of her belief in Santería, the religion brought to Cuba by West African slaves. It was a rousing tribute both to the Catholic saint whose life-size statue always had pride of place in her home, and to the Yoruba god Changó. It became massively popular across Cuba and was recorded by other major artists, including Celia Cruz.
Cuban American DJ, writer, historian, percussionist, and artist Pablo Yglesias wrote this backgrounder on Celina for Ansonia Records at Bandcamp, which tells Celina’s story of Chango’s divine intervention in her life:
According to Celina, one night the following year the Catholic Virgin of Santa Barbara appeared to her in a vision, a seminal event marking her destiny forever. Santa Bárbara is known in Cuba as being syncretized with the Yoruba orisha (deity) Changó, a great warrior king, “owner of fire, thunder, lightning and joyful drums.” In her visitation with Changó, the orisha assured Celina she would find artistic success if she dedicated a song of praise to Santa Bárbara/Changó; the rest, as they say, is history. A decade later Celina was officially initiated into Santería, the result being that the divination oracle of ifá deemed her a “daughter” of the orisha Yemayá (syncretized as the Virgin of Regla), mistress of the sea and everything that exists in it, where the deity Olokún lives in the deepest part of the ocean. Her guardian saint Yemayá/La Virgin de Regla would feature in several of Celina y Reutilio’s songs over the years, as would many other Yoruba gods.
The duo’s career advanced when they were discovered by fellow santiaguero Ñico Saquito (Benito Antonio Fernández Ortiz), the famous singer-songwriter and leader of Los Guaracheros de Oriente. He heard Celina and Reutilio performing on the Atalaya Campesina radio program of the Cadena Oriental de Radio station in Santiago de Cuba and felt they had a lot of potential. The pair traveled with Ñico to Havana where he not only helped them obtain gigs and radio performances but also taught them, in his own particular way, how to play the son, guaracha and guaguancó, styles that were more popular with urban audiences in the big city. Celina and Reutilio recorded many singles and several LPs for Havana labels Suaritos and Puchito as well as the New York-based labels Ansonia and Spanoramic, traveling several times to the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico and New York where they became popular. They also shared the stage with massively popular singers like like Benny Moré and Barbarito Díez and participated in the Cuban films Rincón Criollo and Bella la Salvaje with the likes of Blanquita Amaro, Celia Cruz, Olga & Tony and their original mentor, Ñico Saquito. Their reputation spread far and wide, and they became particularly beloved in Puerto Rico and South America.
This 1949 video of Celina and Reutilio singing “Que Viva Chango” is also an interesting look at the dance style of rhumba and the interplay of body language and footwork between the two dancers.
Here’s their 1956 release.
And then there is Celia Cruz, one of the most famous Latin artists of all time, and the Afro-Cuban chants that are her first known recordings:
In the late 1940s, Havana’s Panart Records released an elaborate set of three 78 RPM records under the title Toques de Santo. The recordings feature Alfredo Zayas’ vocal group Coro Yoruba, and Trinidad Torregrosa, Jesus Perez and Virgilio Ramírez, members of the brotherhood of musicians who played the sacred two-headed batá drums.
The lead vocalists on the album are Mercedes Valdés (best known as Merceditas Valdés) and Celia Cruz, two artists, as the liner notes explain, “whose renown as singers at toques [religious rituals] is known in Cuba, in Haiti, in Jamaica and beyond, wherever there is an Afro-creole group dedicated to ancestral ceremonies.”
These recordings — calls to the saints in the Afro-Cuban Lucumí language — are the first known studio recordings by Celia Cruz, the world-renowned “Queen of Salsa” and one of Latin music’s most revered female artists of all time. Cruz passed away 17 years ago Thursday (July 16) in her New Jersey home. “These recordings marked a milestone for both the career of Celia Cruz and for Cuban music,” says Cuban music writer and researcher Rosa Marquetti, a curator at Gladys Palmera Collection. The collection is located near Madrid, and possesses a rare copy of the set, recorded in 1947, several years before Cruz joined La Sonora Matancera. Cruz’s performances of the salutes to the orishas (Afro-Cuban deities) Changó and Babalú Ayé were first released as a single.
“They are the first recordings by Celia Cruz, and also, as far as we know, this was the first time ever that Afro-Cuban liturgical music was recorded,” Marquetti adds. “These drums were for religious ceremonies — remember that this is just about the second generation after slavery.”
The video notes (translated from Spanish) explain the meaning of this song:
In this African ceremonial song Celia Cruz pays tribute to "Changó", using the grammatical contraction of Kabiosile (KA Bi¨O sil-E) "CABO-E" which in the Lucumí language of the Yoruba Tribe of Nigeria, in Africa, means "Greeting to Changó".
Let us mention that Changó is the father of the Yoruba religion, he is the God of fire, of poetry, of virility, of lightning, of thunder, of strength, of dance, of violence, of inspiration, of the batá drums, of creativity, of fire. In short, it is the law.
He is identified in the syncretism of the Cuban santeros as "Santa Barbara", his colors are Red and White.
"Changó" appears in the credits of the Album "Santero" (Toques de Santo- Afro-Cuban Cult Music) of the Panart Recording Corp-2060 Label in Vinyl, LP Format, Published in the United States and vocalized by Celia Cruz and distributed by Ramsa Distributors, Inc. In this album also participating besides Celia, Mercedes Valdes, Bienvenido Leon, Facundo Rivero, Obdulio Morales y sus Black Chorus, Caridad Suarez, Mercedes Romay, Eugenio De La Rosa and Jesus Perez who was in charge of playing the Bata drums. I leave for your consideration this prayer that Celia Cruz makes to Changó.
Drums play a major role in Black music and as the owner of the drums, Chango is often referenced and paid homage to. In New York Latin Culture Magazine’s article, they note:
When Ismael Miranda sang with Larry Harlow’s orchestra in Abran Paso (Make Way, 1972)…
Abran paso ~ Make way
Cosa buena, abreme paso mamá ~ Good things, open to me
Que yo vengo bien caliente ~ I come hot and ready
con Santa Barbara a mi lado ~ with Saint Barbara at my side
con su cepa y con su espada ~ with her force and her sword
para aliviarle de todo mal ~ to relieve you of all evil
… he was singing in code that he comes with the power of Changó to heal. You can watch the young Miranda singing with the Orquesta Harlow in The Bronx in 1971, in Ismael Miranda Con La Fania Abran Paso Pelicula Our Latin Thing 1971 on YouTube.
In the English-speaking Caribbean, especially in Trinidad and Tobago, African traditional worship is often referred to as Spiritual Baptist, or Shango Baptist, or just Shango. The voice most associated with its music is that of Ella Andall. Caribbean Beat featured Andall in this story by Caroline Taylor:
Ella Andall never intended to be a professional singer or songwriter. She had every intention of pursuing a career in medicine. But she grew up in a family of artists—poets, singers, and musicians. She was raised on the sound of her mother’s and grandmother’s voices, the strums of her father’s cuatro, the Yoruba of Orisha prayers. And she always sang. “I have always listened to my own voice,” she says. “Because there is something that I wanted to feel, that I wanted to hear, I wanted to give…and I like the sound of my own voice!” [...]
Andall was born in Grenada—one dare not ask the date—and moved to Trinidad when she was eight or nine. She found Trinidad extremely different from Grenada. For the first time, she encountered a discomfort with “blackness”, and distrust of anything “too African”. But she had been raised in a home and a family that had inherited the West African traditions of her ancestors, and she studiously resisted any attempts to remove her from those traditions, even refusing to sing in school choirs where she would be made to sing differently.
Andall is an olorisha, or Orisha devotee. It is a way of life that celebrates the ancestors and the divine in nature, with various aspects and forces of the natural world represented in the Orisha, who are each a manifestation of God, or Olodumare. Two of Andall’s CDs—Oriki Ogun and Sango Baba Wa—comprise oriki, or praise songs, sung in Yoruba, to specific Orishas. Two more collections of oriki, in honour of Oshun and Eshu, are due out later this year. Many of the oriki have been passed down through the generations, while some are original compositions. When the Orisha are invoked through chanting and prayer, you can witness—or experience—the kind of manifestations which Andall’s performances are known to produce. You don’t even need to be an olorisha to experience a manifestation—the Orisha do not discriminate by creed, colour, or any other classification.
Here are two of her tributes to Shango:
For a look into Shango worship practice in Brooklyn and Trinidad, Swedish photographer and art historian Anna Ljung Grüner-Hegge has an amazing collection on her website:
The Shango project is the fruit of a four year collaboration between myself and a Shango-Baptists congregation practicing in Brooklyn, New York, as well as Laventille and Claxton Bay Trinidad during the 1990’s. They are Spiritual-Baptist but also worship the Yoruba Orisha, and therefore refer to themselves as Shango-Baptists or Shangoists.
Shifting to music here in the states, I can remember being 12 years old, living in Queens, New York, and begging my mom to put up money for me to take African dance lessons instead of ballet or tap. All my friends were listening to a new music phenomena—Babatunde Olatunji’s album “Drums of Passion.”
Babatunde Olatunji was a Grammy award winning virtuoso drummer, percussionist, producer, social activist, educator and recording artist who first rose to prominence in the late 1950's.
Born in Ajido, a small town in Badagry, near Lagos, the former capital of Nigeria, Baba was educated at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia after receiving a Rotary Scholarship to the school. At Morehouse, he began a small drum and dance company to dispel the misconceptions about Africa.
In 1957, while pursuing graduate studies at NYU, Baba began to play his drum at private functions. During this time he came to the attention of Columbia Records A&R man John Hammond, who eventually signed him to the label. In 1959 Baba released Drums of Passion, the first of six records on the Columbia label, which became a major hit, and sold millions of copies worldwide and served as the introduction for many Americans to World Music.
Early career milestones included residencies at Radio City Music Hall with a 66 piece orchestra, the World's Fair in New York City, in 1964 and 1965, and TV appearances on programs including the Tonight Show, the Mike Douglas Show and the Bell Telephone Hour.
The African Music Encyclopedia goes into more detail:
In 1954, after graduating from Atlanta’s Morehouse College with a degree in Diplomacy, Olatunji moved to New York to begin a Political Science postgraduate program in Public Administration at New York University. Throughout his American education he had a unique perspective on the cultural divides between black and white Americans. Early on he realized that music, drumming in particular, had the ability to break down the long-established cultural divisions within the "Melting Pot" that America was thought to be in those days. These sorts of insights were the motivating factor that brought Olatunji to begin performing the drumming of his Yoruba ancestors.
To cover his expenses he started a small drumming and dance group. Recognizing the influence of African polyrhythms in jazz, some of Olatunji's earliest fans were the jazz greats of the time; men like John Coltrane, Yusef Lateef, Clark Terry, George Duvivier, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones, Taj Mahal, Pete Seeger, Bill Lee (Spike Lee's father), and Dance luminary Alvin Ailey; not to mention the legendary noted Columbia A&R man John Hammond who produced Olatunji's first album. Even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., (also a Moorehouse graduate) invited Olatunji to tour with him.
In 1957 when Columbia Records producer John Hammond heard Olatunji performing at Radio City Music Hall with a 66-piece orchestra, he was so impressed that this fortuitous meeting led directly to the recording of Drums of Passion. Released in 1959 by Columbia Records, Olatunji's first album became an unprecedented, worldwide smash hit. It was the first album to bring genuine African music to Western ears, and it went on to sell over five million copies and is still a popular recording.
Here’s his drum tribute to Shango.
Anibal Lopez’s YouTube channel has a series of videos demonstrating the dances and ritual garb of the orishas. Here is Chango being performed (2014):
Music for the Orishas has created crossovers with the introduction of nontraditional instruments, like the sitar.
Ṣàngó, an audiovisual project with sitar, demonstrates a ritual dance where every movement has a purpose:
This audiovisual project is a Sitar version of the Rezo y Meta de Changó, a ritual dance associated and offered to the Yoruba Orisha (deity) Changó, the ruler of lightning and thunder. ...
In Cuba, around the 17th century, the syncretism between the traditional Yoruba religion of West Africa and the Catholicism gave birth to the Santeria. Slaves from West Africa that were brought to Cuba were banned from practicing their own religion, so they disguised their Gods as Catholic figures and continued to pray to them as they pleased. Santeria ceremonies (or toque de santos) are popular in Cuba, and these usually include dancing, chanting, and drumming. The fest day for Changó is December 4th.
It is known that transculturation, ethnoconvergence, and multiculturalism have impacted Cuban culture since the arrival of Colon to the Island. One of the most vivid examples is the use of the Chinese suona (corneta china) in the conga carnival music of Santiago de Cuba since 1915… So, the idea of playing a ritual Afro Cuban music with an Indian Sitar may be seen as a natural or inherent response for a Cuban musician to his/ her necessity to create and communicate.
Besides that, this audiovisual project is a tribute to the Afro Cuban music, the music of Cuba, the island where the word “transculturation” was coined, and where the fusion and syncretism played an important role giving shape to its religion, music, and culture.
I’ll close with this exquisite piece from pianist Jamael Dean on his album “Primordial Waters,” which was released last year. It includes vocals from Sharada Shashidhar
Join me in the comments section below for more music and dance.