The Orishas of London: New Encounters through Music and Spirituality

It was a warm early October Saturday. We were celebrating the day of the Orisha Orula, the master diviner of the Santería (also known as Yoruba or Lucumí) tradition in the house of Pablo, a babalao based in North London. Babalaos, patroned by Orula, are the high priests of Santería, an Afro-Cuban system of beliefs and practices which developed through the syncretisation of African spirituality and Catholicism. It entails a worship of the Orishas, the perceivable forms of the spirits sent by the supreme creator Olodumare at the dawn of time and tasked to guide human beings throughout life. Rituals and ceremonies play a central part in Santería. The first initiation into the tradition is performed by a babalao during an identification ceremony, which determines the guiding Orisha of the aspirant (who is their Orisha parent), and the babalao becomes the padrino (godfather) of the new entrant. A subsequent, and one of the most important ceremonies in Santería, is that of crowning the aspirant with their guiding Orisha. It is led by a santero or santera, who become the godparent of the aspirant, acting as a spiritual and religious guide into the practices of Santería to the newly crowned santero or santera

I was invited to join the güiro (a celebration in honour of an Orisha, in this case of Orula) by Gerardo De Armas Sarria, a U.K. based Cuban percussionist with whom I have been studying and playing Afro-Cuban rhythms. As we entered the house we swiftly joined the cleansing ceremony which Pablo was performing in his garden, ridding participants of bad energies. We then moved to the sitting room where we asked for blessings by making offerings of wine, rum, coconuts or cash at Orula’s altar built specifically for the celebration. Pablo was dressed in the traditional attire of a babalao, later changing into white clothes typical for Santería celebrations. 

Cubans and foreigners kept joining the güiro throughout the evening, many dressed in white and some wearing the symbols of new initiates. Pablo was educating everyone on the protocol of the ceremony, whether Cuban or foreign, initiated or unfamiliar with the religion, including a number of African guests who wholeheartedly joined in the celebrations. Pablo’s wife and one of his goddaughters danced ecstatically to the songs played for their crowned Orishas, entering brief states of trance; however, without the full possession of the spirit of the Orisha, which usually happens at events in Cuba. Dancers were prostrating themselves in front of or touching their forehead to the head of the conga while it was played, paying their respect to the spirit of the drums and the celebratory music in praise of the different Orishas. Everyone was dancing and singing regardless of their age, nationality, ethnicity, gender, whether they knew the lyrics of the chants or were learning them as the song went on. 

The atmosphere transported me to the güiros and tambores I have attended in Havana. The music, singing, dancing, energy, drink, food, and constant inflow of guests immersing themselves in the celebration. Yet, I was in London surrounded by a group of people from various countries of origin, professions, social and ethnic backgrounds. I could not help but notice the keen manner in which African guests were participating in the dancing and learning from Pablo about the protocols of Santería. The roots of the tradition are from West Africa, having relocated to the Caribbean as a result of the Transatlantic slave trade, being partially transformed through syncretisation with Catholicism, having come to London through the recent increased number of Cuban migrants to the U.K., to meet recipients from the homeland of what is present-day Nigeria, Benin and Congo. These trajectories of displaced and multifaceted cultural, religious and musical movements across three continents now form significant parts of a globalised diaspora re-discovering its roots through interactions with other parts of its diaspora. Learning through displaced memory, movement and syncretisation in cosmopolitan locations such as London, which attract movement from all parts of the world regardless of historical, colonial, linguistic or other connections, creates new types of diasporic consciousness. It forms part of the processes of decolonisation of the mind through shifting roles in the formation of diverse participatory communities organised on the basis of music, culture and spirituality. 

The performers included Gerardo and Hammadi (a London-based classically trained Cuban musician) alternating between conga and shekere, and three of Gerardo’s students on campana, catà and backing vocals, including an Italian anthropology student called Federica, a British-Indian drummer called Thulsi and I. Gerardo is a full initiate into Santeria, Hammadi and I have the identification initiations, and Federica studied the tradition in Cuba. On the other hand, Thulsi has limited knowledge and experience of the underpinning principles and practices of Santería, even though she is a regular player of Yoruba rhythms and attends numerous ceremonies as a performer. Dissociation of the music from its cultural and religious roots unravels a further relocation of knowledge from the traditional domain of the sacred and exclusive to a broader and less restrictive base of practitioners in terms of gender and ethnicity. The study of Santería music and chants in London is passed on in the traditional oral manner, creating a community of practitioners and participants purely based on music and experiencing the spirit of Afro-Cuban culture.   

Later on in the evening Pablo took me to a room in his house purely dedicated to his work asbabalao. It had a richly decorated altar for all Orishas, in the same manner babalaos and santeros in Cuba have in their homes. Unlike Cubans on the island, however, most Londoners would use any space they have in their homes for storage, living or to rent out. Pablo had sacrificed a certain form of income or comfort for his spiritual pursuits and work as babalao, building a community based solely on shared spiritual and religious pursuits regardless of the nationality, ethnicity or any other denominations of the participants. The two communities, one based on spirituality and the other on music, intersected and interacted through singing, dancing and participation in the religious rites in celebration of Orula, establishing new forms of transculturation. In this physical and immaterial space where cultures were merging and converging, Pablo persevered in his mission as a babalao to uphold and guide into the principles of Santería, and Gerardo in his dedication as a ceremonial musician to bring the spirit of the Orishas to life through music. 

Altar to Orula, London, October 2019


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