The Yoruba Orisha tradition comes to New York City
African American Review, Summer, 1995 by Marta Moreno Vega
The work of Katherine Dunham, Zora Neale Hurston, and Pearl Primus - building on the research of Melville Herskovits and W. E. B. Du Bois - introduced an intellectual perspective of the African Diaspora into the arts. These artists worked studiously to incorporate an international racial and cultural legacy into an African-based aesthetic which could serve as a unifying link for Africans in the Diaspora. Dunham, for example, insisted that the members of her dance company understand the cultural traditions of creative expression in their respective countries, and her school at 43rd and Broadway nurtured developing and accomplished artists who embraced the African Diaspora in their creative expression. "Our school," writes Dunham in an unpublished autobiography,
became the popular meeting place of Caribbean, Central and South American diplomats, painters, musicians, poets and the like. At our monthly "Boule Blanches" we usually presented new and untried Cuban orchestras such as Perez Prado, Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria and Bobby Capo. Cuban Julio Iglesias toured with us for a couple of seasons. Celia Cruz came to these affairs both as a guest and entertainer. Among our regular participants and followers were Helen Hayes and her daughter, Lena Home, Xavier Cougat and many others. (2)
Dunham's work with the Maroons of Jamaica and with traditional African communities in Haiti, along with research in Cuba, Martinique, and Senegal - among other locations - filled the productions she staged for international audiences with images, symbols, music, dance, instruments, and ritual practice of the African Diaspora. But Cuba held a special attraction for her.
On Dunham's first trip there, in 1938, she met the families of the drummers Julio and LaRosa, and performed rituals that they had been unable to accomplish in New York City. And to maintain an African Diaspora focus in her dance company, she incorporated the expertise of researchers like Fernando Ortiz and Lydia Cabrera; the writing of Afro-Cuban poet Nicolas Guillen; and the music of the composer Lecona in her productions. "Cuban music and ritual," she writes, "were inextricably interwoven into my life - both personal and professional."(1)
When Dunham could not find drummers for her company in 1952, she returned to Cuba and recruited Julito Collazo and Francisco Aguabella, renowned percussionists in the Latino, jazz, and popular music communities who had been trained in the Orisha tradition.(2) Julito Collazo would become one of the pioneer members of a small group of Yoruba traditional practitioners who were instrumental in establishing Orisha worship in New York City. He settled in New York in 1955 when Dunham's touring company ran out of engagements,(3) and along with Francisco Aguabella, he performed the songs, dances, and music of Afro-Cuban traditions and spread these traditions to international audiences.
In 1955, there were approximately twenty-five people in New York City who were believers in the Orisha tradition (Collazo interview). The founding member of the Orisha tradition in New York City was Babalawo Pancho Mora (Yoruba name, Ifa Morote), who arrived in New York in 1946 and, soon after, established the "first ile, or house of the orishas" there (Murphy 50). Mora had been initiated as a high priest of Ifa in Cuba on January 27, 1944, by Babalawo Quintin Lecon, a renowned Cuban Ifa priest, and was the first babalawo in New York to practice Ifa divination (Murphy 49-50).
Mora's belief in this ancient tradition and his desire to maintain his belief system motivated him to found the first Orisha community in the city. From his pioneering work, the tradition has grown to include thousands of initiates from all walks of life and ethnic groups. He has initiated several thousand godchildren from varied professions and international backgrounds, and has traveled extensively to Latin America and nationally to perform rituals and spread the practice of Santeria (Mora interview).
On December 4, 1955, Francisco Aguabella and Julito Collazo attended their first Santeria ritual in New York, a celebration to Chango (Santa Barbara) by santero Willie, also known as "El Bolitero" ('the numbers runner'), an Afro-Puerto Rican initiated in Cuba by Pancho Mora's sister. Aguabella and Collazo found out about the ceremony, which took place at 111th Street and St. Nicolas Avenue in Harlem, at the world-famous Palladium night club, where many Latin musicians gathered and played.(4)
After observing for a time the ceremony at the home of Willie "El Bolitero," Collazo and Aguabella joined in the singing. They attracted much attention, since few people at the time knew the Yoruba chants to the orishas. As the son of the renowned santera Ebelia Collazo del barrio San Miguel in Cuba, Julito Collazo had grown up in the Orisha religion and learned the intricacies of this African-based tradition (Collazo interview).(5) At the age of fifteen, he was accepted into a neighborhood bata drum group and began his professional career. Simultaneously, Julito became more involved with other Afro-Cuban religions and increased his knowledge of the philosophies and rituals of each sect. Under the guidance of the renowned traditional bata drummer Pablo Roche of Cuba(6) and of master traditional drummers Raul Diaz, Trinidad Torregrosa, Nicholas Angarica, and Miguel Somodeville, Julito Collazo became omo Anya, initiated in the secret knowledge of the Orisha Anya, owner of the drum.
The Yoruba community between 1955 and 1959 included important figures in the entertainment field who helped promote the songs and music of the Santeria tradition. The presence of Cuban musicians like Frank "Machito" Grillo and Mario Bauza, founder of the Afro-Cubans Orchestra, influenced Afro-American jazz as well as Latin music. Bauza's introduction of master Afro-Cuban drummer Chano Pozo to Dizzy Gillespie, and the incorporation of Chano Pozo - an initiate of Afro-Cuban religions - into Dizzy's orchestra, opened new musical horizons in African American jazz.
The continued collaboration among Chano Pozo, Mario Bauza, and Dizzy Gillespie further served to popularize traditional Afro-Cuban music. Gillespie continued throughout his career to incorporate the music of Santeria, the rhythms of Abakua rituals (nanigos), Kongo music, and others, because of his close association with these Cuban musicians. Together, they developed "Cubop," the integration of two African-based musical styles:
Chano taught us all multirhythm; we learned from the master . . . . He'd teach us some of those Cuban chants and things like that . . . . You have different ones, the Nanigo, the Arrara, the Santo (music to the Yoruba Orisha) and several others, and they each have their own rhythm . . . . They're all of African derivation. (Gillespie 319)
The percussionists Patato Valdez, Candido, and Mongo Santamaria were also very influential, and the affinity of the Puerto Rican musicians culturally and musically with Afro-Cuban music and musicians established a strong bridge of exchange. Tito Puente, the internationally known Puerto Rican musician, left the Afro-Cubans Orchestra during this period to establish the Tito Puente Orchestra. The circle of musicians that were part of his group included Puerto Ricans Willie Bobo and Ray Barretto, and Cuban Vincentico Valdez. Although few of the Cuban musicians were initiated (Collazo interview), they were surrounded by Santeria practice in Cuba, and so they brought the philosophy, belief system, and rituals with them to New York City. The passing on of these traditions to Puerto Ricans during the early days of Santeria practice in New York City was critical to its growth. In fact, the first initiates in New York City were Puerto Ricans. The similarity of languages, histories, geographic location in the Caribbean, and racial and cultural expressions provided the basis for easy communication and exchange.
The center of Orisha activity was located on the Upper West Side, where most of the Afro-Cuban and Afro-Puerto Rican community resided. The Rendezvous Bar at Lenox Avenue between 113th and 114th Street, where stowaways from Cuba "hung out," and the beauty parlor of Illuminada at 110th Street and Madison were popular meeting places among Orisha believers. The concentration of Latinos in these areas enhanced the familiarity between the two cultural groups and nurtured the growth of the Orisha belief system.(7)
In 1956, the Afro-Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaria organized the first public performance of Orisha music and dance at the Palladium night club, in tribute to the Yoruba Orisha Chango. Julito Collazo performed songs and dances for the Orisha Chango and made a broad audience aware of this ancient African belief system.(8)
The music of Santeria continued to receive popular exposure when Tito Puente asked Julito Collazo to participate in recordings of his orchestra. These recordings introduced Yoruba chants for the first time in contemporary commercial recordings in New York City. Latin Percussions, one of Tito Puente's classic albums is considered the first commercial recording of Santeria music (Collazo interview).
Another traditional leader who advanced Yoruba tradition in New York City was Cuban-born Mercedes Nobles (Yoruba name, Oban Yoko), who traveled to New York in 1952. Yoko's mother was eight years old when her Afro-American grandparents moved to Cuba during World War I. In 1958, Yoko returned to Cuba and was initiated into the Yoruba tradition on March 9 as a priestess of Chango. Julito Collazo played for her first cumpleano de Santo, her Orisha birthday celebration, on March 9, 1959 (Collazo interview).
During the late '50s, as the Orisha community expanded in New York City, believers would return to Cuba to perform initiations. In 1961, Oban Yoko, with the consent of her Orisha, performed the first initiation of Orisha ('mounting of the Orisha,' or hacer Santo) on the head of Julia Franco, at 610 W. 136th Street in Manhattan. Yoko went on to establish a casa de Santo ('House of Orisha') in New York City. When I interviewed her in 1981, she had initiated thirty-two people into the Orisha tradition, and as the first santera to initiate a recognized Orisha godchild in New York City, she established precedents for performing initiation ceremonies there. The reaction to this pioneering move was much criticized (Collazo, Scull). However, Oban Yoko's pioneering spirit gave Orisha a permanent home in New York, and the presence of Babalowos Pancho Mora and Bebo sanctioned this first step in initiating devotees in New York City. Not only did Yoko's courageous and pioneering action validate New York City initiations, but local initiation allowed people who could not afford to travel to Cuba to become recognized members of the Orisha community.
The influx of Cubans escaping the Cuban Revolution of 1959 further accelerated the belief in the Orisha tradition in New York City, as Joseph Murphy points out:
Since the Cuban revolution of their 1959, the United States has seen a reinfusion of Africanity into its melting pot. Thousands of santeros have come as exiles, bringing the orishas to America again. This has meant a second, if less brutal, transplantation and a second acculturation of Yoruba religion. This time an entirely new set of ethnohistorical factors has come into play as santeros acquire North American culture and Americans feel the impact of santeria. (115)
The growing community of Latinos, the establishment of botanicas, where ritual products could be sold, and the creation of Latino neighborhoods served to facilitate the practice of the religion, and as a consequence the presence of Orisha became increasingly public in the Latino community. The handful of practitioners in New York City in the early 1950s were joined by several thousand others by 1964, the year Pancho Mora held a public drum ceremony that attracted three thousand people, including Latin music stars Julio Collazo and Machito (Murphy 50). During the 1960s, Mongo Santamaria also held public celebrations to the Orisha Chango in Latino teatros.
During this period, re-creations of Cuban bata and conga drums were used. The first bata de fundamento was brought to New York City from Cuba in 1979.(10) These drums were ritually prepared, given voice (dar le voz al tambor) by Papo Angarica in Cuba, a babalawo, omo Anya, musician, son of a famous santero, oriyate, and historian. Sacred drums receive the same ritual birth as people: Just as initiates are born from believers - thus maintaining and extending ritual family ties through the community - the drum is born from another sacred drum, thus establishing historical and traditional linkages.
Since there were no sacred drums in the U.S. before Ornelio Scull acquired his, it was not possible to "give birth" to sacred drums developed in New York City. Now various sets of sacred bata drums exist outside Cuba. One set belongs to Orlando "Puntilla Rios," omo Chango, omo Anya, who came to the United States during the Mariel Boatlift in 1981. He is one of the most influential ritual drummers and performers of the Afro-Cuban Yoruba tradition in New York City. Once he established himself in the Orisha community, he had a set of sacred bata drums consecrated. Another set belongs to Puerto Rican percussionist and omo Anya, Louis Bauzo, who, as a traditional musician and leader of a traditional dance company, has helped promulgate the Orisha tradition.
The first African Americans to initiate into the Yoruba belief system were Oba Sergiman and Christopher Oliana in 1959. Already versed and initiated into the Haitian system of Vodun, they sought to expand their spiritual knowledge and cultural centeredness. Pursuing Black Power strategies to empower the African American community, Oba Sergiman opened the first African American temple in West Harlem devoted to the loas (divinities of Dahomey) of West Africa and Haiti and the orishas of Cuba (originally of Yorubaland West Africa).(11) He notes that his pride in the reclamation of Africa as part of the African American experience came with much struggle.
African Americans and Cuban Americans had to confront cultural barriers and racist attitudes before the orishas could encompass both communities. The participation of the African American community in Yoruba traditions increased Orisha exposure, but publicity made the Cuban traditional community uneasy, since many of its members were illegal aliens trying to maintain a low profile. The images of Catholic saints in Cuban/Puerto Rican Yoruba practice created another point of conflict between Latinos and African Americans, who wished to remove all images of Western European oppression from the tradition. These issues motivated African Americans to look increasingly towards Nigeria for their development in the Orisha traditional belief system.
African Americans actively sought to incorporate the orishas of Cuba and 1oas of Haiti into the Black Power Revolution as a means of confronting the division between the African American and Latino communities. The inclusive vision of santeras Asunta Serrano, Mercedes Nobels, Juana Manrique, along with Babalawo Pancho Mora, helped embrace African American initiates. In the Harlem community, African Americans discovered the gods of Africa at their back doors. The Cuban and Puerto Rican communities had brought and preserved the orishas and made them available to the African American community. The work of anthropologists and artists like Zora Neale Hurston, Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, Percival Borde, W. E. B. Du Bois, and others had provided culturally grounded principles which guided the thinking, work, and practice of cultural activities of the late sixties and seventies. And Black Arts activists, in turn, incorporated the symbols, languages, images, rhythms, songs, and dress that connected our Diaspora experiences to our root cultures. The work of Puerto Rican visual artist Jorge Soto incorporated the symbols of Orisha Chango, the thunder-god. The work of African American artists Amiri Baraka, Larry Neal, and Barbara Ann Teer reflected the understanding of Yoruba philosophy and practice. The works of cultural nationalists connected political struggle to cultural expansion, providing creative expressions directly connected to our historical legacies and continuity.
1. Dunham adds, "I am definitely Yemanja. She is my guide and my mother, unless I happen to be involved in Buddhist research. Fortunately, there is not conflict between Yemanja sent out to sea in her gift-laden barque on the shores of Corcavado in Brazil, or a river whose name I do not know in Ibadan, Nigeria, or a leaky, Haitian boat sent out to sea, hardly seaworthy, with a time-worn Yemanja lying on the prow on her sequine-covered bedspread, or on my balcony at Leclerc in Haiti, or right here on my small altar in East St. Louis, Illinois. Frankly, I feel as much Cuban as anything else" (Durham 3).
2. All of the leading performers who have been instrumental in the promulgation of Orisha tradition were part of the cultural aesthetic movement nurtured by Katherine Dunham. Before they became major performing artists in the Latino community, Mongo Santamaria, Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, Perez Prado, Julito Collazo, and Francisco Aguabella all exchanged information and ideas in the nurturing environment Dunham established. The interrelationship of the cultural experiences of the African American and African Latino communities dates to the mid-thirties, and the music of Tito Puente, Celia Cruz with La Sonora Matancera, and Celina would educate New York audiences in the songs and celebratory messages and practices of the Orisha tradition of Cuba.
3. In Cuba, December 4 is the feast date of Chano, and of Santa Barbara, the catholic saint, who is used as a camouflage for the African Orisha Shango.
4. Conga drums were played at the ceremony in 1955 by the Afro-Cuban musician Arsenio Rodriquez, who came to New York City around 1949, and his brother Kiki, who was initiated with the Orisha Ogun in Cuba, before coming to New York City (Collazo interview). During this period, the sacred bata drums used in Yoruba ceremonies had not been introduced to New York City. The toques (drum ceremonies) were played with conga drums solely. Collazo's account differs from Robert Farris Thompson's statement: "Julito Collazo and Francisco Aguabella brought bata to the United States in 1955" (170). Actually they brought their skill in playing the bata drums and their knowledge of toques. Omelio Scull introduced the first set of Cuban fundamento drums to New York City. The first set of sacred bata drums arrived in New York City in 1979 (Scull interview). When Collazo first started playing toques, he played solo with conga drums and sang simple Yoruba chants, so that people could follow the call and response necessary in ceremonies that provide the energy to call the orishas to earth to manifest themselves.
5. Collazo's mother had been initiated in Cuba by an African named Dominga Latuan.
6. Pablo Roche was a major informant for anthropologist Fernando Ortiz in his research documenting African traditions in Cuba.
7. In the early sixties, the courts became aware of the practice of Orisha: A santero accused of manslaughter killed a chicken in court before the judge who was to decide his sentence, and the judge became so irate that he had the santero deported to Cuba. In Cuba, the santero was freed, since the laws of the United States did not apply to Cuba. The man is still living there (Collazo interview).
8. Robert Farris Thompson says that the first time he saw Julito Collazo perform for the orishas was at the Palladium night club during the Chango presentation. They were formally introduced by the orchestra leader of the Afro-Cubans, Frank "Machito" Grillo, child of the Orisha Chango.
9. Ornelio Scull also participated in this first initiation lavando Elegua and Obatala ('washing the Orishas Elogua and Obatala'). This is part of the Orisha ritual of initiation and rebirth into the Yoruba belief system.
10. According to Ornelia Scull, Olu Anya de Oba De'e (a Yoruba name indicating ownership and name of the sacred bata drum set), a master traditional drummer, bought the drum to New York City.
11. In a presentation to the Caribbean Cultural Center in New York City, Oba Sergiman recognized the need to connect the Black activist movement to a culturally grounded philosophy and lifestyle. He identified a division within the Black Power Movement between political activists and cultural activists. Sergiman's cultural activism led him to develop the first temple in West Harlem and later to establish Oyotungi Village, a Yoruba community in South Carolina.
Gillespie, Dizzy, with Al Fraser. To Be, or Not . . . to Bop. Garden City: Doubleday, 1979.
Dunham, Katherine. Autobiography-in-progress.
Murphy, Joseph M. Santeria: An African Religion in America. Boston: Beacon, 1988.
Thompson, Robert Farris. Faces of the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African Americas. New York: Museum for American Art, 1993.
Collazo, Julito. Telephone interview. Feb. 1995.
Mora, Pancho. Personal interview. New York, May 1981.
Scull, Ornelio. Personal interview. Puerto Rico, Mar. 1994.
Sergiman, Oba. "History of the Orisha Tradition in New York City." Caribbean Cultural Center, New York, Feb. 1994.
Yoko, Oban. Personal interview. New York, May 1981.
Marta Moreno Vega directs the Caribbean Cultural Center in New York City. She recently received her Ph.D. from Temple University in Philadelphia and developed this article from her dissertation on Yoruba philosophy.
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