Milton Cardona | Bembé | American Clavé

A recording of the songs and rhythms of ten Orishas (Deities) of Santeria in New York.

american clavé 1004

Produced by Kip Hanrahan. Executive producer Scott Marcus. Engineered by Jon Fausty. Recorded August 26-27, mixed September 5-6,1985 at Sound Ideas Studio, New York. Mastered by Ted Jensen at Sterling Sound, New York. Photography by Spencer Ashton Richards. Design by Capoeira Graphics

The Eya Arania facilitates communication between the Orishas (Gods) and the devotees. This is done through a series of chants for each Orisha, led by an Akpwon (singer) and Ankori (chorus) in a call and response pattern while the bata (three different sized, double-headed, hourglass shaped drums) play corresponding rhythms.

The Eya Aranla Ensemble: Akpwon (Leader): Milton Cardona (lead singer, Atchere, Chekere, lya on “Salute To Elegua”) Bata (Drummers): Hector “Place” Hernandez (lya, Chekere), Steve Berrios (Itotele. Chekere), Jose Fernandez (Okonkolo, Chekere) Ankori (Chorus): Sandra “Fela” Wiles, YomiYomi Awolowo, Carole Awolowo, Paulette “Nirvana” Buckley, Amma Oforiwaa Agyapon, Denise Ola Dejean, Linda Evans, Amma Dawn, Teresa Gomez

Tracklist: 1. Salute to ELEGUA (La LuBanche) [1:09]  2. ELEGUA God of the Crossroads, all rituals are begun by invoking Elegua (Echu). He is a restless God, and can cause much annoyance to mortals. He is known to punish those who do not respect him. [3:55] 3. OGUN The God of all things iron and mineral, and the God of War. [3:04] 4. OCHOSI The God of the Hunt, symbolized by the bow and arrow. [2:27] 5. EBIOSO A Dahomean chant for Ochosi, also known as Ebioso. [2:29] 6. BABALU AYE The God of Illnesses who in his time contracted leprosy. As an old man on crutches he became a seer who could look into the future. [3:53] 7. OBATALA Depicted as a bisexual deity depending on the occasion, Obatala is considered the “Creator of the World.” Among the Afro-Cubans, the female counterpart is the personification of all things feminine, maternal, and creative. [4:29] 8. CHANGO The God of Virility and Strength, also of Thunder and Lightning. He is representative of unbridled sexuality. There is no deity more vehement or energetic. [5:13] 9. YEMAYA Also known as Yalode, she is the Queen of the Seas, the Goddess of Motherhood. [5:52] 10. OCHUN Also known as Panchagara, she is the Goddess of Love and Lust. She is depicted as being attractive, sensuous, witty, and wicked. She is the Goddess of Rivers, Lagoons, and Gold and represents all things sweet and beautiful. [4:12] 11. ODUDUA Odudua is the oldest of all the Obatalas. [2:32] 12. ELEGUA (Closing) [2:02]

milton cardona | bembé | american clavé

Lucumi and Santeria

A form of musico-religious expression of Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and Blacks in New York, derived from beliefs and practices of the Yoruba people of Nigeria and Dahomey in West Africa. These beliefs were brought to the New World as a result of the Slave Trade. From voluntary organizations, known in Cuba as “Cabildos,”the Yoruba derived Lucumi, and other religious and secret societies of African origins emerged. Lucumi beliefs are characterized by complex relationships among the forces of nature, the pantheon of “Orishas,” concepts about the creation of the world and humanity. The framework for these beliefs is centered in a system of divination known as Ifa.

Syncretism between Catholicism and African beliefs resulted in certain superficial changes in Lucumi, but despite such changes, adherents made attempts to maintain close identification with Yoruba practices by using the Yoruba tongue in religious contexts and by observing the function of the “Orishas,” as well as musical practices, and other aspects of their world views.

The migration of Cubans to New York City led to establishing religious centers in New York and membership now includes Black and White North Americans, as well as Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and other Latino groups. Yoruba is a tone language and a word can have several meanings.

Special thanks to Kip Hanrahan, Nancy Hanrahan, Andy Caploe, Jon Fausty, group members, and most of all, my wife, Bruni Cardona. — Milton Cardona


milton cardona | bembé | american clavé

Walk up Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan

and you’ll see mom-and-pop Latin grocery stores, bodegas, hanging on against the rapid escalation of rents and the onslaught of trendy boutiques and yuppie cuisine. You’ll also see storefronts called botanicas that look like old fashioned sundry shops except for their inventory of traditional religious paraphernalia and merchandise pertaining to the occult. Actually these botanicas are just what their name announces: botanical shops where herbs and potions are dispensed, along with religious objects — mostly Catholic statuettes — used in the religious practice called “the veneration of saints,” Santeria. Unless you know something of Spanish Caribbean culture and its survival and growth in the United States, you may conclude from a quick glance at a botanica window that this Santeria is nothing but traditional Catholic folklore somehow made more lurid — all that cheap red and gold paint — in its Afro-Hispanic manifestations. What you are seeing,however disguis’ed as tawdry saints, are the Gods in exile.

The slave trade brought manpower to the Americas. And, though no one planned on it, the slave trade brought culture. To the Spanish Caribbean, African culture travelled particularly well. But to survive, African culture learned, centuries early, the lesson of the Western modernists: along with exile you need silence and cunning. Slyly, the slave covered his tracks, calling his deities by the names of the masters’ establishment Church: We are praising your saints, ours now, master, and our drums, our primitive drums, are to us like your church organs, and our language, our lucumi, is like your Latin. A syncretic religion.the whites called it, and still do, a fusion of African and Catholic beliefs. Wrong. There was no syncresis. A thin film of Catholic lore was spread over a deep pool of ancient and powerful knowledge from the Yoruba and other West African peoples.

Santeria spread. Cuba was a particularly fertile soil for New World African culture. The mulatto children of slaves and whites, and even whites themselves, joined the slaves in embracing the religion. With the massive exile that followed the Cuban revolution of 1959, Santeria moved to the United States, taking hold among other Latins, among American blacks searching for their African roots, and among whites looking for spiritual alternatives to established Western beliefs.

As in the Christian churches, music plays a key role in Santeria. And those drums are really like church organs; they articulate complex melodies loaded with meaning. Where the untutored Western ear hears beats, mere rhythm, the Santero hears song. The traditional ceremony, like the one reproduced on this disc, is played on a trio of double-headed drums called Bata. The biggest, and therefore, deepest, leads. It’s the lya, or mother, who sustains a dialog with the middle-sized Itotole, while the smallest, highest-pitched bata, the Okonkolo, marks the beat.

Like a Catholic Mass, a Santeria ceremony follows a strict order. Each pattern is called a toque (from the Spanish verb for “touch” and “play”) and though one can think of a toque as a rhythm or beat, perhaps it should be translated as a “call.” Like the drums themselves, the toques are sacred, a holy language for addressing the deities and beckoning them to join the congregation. If successful, a toque will bring down the saint, the Orisha, who will take hold of someone present, usually a dancer, and will act and speak through that person.”Possession” is the way this phenomenon has been described, though to find another Catholic analog, “transubstantiation” may be a more fitting term. Santeros call it “mounting.” A person mounted by a saint is not possessed by, but is the deity.

The liturgy is called oru and it has two parts. The first is an instrumental prelude, the oru seco, in which the toques are played in order, saluting each deity. In the second part the singers add their voices to the drum calls and it’s here that a saint may manifest itself. The specific saint to be honored at the ceremony, usually because an initiate is entering its protectorate and becoming that saint’s “child,” that saint is called out last. Each toque matches the personality of the saint. Listen to Change, lord of sexuality and thunder, and even if you’re not versed in the semiotics of Santeria you’ll sense what the toque says.

As you will hear, some of the toques include a rattle, the atchere, and the secular drum, the conga we all know from Latin dance music. Milton Cardona, who leads this recorded ceremony, is well known in the secular music scene as one of the most sought-after percussionists in Salsa. The sizzling beat behind many of the great Ruben Blades/Willie Colon collaborations is Cardona’s; today his congas mount the rhythmic structure of famed singer Hector Lavoe’s extraordinary Salsa band as well as a number of adventurous Kip Hanrahan/American Clave recording projects and touring bands. In Afro-Latin music the religious tradition tias always nourished the secular sounds and many dance-band percussionists are santeros. Milton’s mastery and religious devotion to the music of Santeria gives his secular drumming an enviable power for, as he points out, there is no beat in Latin music that doesn’t exist, in its purist and most incandescent form, in the toques de santos.

Milton plays the lead lya drum in the opening salute to Elegua. In the rest of the performance he sings the lead and plays the atchere rattle while Hector Fernandez plays the lya, Steve Berrios the ttotele and Jose Fernandez the Okonkolo. The ceremony follows the strict order of toques in the santeria liturgy and it was recorded in one uninterrupted session to ensure an authentic continuity. After the required salute to Elegua, god of the crossroads, the first toque announces Ogun, god of iron and war. Next comes Ochosi, whose realm is the hunt and whose symbol, the bow and arrow, has been transformed in Caribbean popular culture into the figure of an Indian. Ebioso follows: Unlike the other deities, Ebioso belongs not to the Yoruba canon but to the Arara people from Dahomey, a sign of the mtra-African syncresis that occurred in the New World. Ebioso’s chant is simultaneously aimed at Babaluaye, the next deity, known in the Caribbean as the crippled Saint Lazarus to whom Catholics pray for the cure of crippling ailments. (It’s this father figure — baba means father — that Cuban comedian Desi Arnaz used to invoke in his famous “babaloo” song.)

Next is Obatala, the oldest deity, capable of assuming either sex (we have referred to the orishas as “it” out of respect for their gender-bearing powers) as befits the creator, the origins, the god before the male-female split of the world. Obatala is signified by the color white. The orishas’ color coding is seen in the beads santeros often wear around their necks, in the adornment of sacred objects and in clothes. Fierce Change, the next toque, is red, of course, and the next, Yemaya, whose dominion is the sea, is blue. Yemaya’s santo is Cuba’s Virgende Regla, the Catholic patron of the bay of Havana. Ochiin, next in the liturgy, is the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, patron saint of all Cuba, birthplace of santeria. Like the Catholic “virgins,” a saint can be one of several manifestations of a divinity. Such is the case of the next toque, Odudua, an ancient female Obatala. Closing the liturgy, the toque to Elegua brings us once again to the crossroads.

The word “liturgy” has been used here often to impress the reader with the sacred nature of this music. Thus, it’s best that one listen to it as it was played, in one sitting, letting the beats and melodies carry the spiritual momentum. But one must shed Western notions of piety and recall how so much African music and culture, including religion, integrates humor and sass to activities of the greatest transcendence. In the language of the bata one can insult a god, questioning Change’s manhood, for example. The angry Ass kicker will immediately come down to the ceremony, “mounting” a participant and looking for a fight. Then the batas will change their tune, literally, and will flatter the Orisha, praising Change’s unchallenged virility: They’ll cool Change out. The santo has been tricked into making an appearance, which, after all, was the point of the ceremony.

And where was Chango before we called him (no “it” here, lest an offended God of Badness descend on this poor writer)? Where do the orishas live when they are not down at a toque de san-tos or checking up on their folk back in Africa or overseeing their realms like the sea and the crossroads and thunder and sex? I’ll tell you.

In the mostly black neighborhood of Old Havana there’s a tenement building of exquisite architecture, originally a palacio built for the Spanish Creole aristocracy, and in one of its rooms, where the smoke of Havana tobacco and the bouquet of anejo rum has soaked into the walls, the orishas tune in on their children, on us humans and our misguided goings-on, in a state-of-the-art color tv. Sometimes a particularly deft toque will call them away to a room next door or to Africa or to the Bronx. But when it’s over, they come back to their room in Havana and their favorite show, part soap, mostly sitcom. They come to watch us. And laugh, and laugh, and laugh. — Enrique Fernandez

milton cardona | bembé | american clavé


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