Praise-poems in Diaspora, or Cuban Laconics

Many Cubans extol the virtues of the Baroque—in architecture, music, and personality, and they celebrate the tension and movement embodied in this tradition. This passion for profusion does come out in words—just think about Fidel’s eight-hour speeches. At the same time, many of the most important things in Cuba are said in single, laconic sentences.

“Babalú-Ayé. Aso se dice.” Babalú-Ayé. Sickness they say. “Babalú-Ayé. Ajañajaña.” This has no real translation, but people use both of these phrases regularly as a kind of greeting.

“Babalú-Ayé, el mendigo.” Babalú-Ayé the wanderer. “San Lázaro Obispo.” San Lázaro the bishop. These two refer to specific Roman Catholic images of the saint.

“Babalú-Ayé es un santo milagroso.” Babalú-Ayé is a very miraculous saint. “San Lázaro es muy bueno.” San Lázaro is very good. “Babalú-Ayé es muy lindo.” Babalú-Ayé is very beautiful. The student of Santería hears these remarks again and again. They point to something, but their meaning is not primarily referential. Rather they point to what kick-ass art historian David Brown has termed “a surplus of sense and meaning”—that experiential meaning that lies beyond decoding iconography, analyzing ritual instrumentality, and exploring artistic forms. This meaning is local, subjective, and, frankly, hard to explain.

In Lydia Cabrera’s compendium of information on Afro-Cuban religion, El monte, she quotes a santero, “Babá bilonga con ajonjolí” (p. 297). Babalú-Ayé does witchcraft with sesame. This utterance captures the abiding association of the deity with a particular seed, but the verb bilongar casts a long shadow over this relationship. That verb could give birth to a good, long essay or perhaps even a dissertation. Needless to say, the god works both healing and destruction, but when he uses sesame, he is working to destroy. Now that’s a surplus of sense and meaning.


  1. Just found the blog and reading through your archives... how great is phrase "kick-ass art historian"? Wonderful.


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