Thursday, April 29, 2010

Margot San Lázaro

My comadre Raquel Fernández (left) was made by her older sister, Magdalena (center), in 1964. Raquel's oyugbona was José María Hernández-Arioza--Omi Niqué, who had been made by Margot San Lázaro, the famous Havana priestess. Magdalena had been made the year before, and her oyugbona was another of Margot's godchildren, Irene Zúñiga--Ochún Bí.  Magdalena tells the story of how Margot became identified with Asojano:

Margot was being made to Yemayá in a Lucumí house, but as she sat in the initiation and the elders called down the orichas, it was not Yemayá who came down but Asojano. In those days, Pilar Fresneda--Asonsiperaco from the Sabalú cabildo was the undisputed expert in such things, and Margot's elders reached out to her. When she arrived at the house, she found Asojano speaking in his famously froggy and hard-to-understand voice. She sang to Asojano in Arará, and he responded just as he was supposed to. This was a beautiful Asojano, an unforgettable manifestation of the deity. Asonsiperaco was so impressed by Margot's Asojano that she decided to give her an Arará name. Asonsiperaco called her Anujamen, and the elders had to virar el oro--"turn around the order" of the ceremony and finish it in a way that was fitting for Asojano.

From then on Pilar took Margot under her wing and trained her in the religion; the two women worked together until Pilar joined the ancestors in the 1960s. So prevalent and powerful was Margot's Asojano that she became known as Margot San Lázaro.

All this happened a long time ago, and so the story has some loose ends.  Every time Magdalena tells the story, she insists that the elders changed the order of the ceremony, but she also reports that Margot had a Yemayá name as well--Tinomí. When asked about this, Magdalena is very frank about the fact that these things happened before she was made. In fact, Margot had died before she was made.



(Thanks to Willie Ramos for this photo of Margot.)

Thursday, April 22, 2010

An Earth Deity for Earth Day


Elders often refer to Babalú-Ayé as the oricha of the Earth, and his name alludes to this fact. Ayé means “world” or “earth,” so the whole name translates as “Father, Lord of the Earth.” The Earth supports us in all we do and is thought of as the universal witness of our actions. Forbearers of the Arará in Cuba, the West African Fon, traditionally made oaths with one hand on the Earth. In fact, husbands and wives would promise to be loyal to each other as they drank an herbal mixture with Earth mixed into it, knowing that the Earth would see if they broke their promise and in turn punish them. This bit of West African tradition intrigues me, because most lineages in Cuba include a bit of Earth in the herbal mixture called osain, which is made to wash and cool the oricha when he is born.

One Matanzas lineage I know focuses on travel and Earth as they prepare to give Babalú-Ayé . They take Babalú out to a cemetery and feed him with a guinea, white wine and cigar smoke. Then they pick up Earth from cemetery and continue to the foot of a ceiba tree, where they do the whole ceremony again. The Earth from both locations ends up in the osain.

The Arará-Dajomé lineage of Armando Zulueta—Omí Toqué actually starts the ceremony by doing a simple cleaning over an open hole. The fundamento goes into the hole wrapped in sack cloth and is fed with a rooster. The following day, just before being washed, the fundamento comes out of the hole. A priest proceeds to transport the fundamento from the hole to the oricha room, led by someone burning incense and others throwing toasted corn.

This last ceremony recollects the relatively common ceremony of feeding the Earth. Here a hole is opened, the person is cleaned with an animal—usually a rooster—and the animal is fed to the Earth and then buried in the hole. The ceremony ends with the person standing on top of the closed hole. If the hole is an analogy for the grave, the person thereby stresses her standing upright and reaffirms her victory over death. You can imagine that every step they take on the Earth in some way reconnects to that place and time, since the Earth is ubiquitous.

These ritual reminiscences only index one aspect of Babalú as an Earth deity. His praise names and roads reveal his link to wilderness. In Nigeria he is called Olodé, the owner of the wilderness. He is also called Ilé Gbona, the hot Earth, to underscore his vengeful character. In Cuba, elders say that Asojano-Agrozumeto rules the untamed places of the Earth. They say that Adu Kaqué lives in the middle of the forest and Lumue rules the spirits of dry forests.

As the ubiquitous witness of human acts, as the ground on which we stand and make our journey through the world, as source of our firmeza or solidity, and as the unknown wilds within us, Babalú is an Earth deity extraordinaire.

Friday, April 16, 2010

An Audience with Asojano: An Arará Drumming

They had already fed the drums by the time I arrived. They stood in a line in the courtyard with their heads covered with the offerings.


Pedro Abreu—Asonyanye is conscious that he is renovating the Sabalú tradition. He talks about the fact that he has initiated more priests to Asojano than anyone else in history: to date he has initiated twenty-nine people. He has compiled traditions from all over Cuba and created an innovative and unique ceremony for giving Asojano. He has elaborated the initiation of priests in surprising ways. In his inimitable, charming, and understated way, he occasionally quotes of one his godchildren who said, “You have created something here.”

As part of his renovation, he has also gone to great efforts to build and consecrate his own set of Arará drums. Pilar Fresneda—Asonsiperaco had a set of drums at her cabildo, and they are now in Pogolotti (see below). Pedro wanted to play them, but in a repetition of history, the cabildo’s current leaders refused to let him play them (more on the repetition in another post). So he sent a drum-maker to the cabildo and had him create exact copies. It is these drums that filled the night with sound on Guanabacoa.

After the awán and the ebó, the drumming began. Everything was running late, and the drummers were no exception. By the time they arrived, it was already 10 PM. They started playing smooth rhythms on the clicky drums. This music is totally unlike the Lucumí drumming, and songs use a different musical scale. They started with Joto, as the Arará call Elegguá, and played a full series of songs—an oro—for Asojano.

I was hoping to speak with Asojano. I had thought through my questions. He has told me to get the word out about him and I was going to ask what he thought of this blog. I was going to ask him about the function of the secret of San Lázaro in Perico. I had other questions too: what to do for my son, whose hold on this world is always shaky? What else to do about my intense relationship with Asojano? How to work with the spirits of particular places? And what to do about the mounting environmental crisis?

By the time they finished the first round of songs for Asojano, it was 11:30, and they had to stop as the next day was Palm Sunday, and they did not want to offend anyone in the neighborhood.

No orichas showed up. No fodunces. No Asojano.

Then the drummers pulled out a set of unconsecrated batá drums. They played for Ochún and then for Asojano. We all danced a bit more. Then they switched to rumba, and Pedro sang a couple songs. Then everyone retired. The kids ate cake; the adults drank beer or rum. We talked into the night, sharing what Jim Wafer has called the taste of blood—the particular kind of intersubjective experience that comes from knowing people well and for a long time.

A couple days later, I sat in Pedro’s tiny living room. As we talked, he explained his ideology about drummings. He never pays people to dance his drummings: the fodunces come when they will, and when they don’t, people fake it. Lots of people take this line. He also said that when Asojano comes down at drummings and speaks, it is not really Asojano, because Asojano only speaks through Ifá.

We could have predicted this position, because it emphasizes the strength of his lineage’s way of working with Asojano. Still I was surprised. I have witnessed impressive and unforgettable possessions at drummings. Asojano comes first in his abject form: he foams at the mouth, and mucus flows from his nose as he writhes on the floor. Slowly he gains strength and rises to wobbly legs. Finally, as his sap continues to rise, he begins to dance with his já with ever-bolder gestures.

He has whispered in my ear truths that only he and I knew. At these drummings, I have seen Asojano greet other orichas and be received by them.

Were they just pretending too?

Friday, April 9, 2010

Ebó for Asojano

I went to Havana on a mission, so I suppose you could say I was a missionary for Asojano. I went to feed my godfather’s Asojano and play for him. It was not a requirement but something that made sense to me, given the many blessings I have received lately from Asojano .

My plane left Baltimore late, so I had missed my connection and spent three extra days in Jamaica trying to be patient. When I finally arrived in Havana, the customs officials interviewed me at length about why I was in Cuba, who I was visiting, what I was carrying. After forty-five minutes, they searched my two small bags and found exactly what I said they would find.

I went straight from the airport to Calle Guasabacoa in Luyanó where the ceremony was to take place. The dramatic throne was already up, and Asojano was waiting for me with seven jaces. Fifteen minutes after I arrived, we started the ebó by feeding the ancestors with a rooster, a hen, and a dove. We gave cocos, they said Eyeife, good to go.

Forty-five minutes later, as we prepared for the awán, I quietly asked Pedro Abreu—Asoyanye if I could take a picture of the baskets and the plates of food. “It’s not a good idea, because this is a tremendous awán.” Secrecy maintained.

Asonyanye and two of his godchildren ritually moved Asojano from the throne in the next room to the base of the basket. Down on all fours, they pushed the cazuela with their foreheads, singing

Aforo foro, Asojano aforo foro yawe, Owe mina mina we.

Then we all pressed our heads to the ground in front of Asojano. Asonyanye invoked the ancestors again along with all the Arará fodunces (as they call the deities). He prayed for a long time in Arará and then threw the cocos to determine if Asojano was ready to proceed. No. We could have predicted that, given the major obstacles to getting there. Asonyanye asked if something was missing. No. Asonyanye asked if I should get a reading with Ifá after the ceremony to guide me. Yes.

The awán was enormous, more than fifty plates, concentric circles of plates with different kinds of grains, cut-up fruits and vegetables, cooked meat, and pureed sweet potato and cooked cornmeal. I stood barefoot on a piece of sackcloth. After each person had cleaned themselves, two priests of Asojano—godsons of Asonyanye’s—cleaned me. Then they presented the plates to their heads, kissed them and tossed the remaining ingredients into the basket. Then they went to the innermost circle of plates, which were reserved for me. They took a steak and wiped me down with it. They took a pork chop and again wiped me down. They cleaned me with dried corn on the cob, a red onion, a cigar, and two eggs. They wiped me down with the pureed sweet potato and they cooked cornmeal. At this point I was filthy. Then came the ebó to the awán: They offered a goat, a speckled chicken, and a guinea hen. They cleaned me with those as well.

Asonyanye led me to the bathroom, where my clothes were cut off, I was be washed clean with omiero and dressed in sackcloth. I emerged again for the offerings to the fodunces. Elegguá Echu Afrá, Hevioso, Nanú and Asojano all ate well. The goat for Asojano was so big that it took five men to hold it.

As Asonyanye said, it was like receiving Asojano again.


Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Rafael Linares—Emergo Revised



Last week, I was in Havana, making ebó to Asojano and giving him an Arará drumming. As part of my regular visits to people I know, I traveled to Reparto Mañana, tucked in between Regla and Guanabacoa. There I visited my comadre Raquel Fernández—Obá Kedun. I have known Raquel since 1997, when I started working in the house of her godson, Saul Fernández—Baba Ni Belequé. In 1999, she supported me in a highly charged initiation ceremony in Centro Habana, and a few years back I received the Ibeyi from her.

Although I have known her for many years, it was only recently that I learned that she was married to Rafael Linares—Emerego until his death on December 9, 1985. Arará people in Havana often remember Linares as a knowledgeable and meticulous priest of Asojano.

He grew up in the religion. His father was Alberto Linares, the babalawo Ogbe-Roso, and his stepmother was Joaquina Sánchez—Towá. Their house was a gathering place for religious practitioners of their generation. On June 9, 1967, Rafael was made to Asojano by Matilde Sotomayor—Asoinque and Ñica Fernández—Onojome, both god-daughters of the famous Pilar Fresneda—Asonsiperaco. After he married Raquel, they both worked in the house of Margot San Lázaro, whose complex story deserves its own narrative.

When Rafael joined the ancestors, his orichas stayed with Raquel, and she still tends them just as he did in the little apartment in Reparto Mañana. He always kept his orichas behind a curtain and covered with the herb Cubans call cundiamor. While he died 25 years ago, his já still looks like new.