Beyoncé channeled African deities in the Lemonade visual album and the Afro-Cuban French twins of Ibeyi rocked the Chanel runway in Havana, walking down the catwalk to ritual chants.
For Santería priest Alexander Fernandez, it’s been a heady couple weeks.
Speaking about how he felt when he first saw the scene where Beyoncé emerges from a doorway in a bright yellow dress, water rushing down the steps, he says, “I was out of my skin.”
Suddenly the Yoruba-Cuban religion he has practiced for more than 30 years, one that originated in Nigeria and crossed the Atlantic with the slave trade, is being beamed across screens worldwide — and celebrated as fierce, rich in tradition, and still thoroughly modern.
The stunning, ground breaking Lemonade visual album and Ibeyi’s haunting chants in English and Yoruba — which will come to Miami on Sunday — are bringing into the mainstream the Yoruba rituals that have long underpinned Afro-Cuban culture.
How Yoruba culture came to Cuba
Yoruba’s roots in Cuba are thanks to a revolution 200 miles away.
In the 1700s, Haiti, then the French colony Saint Domingue, was the powerhouse of global sugar production. But when Haitians toppled the colonial government in 1804, the sugar plantations shifted to Cuba and Brazil — and the slave trade followed. More than 1 million enslaved Africans were brought to Cuba, more than half of them in the late 1700s and the first half of the 1800s, according to Dr. Andrea Queeley, an associate professor of anthropology and African and African Diaspora Studies at Florida International University. Editor’s note: This paragraph has been edited to correctly reflect the timeline of changes in the slave trade.
While not all the slaves brought to Cuba were Yoruba, their culture emerged as one of the strongest largely because they found a way to incorporate the Catholic saints in their own tradition, allowing them to continue to practice openly under Spanish colonial rule.
“People persecuted for their traditions, practices, and rituals found a way to continue honoring and practicing by having the cover of the saints,” Queeley said.
Essentially they began channeling the Yoruba deities, the Orisas, through corresponding Catholic saints. For example, Chango, the “pinnacle of virility” became syncretized with Santa Barbara, known in Catholicism for her ferocity, according to Fernandez, who is also a PhD student who has studied the culture and religion for years.
With time, the Yoruba became known as the Lucumí, which literally translates to “I see you, my friend.” The phrase was how enslaved Africans in Cuba who hailed from the Niger Delta acknowledged each other, according to Fernandez. Over time the term Santería, which stems from the way Lucumí incorporated Catholic saints into their religious rituals, basically became a synonym for the Lucumí people.
The African-Catholic hybrid was cemented by cabidos, which were “ethnic mutual aid societies” created by the Spaniards to organize the slaves to better control them. They were divided by ethnicity to prevent different ethnic groups from coming together to stage an uprising, but it also gave them a time and place to practice their rituals.
Coming to America
Yoruba tradition began showing up in American pop culture in 1940s jazz music, said Fernandez.
Jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie was looking for new genres of music he could mix with jazz when he discovered Afro-Cuban rhythms. He traveled to Cuba to learn more, and that’s where he met the iconic drummer Chano Pozo.
Working with Pozo, he merged ritual Yoruba rhythms with the popular music of the day, bringing the hybrid back to New York.
At the same time, a growing Cuban community in New York was bringing the rituals into the open by playing percussion in places like Central Park. To the untrained ear, it just sounded like a great beat. It became popular in clubs on the Lower East Side, according to Fernandez.
“They were just these black guys playing on the drums and how typical is that? [Passersby] didn’t know these are rituals being played, chants being sung in public,” said Fernandez, who himself comes from that early Cuban community in New York.
With Gillespie’s interest, Afro-Cuban music moved from the margins of New York society, sequestered within the Cuban community, to join the mainstream.
“It’s still praise, it’s just praise you’re sharing with the masses,” Fernandez explained. “One of the most fluid things we have within our tradition is music. Ninety-five percent of what we do is through chant and song. If the rhythm is not being played on a hide attached to a drum, we’re using our vocal chords as an instrument.”
Back on the island, Afro-Cubans were gaining a place on the musical stage – among them Anga Diaz, the father of Naomi and Lisa Kainde-Diaz, aka Ibeyi. The famous percussionist played with the Buena Vista Social Club.
Yoruba tradition has supporters and even some followers among Black artists today too.
“Remember when D’Angelo made his Voodoo album? What he’s wearing on the cover is actually not Haitian voodoo, but Cuban Santería, and he’s wearing the beads of Cuban Santería,” Fernandez explained, adding that D’Angelo became involved in Santería as well.
He rattled off other stars who have connected with the Lucumí rituals: Usher (photographed headed to their region of Cuba dressed in ritual white), Lauryn Hill, and Rihanna, among others. Fernandez said he initiated into the priesthood some of the same musicians who have become collaborators with these American music stars.
“Our music… it is absolutely OK to use it in this very popular, non-ritualistic way,” he said.
It also serves to get people talking about an element of their religion other than animal sacrifices, which is all anyone seems to pay attention to, he said.
There was a time in Miami when you could be arrested for practicing Santeria, then considered a cult. That’s in the past, but there’s still a lot of wariness about the practices.
Fernandez thinks this will help to change that, now that the vision of Beyoncé coming down those stairs in a yellow gown is on everyone’s mind.
“If you think about the deity Oshun herself, young, beautiful, a goddess… voluptuous… [Beyoncé’s] almost an exact replica of what Oshun would be,” he explains. “When I see Beyoncé with her yellow on and the water… my thought honestly is ‘Wow, Oshun must be so happy. She must be so happy that Beyoncé is venerating her like this’.”
Older adherents don’t even see Queen B. They just see their deity, he said.
“They see stuff like this and they’re like ‘Oh my God, it’s Oshun. They don’t know Beyoncé, but they’re seeing this young mulatto woman coming out of the water and they say, ‘Oh, she’s dancing Oshun’.”
Does this leave you dying to see Ibeyi? Don’t worry, there are still tickets left. You can buy them here, via the Rhythm Foundation.