Santeria Lives on in the District

Fri, Jul 9, 2010


Friends, scholars, and practitioners of a revered religion gathered at a Northwest theater to chant, beat drums and participate in a series of lectures that celebrated a mystical, Afro-Cuban tradition.

More than 50 individuals attended a workshop at the GALA Theatre in Columbia Heights, Sat., June 26, to pay homage to the traditions of Santeria and a dwelling that has honored the ancestors for nearly six decades.

“[Santeria is not limited to] religious information or spiritual things,” said Oscar Rousseaux, 39, a “Babalawo” or Santeria priest, who grew up in Cuba, but who now lives in Riverdale, Md.

“Cubans for many years—a century or two— continue the influence we received from Africa, and later from Spain, to develop a particular language involving dance, music and paint.”

Santeria’s mysterious roots trace back to the West African slave trade, when African tribal traditions were transported to the Caribbean. The religion, whose followers believe they can communicate with deities and ancestors through trance, possession, drumming rituals and animal sacrifice is most recently known for its growing cultural appeal.

Jose Sueiro, a scholar of Santeria, who organized the workshop, agreed with Rousseaux, and said Santeria is not exclusively religious, rather it’s a mix of spiritual practices, culture, music, and dance.

“What I wanted to get at [Saturday] was not so much the theological part of Santeria, but the musical part of it. This is a culture—we are talking anthropologically— not just theologically or religiously. [Santeria is composed of] black traditions, Afro-Cuban traditions, West African traditions. It’s Yoruba-based, more than anything else. Santeria exists here in Washington D.C., and has for a couple of generations.”

The performance at the GALA Theatre, narrated in both Spanish and English, was punctuated by the thundering of Bata drumming, chanting, and dancing, performed by Rousseaux along with six men and four women, dressed in white, who collaborated and composed a traditional Santeria ceremony for the crowd. Rousseaux who led the group, rallied for crowd participation as many audience members clapped to the beat of the intricate rhythms.

To the average spectator, the Santeria ceremony resembled what one might associate with an African drum circle or the musical genre, “world beat.”
The Bata drum, which dates back 500 years to the Yoruba people, is the main instrument used in Santeria rituals.

“The idea that you can be sending prayers in a language that was spoken in the 18th century, in Nigeria, and that those chants can be encoded in three, two -sided drums that talk—that’s the key element we wanted to talk about [during the workshop].”

Bata drumming was a very important part of both the Santeria religion, and as a main source of communication for many West African tribes, he said.

“What happened in West Africa — we’re talking about the 1700s— maybe the 1800s— in times before radio and obviously before television—the Bata drum and the communicator— the person who knew the chants and could play the drums— was seen like [Press Secretary] Gibbs in the White House—[He was the head] of the communications system.”

Carmen Shorter, of Baltimore, Md., a novice member of the local Santeria community, said she attended the workshop to learn more about the history of the Bata drum and have the opportunity to learn from a wide variety of experts on the Santeria tradition, including her godfather who addressed the group during the event.

“The Afro-Cuban Diaspora is pretty diverse and to have the collection of both, initiated people and educated people, presenting here today, whether they were professors, performers or practitioners, was pretty profound. We don’t get that often [in the Washington D.C. area]. Most of the legacy in the United States is in New York or Miami, so we are fortunate to have these folks here today.”

No one knows exactly when the traditions that created the Santeria religion traveled to the West, but there is a popular folklore that has been passed down through the ages.

Sueiro said he and many other members of the Santeria community like to tell the story about a prominent Bata drummer in West Africa who wanted to travel to the coast, but who was discouraged by the king who feared the apprehension of his most valuable drummer and communicator by slave traders.

The king said, if you must go, you have my permission. The drummer left and was kidnapped by slave traders. He was transported by boat to Cuba and eventually made his way to the mountains of Santiago De Cuba where there was a strong free black culture who lived there and thrived. He brought with him the knowledge and traditions of his homeland and the Bata drum which kept the culture alive in the western world and may have been the beginning of Santeria as we know it today.

Santeria continues to be practiced in many parts of the world including Washington D.C. Sueiro said that the event was designed to honor a house at 1354 Parkwood Place in Northwest—a magical space where Santeria has been practiced since the 1950’s. He said religious and secular ceremonies still continue to be practiced there today.

Rousseaux said he has been involved in Santeria, both spiritually and professionally, for more than 20 years.

“As an Afro-Cuban dancer and vocalist, I always try to keep this tradition alive.”

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2 Comments For This Post

  1. Baba Egunjobi Says:

    I am trying to find out where these kinds of workshops or activities are in the city. I don’t really know how to find this out, is there anyone that could point me to a site or a social networking group to allow me to join and possibly participate?

  2. Folusho Says:

    it’s from the yoruba tribe of benin, togo, and nigeria. its not “mysterious”.

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