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Santeria: The African roots of Cuba

Santeria: The African roots of Cuba

Many people who have visited Cuba will have come into contact with some aspects of daily life intertwined with the culture and traditions of Africa whether from the complex rhythms of Cuban music through visual artists and performance art. Probably the most explicit reference to the African soul is to be found in Santeria, which represents the synthesis of the cults of African slaves and the Catholic religion. This embodies almost all aspects, mystic and earthly, of the identity of African origin.

I came into contact with Santeria for the first time in 1999. Impressed by the fervor that my Cuban friends showed for it, I decided to investigate this cult, which may superficially appear as a form of superstition or witchcraft in its worst meaning. Santeria indeed conceals great complexity in both active and passive practice. It represents for its believers a guide and a support to their lives, whose benefits are to be found in earthly life. A limpieza (cleansing) is a way to get rid of negative influences and self-purify. An ebbò (offer) to an Oricha (the deity), whether a fruit basket or a ritual sacrifice, is important to maintain closeness to the deity and receive help against the adversity. Consulting a santero or a santera is a frequent practice, being primarily a moral support to the daily difficulties.

When strolling the streets of Havana or of another Cuban city, it is possible to be reached by the echoes of drums and songs and eventually run into the house from which they come. It is likely a Toque de Santo (or de Tambor), one of the rituals that I consider among the most fascinating and engaging. This is one of the rites where the African roots occur with their greatest intensity. Facing the participants and the altar erected for the rite, musicians play the sacred batàa drums and other percussion, weaving complex polyrhythms of African origin and singing chants to the Orishas in the Yoruba language. Under the guidance of drums and singings, one can see the trancelike state of some participants. For the believers this is the Oricha, who, through the possession of the body and mind of the person, shows himself to the participants and gives them support and advices.

It is this ritual as well as those involving the sacrifice of animals, which provoke the most critical reactions in non-believers. The trance can generally provoke distrust, fear or charm, while the ritual sacrifices often generate indignation and pity. Critics often claim that Santeria is a means to deceive and suck money from believers. In my opinion, clearly there are some less than honest santeros, which combined with naïve tourists may contribute to a superficial appearance in some instances.

We should not however go from this observation to a general condemnation especially when this is based on our own prejudices and our cultural filters. This religion is one of the essential aspects of Cuban culture, influencing the daily life of a large part of the population. Understanding Santeria and its rites is one of the ways for the comprehension of the primary rhythms of everyday life in the island; without forgetting that this cult is the testimony of an identity that in vain conquerors attempted to obliterate.

Antonio Baiano Born in Naples (Italy) in 1962, Antonio has lived in Turin, Italy since 1990. He began his photography career in 1997 shooting jazz concerts. His main interest is in reportage and travel photography, which he sees as a mean of exploration and knowledge of social themes and cultural diversities and identities. He has attended several workshops with David H. Harvey, Kent Kobersteen, Tomasz Tomaszewski and Alexandra Boulat, which he considers fundamental in developing his photo skills.
Antonio started the project “Roots” based on the Afro-Caribbean religions, in 2001 and traveled various times until 2007 to Cuba and Brazil to shoot Santeria and Candomblé rites and people. The photos from these reportages have been exhibited in Cuba, France and Italy and a copy of them is stored in “Casa de Africa” museum in Havana.

Antonio has also published pieces in various magazines and newspapers, and is a member since 2002 of American Society of Media Photographers.

Antonio is an Italian reportage and travel photographer who has put together the ‘Roots’ project on Santeria in Cuba and Candomble in Brazil.

September 2014 This article formed part of the September 2014 issue of What’s On Havana The definitive monthly travel & culture guide to Havana Download our current issue of What’s On Havana, your definitive travel, culture and entertainment guide for all things happening in Havana, Cuba’s bustling and enigmatic capital city. We include features from around Cuba written by the best international travel writers covering Cuba. Our monthly online digital magazine is also available in Spanish and French.

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