The spirit of Santería dances on
by Tony Montague
When members of Yoruba Andabo perform the rumba gua guanc, you can expect feathers to fly. The ritualistic Afro-Cuban dance represents the courtship of a rooster and a hen. To intricate drum rhythms and call-and-response chants, the male performer attempts to catch his partner off guard touching her crotch with the flick of a handkerchief or thrusting his limbs and pelvis at her provocatively while the female symbolically protects herself with hand or skirt.
“The guaguanc is the most popular form of rumba, which was created in the ports of Matanzas and Havana, where most of us come from,” says Matías Geovani del Pino Rodríguez, singer, director, and cofounder of the 15-piece Yoruba Andabo ensemble. “It has always been an important part of what we do. The company started out in 1961 as Guaguanc Marítimo Portuario a group of dockworkers who got together to perform at a labour festival.
“But our interest was not only in rumba,” continues Rodríguez. “We wanted to celebrate all aspects of our Afro-Cuban heritage, which is rich and complex. When the slaves were shipped across the Atlantic, all they took with them was their music, their dance, and their religious beliefs. They maintained these traditions through centuries of repression by concealing their activities, often in ingenious ways. Since the [1959 Cuban] revolution, Afro-Cuban culture has come out in the open, and is now experiencing a major revival.”
At the heart of the mesmerizing spectacle that Yoruba Andabo presents is the dance and music of Santería, a religion rooted in West Africa, and among the Yoruba people of Nigeria in particular. Its initiates venerate orishas (or santos), spirits similar to the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece. In Cuba, the slaves fused these orishas with Catholic saints, in whose name and image they could be worshipped. Sometimes genders were crossed: Chang & the orisha of manhood, fire, thunder, and lightning was equated with St. Barbara, probably because, like hers, his emblematic colours are red and white.
“All of the orishas have their own colour, dress, and symbols as well as their own ritual dance, chant, and toqué [rhythm],” Rodríguez explains. “We present the most important deities: Elegguá, Oggún, Ochún, Yemayá, Babalú, Chang, and Obbatalá. The dancers perform solo, and express the particular qualities of each orisha. Their movements are based on tradition, though these are not precisely choreographed the dancer follows the rhythms played by the drummers, who in turn follow the chant of the leader and chorus.”
The company Yoruba Andabo has a long-standing link with the arts scene in Canada. In 1993, it earned a Juno for contributing to jazz saxophonist Jane Bunnett’s Spirits of Havana.
“We are travelling all over the world, and keeping our Afro-Cuban arts and culture alive,” says Rodríguez. “This is why we are called Yoruba Andabo, because in the Carabalí language [of Nigeria], andabo means ‘a friend or admirer,’ and we are all friends and loyal followers of the Yoruban religion. It sustains us, just as it sustained our ancestors.”