OGGUN: AN ETERNAL PRESENCE (1991, Cuba, 55 min.), directed by Gloria Rolando; cinematography by Raúl Rodriguez and José M. Fiera; edited by Melvin Diaz; songs by Pablo Milanes; singers Lazaro Ross and Felipe Alfonso; Afrocuban songs interpreted by the "Olorun" Group, under the direction of Lazaro Ross; with the special performance of Conjuncto Folclórico Nacional de Cuba; with José Kindelán (Oggun), Teresa Alfonso (Oshún), Alicia San (Oya), Jorge Dixson (Shango), Regla Diago (Otelia), Yosvani Cabrera (Boy). In Spanish and Yoruba with English subtitles.
"When the Yoruba poured into Havana in the early nineteenth century, they found harshness and bitter injustice, but they also found each other. Slowly, they replanted the ways of ashé in a new world, meeting to honor the orishas and finding order and hope in the breath of Olodumare."
--Joseph M. Murphy, Santería: African Spirits in America
When examining the horrendous devastation that was the African slave trade, it would be a mistake to focus exclusively upon the way the slave trade destroyed traditional culture and religion. In fact, a strong thrust in recent Diasporic studies (i.e., the study of the dispersal of Africans worldwide) has been to discover, analyze, and celebrate the continuities and the survival strategies that allowed those continuities to occur. Oggun: An Eternal Presence is just such a celebration, focusing on the syncretic (or "creolized") religion of santería in Cuba, a dynamic Catholic/Yoruba mixture.
In the complex traditional spiritualism of the Yoruba (inhabitants of what is now Nigeria west of the Niger delta), Olodumare is the Almighty God, "Owner of all destinies." His breath, the essence of being, is incarnated in this world as ashé, the force of spirit. "Ashé is the blood of cosmic life, the power of Olodumare toward life, strength, and righteousness" (Murphy). The endless stream of ashé is passed on from generation to generation, and allows the ancestors, ara orun ("people of heaven") to remain alive within us. The ancestors maintain the moral compass that allows us to find our bearings.
Central to Yoruba religion is the pantheon of spiritual entities known as orishas, the embodiments of different aspects of ashé. Actually, each orisha embodies a complex of attributes. Oggun is the blacksmith whose ashé can be used to create implements of agriculture or of war; he embodies the hot, creative, transformative power of fire acting upon iron. His opposite is Oshun. Patron of the cooling river, she brings the nurturing and life-giving power of water; as the goddess of love, she can also cause one to drown in her power. Traditional Yoruba religion recognizes as many as 1,700 orishas, though only a handful have attracted devotees in substantial numbers. Included among them would be Shango (thunder, force), Orula/Ife (wisdom, destiny, divination), Oya (the wind, death), Obatala (purity, serenity, and clarity), Osanyin (the healer), and Ellegua (the messenger/trickster).
Through devotion to individual orishas, humans can fill themselves with the healing, enlightening, ordering principles of the orisha. Devotees (omo-orisha, "child of the orisha) become initiated into the ways of their patron orisha, and through music and dance can be inhabited by the ashé of their orisha. The orisha are not exactly immortal; they cannot live without us. Their existence depends upon the ongoing gifts and nourishment that they receive from their human devotees (each has his/her preferred gifts). Offerings will always include blood, derived from the swift, ritual sacrifice of an animal (most often a chicken), which is then cooked and eaten as part of the celebratory feast. The blood is symbolically "fed" to a symbol of the orisha. This way, the ache of the animal is allowed to live on, both in the orisha and in the devotees.
In the early 19th Century, Yorubaland was devastated both by internal strife and by the slave trade. The slave trade sent hundreds of thousands of them to Cuba (estimates of the total number of Africans sent to Cuba range between 500,000 and 700,000, more than were sent to all of the American colonies). They were used mainly to work the huge sugar plantations there. For a number of reasons, conditions existed that allowed them to maintain their traditional religion to a far greater degree than was true in the U.S.: (a) the huge sugar plantations allowed for a greater concentration of people from the same linguistic and ethnic background, including a number of babalawo (high priests); (b) it was also easier for the Yoruba, or "Lucumi" as they were called in Cuba, to maintain their traditions because they came relatively late to the New World and lived there just a generation or two before emancipation; (c) the Catholic Church and the Spanish administration were more tolerant of the ethnic diversity of the slaves; and (d) it was much easier for Cuban slaves to purchase their freedom--by the middle of the century, a third of the former Africans on the island were free and able to control their own religious destinies.
The religion itself was changing, however. All the incoming slaves were automatically baptised as Catholics and were encouraged (forcibly, or through more indirect pressure) to practice the new religion. The result was a complex process of disguise, accommodation, and incorporation. Joseph Murphy says it well: "In the New World, the Yoruba were forced into a new religious system of pervasive power. This new tradition shaped their lives, and their native vision of the world was gradually adapted to complement and reflect the Catholic worldview. A new bilingual tradition emerged, at once a resistance to Catholic oppression and an accommodation to Catholic values. It came to be called santería, the way of the saints, because the devotions to the orishas were carried out beneath the images of the Catholic saints. What may have once begun as a subterfuge, an attempt to fool Catholic observers while preserving the ways of the orishas, became a genuine universal religious vision in which a Catholic saint and a Lucumi [Yoruba] orisha were seen as different manifestations of the same spiritual entity" (31-32).
Thus, in Santería, Oggun is St. Peter, or St. Santiago; Oshun is La Caridad del Cobre, Cuba's Black Virgin and Patron Saint; Shango becomes Saint Barbara (he disguised himself as a woman); Oya is St. Candelaria; Osanyin is Joseph; Obatala is either Jesus or Mecedes; Ellegua is St. Anthony of Padua, and Orula/Ife is St. Francis.
Although considered a "low" religion by the ruling elite in Cuba, Santería did attract a number of non-African devotees during the years before Castro, though most santeras (devotees) and babalawo (high priests) have been of African descent. Santería has generally been tolerated, and even encouraged, in Castro's Cuba, in part because the traditionally disenfranchised Afro-Cuban population has been one of Castro's strongest support bases. When we hear about the persistence of Catholicism in Cuba, it is frequently Santería that is really being practiced. Thus, many of the Catholics who swarmed around the Pope during his recent visit were wearing the ornaments of their patron orisha along with their crucifixes.
With the departure of Cubans from the island beginning in 1959, santería has made its way to the U.S., with large numbers of devotees living in Miami and the New York area, but it has gradually been spreading among the African American population. Increasingly, devotees in this country are dispensing with the Catholic elements of the religion and emphasizing the direct Yoruba roots.
Oggun: An Eternal Presence is both an overture to santería and an homage to its devotees, particularly the wonderful akpwon (master singer), Lazaro Ros. Here is some information on Lazaro from the AfroCuba Website: "This master of the ancient folk culture was born in Havana in 1925. Even as a child, his beautiful voice made him stand out. Raised in the rich milieu of Afro-Latin culture which pervades his native region, Ros was initiated in the Regla de Osha in 1950. He learned the old songs from the master singer, Eugenio de la Rosa. Born poor, young Lazaro supported his studies by working as a cook or a shopkeeper. He was discovered and came to prominence in the early 60's and co-founded the world renowned National Folkloric Ensemble of Cuba [Conjunto Foklorico Nacional]. Lazaro became one of Cuba's best-loved artists. He has performed all over the world and released several recordings. He has received numerous international awards. His life and person are presented in the film Oggun directed by Gloria Rolando. He has collaborated with the National Ballet of Cuba and its famous representative, Alicia Alonzo.
"Lazaro is the author of several musical and theatrical works, including music from the award-winning film, Maria Antonia. He has given the old musical tradition of Cuba a new immediacy in his collaboration with contemporary Cuban musicians such as saxophonist/composer Lucia Hergo and the Cuban-pop band Mezcla. He even performed with Carlos Santana in a San Francisco joint appearance in 1963."
The film opens with Lazaro Ros recounting a patakin (an orisha story) about Oggun--the blacksmith god (spirit of the transformative, creative power of technology) who has banished himself as a result of desiring his mother--and his seduction by Oshun, the river goddess of love. The documentary present of the teller dissolves into the lovely, flowing, timeless present of myth. This will occur throughout the film, with strange, mysterious close-ups of sacred objects linked to Oggun and the other orisha. The film also gives us the privilege of entry into a toque, a Santería devotion ceremony, in Havana. We see the devotees prostrating themselves before images of the orisha, and we see Lazaro and another akpwon, Felipe Alfonso, leading the santeras in song and dance. The dances clearly reveal their African roots, and the songs are in Yoruba. By the end of the film, we will see a young man dance to the point of possession. With encouragement from Lazaro, the man becomes possessed by Oggun (for the Yoruba/Santera, the act of possession is called "mounting," for the spirit is seen as mounting and riding the human as if a horse), and the filmmaker seals the new-found identity between them by bringing us back and forth from the reality of myth and spirit to the reality of the dance, and back again to the life of the spirit. It's this interpenetration (present and past, myth and reality, dream and waking) that seems to be at the heart of the Santería/Yoruba religious experience. An eternal present.
Notes by Michael Dembrow
For more information on santería, I would suggest Joseph Murphy, Santería: African Spirits in America, Boston: Beacon Press, 1988, 1993). Also, the excellent website, AfrocubaWeb (http://www.afrocubaweb.com) has links to a number of santería and other Yoruba religion sites.
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