The Violin of Another Culture

Eramso Calzadilla

Kneeling Female Figure Devotee of Oshun. Foto: Wikipedia Loves Art photo pool on Flickr

Given the interest that Afro-Cuban culture has been receiving lately, I gladly accepted an invitation from a friend to go to a “violin ceremony,” and I dragged along Irina Echarry, one of the writers with Havana Times.

Each person being initiated into the Yoruba religion has their own “orisha*” to protect them, and in turn they must feed and take care of it.  The orishas are celebrated in annual fiestas, one of which is the violin ceremony.  This time it was dedicated to the seductive and maternal Oshun; she’s the goddess of the river, and I believe the youngest of the saints in the Yoruba pantheon that is acknowledged here in Cuba.

The fiesta had already begun when we arrived at the nicely laid out house in the Vibora Park neighborhood.  We went through the front room, which was full of believers, and then proceeded into the ceremony room.  We presented ourselves and respectfully greeted Lyalorde, who was also the person known as the queen.

On an altar covered with a yellow and golden cloak was “the stone” representing the orishas, protected from people’s looks and surrounded by delicacies.

A keyboard, tumbadora drums, maracas, bells and of course violins in the musicians’ hands all helped liven up the party, but what was most impressive was the singer: an older black woman who with her songs and dances transported us to an atmosphere very different from where we had first found ourselves.

The first songs were dedicated to the dead, and to my surprise they were waltzes and typical Cuban compositions adapted to what was sung.  Following the orders from the violinist and the facilitator, the guests had to join hands and hum certain chords together.

This, I admit, made me feel a little ridiculous and out of place.  A little girl must have noticed that same thing because she kept staring at me.

Our discrete exit was already planned when the songs to the saints began.  The saints, or orishas, are pleased with songs characteristic of Yoruba culture, and these captivated the two us as well.  For that moment we forgot about leaving.

People began to dance, with the young women performing in a sensual manner that I can’t explain.  The violin ceremony is very soft and it doesn’t seek to bring down the dead and saints from heaven like other ceremonies do; even so, some of the dancers began accepting the spirits of the saints into their beings (it’s very easy for that to happen with rhythms that are so monotonic and energetic).

Irina and I wandered around with our nerves on edge, our teeth clenched and the muscles in our faces contracted from the energy congregated in the small room.  The multitude, the beer, the repetitive bells, girls dancing and their beings being taken, cigarette smoke, heat, fatigue from standing all that time, the sensation of strangeness… and there was me, trying to imagine how a ceremony like this would be if it were authentic.

I was already close to the point of being spiritually entered when the religious songs to the saints were substituted for a homage to the living.  They immediately put on reggaeton and salsa, and the ceremony transformed into a regular house party – the kind that always drive me away.

They formed a “soul train” and everything.  Irina and I joined in it after being yanked over to link up with the other “freight cars.”  Left with no other choice, we enjoyed it.  Following the orders of the facilitator (now MC), we were supposed to bend down shaking our hips – but we hid; we preferred not to, and in the end we evaded the difficult challenge.

It was a healthy atmosphere with fantastic people, but even so, we again thought of making our escape.  Just a few feet from the door we were surprised by the woman who had invited us, and her presence made us realize what a snub such an act would have been.

So I thanked her, just as the distribution of boxed snacks began.  These were filled with sweets that were incredibly rich!

They must have cost a fortune!  I stood there reflecting on that point, about the tremendous expenses involved in becoming sainted, and how difficult it would be even if I wanted to.  The facilitator must have used his divinatory powers to read my mind, because at that very moment he said loudly, so that everyone could hear: “When one decides to throw a party for Oshun, money just appears.  She sees to it that it’s found.  She helps you out with things.”

After toasting with cider, people finally began to leave.  It was in that atmosphere of the party breaking up that the godfather of the ceremony came up to us, affable and drunk.  He asked if we had enjoyed ourselves saying, “We try to make people feel comfortable, even if they’re from a different culture.”

(*)Orishas are the emissaries of Olodumare, the omnipotent god of the Yoruba pantheon. They govern the forces of nature and the matters of humans.