Ocha Niwe: The Slave of Cuban Music

Isbel Diaz Torres 

Lazaro Ross. (Photo by Mario Diaz from the Diccionario Enciclopedico de la Musica Cubana de Radames Giro)

Some knew him as Ocha Niwe, others simply as Lazaro Ross.  What’s certain is that Cuban music owes much to this artist, who lived for his art form.

What’s fortunate is that the Cuban Institute of Anthropology, as part of its activities for International Year of People of African Descent, is promoting several activities open to the public.

Personally, I think the sciences, no matter which branch of study, should constantly dialogue with society and the individuals who compose it.  And this what happened with the showing by this Cuban institution of the documentary Ocha Niwe: el esclavo de la música (Ocha Niwe: The slave of music), by French producer and researcher Daniel Pinos.

The showing was attended by researchers from the institute, musicians, and members of the general public interested in the topic.  Especially for this occasion, included were musicians who have followed in the footsteps of the work of this now deceased master musician.  At the conclusion of the film they gave a presentation of his art in a beautiful and energizing performance.

The film itself deals with the life and artistic work of this outstanding singer of Afro-Cuban ritual music.  Lazaro Ross began his artistic career in presentations at the National Theater; in addition he was the founder of the Conjunto Folclorico Nacional de Cuba, in 1962.  Within that troupe he became one of the island’s most important akpwon (singers of Yoruba music).

As a singer he was known as “Ocha Niwe” (meaning “the saint of the jungle”), and which was the name of his santo (saint) within the Regla de Ocha order.  He performed both as a singer and as a dancer in many dance works, in addition to participating in the films Historia de un ballet (1961), and Osain (1964).

Daniel Pinos displayed his excitement with the reception of his work.

The general Cuban public recognizes that special timbre of his voice thanks to recorded works produced by popular groups such as Synthesis and Mezcla.  Nevertheless, his discography is much wider, and he wound up winning three Cubadisco awards in the category of best “folkloric” album.

The years 2001 and 2002 were especially relevant for his career because he was nominated for a Latin Grammy each of those years, in addition to receiving the International Fernando Ortiz Award from Cuba.

Daniel Pinos’ documentary is a film of great honesty.  It shows us the musician in his day-to-day environment, without too much retouching.  The older gentleman is seen in constant activity, with his wisdom and humility shared as much with local children as with the pupils interested in his art.

There is no pretense of exoticism in this work.  It testifies to a popular reality stripped of routine.  Instead we see truly authentic classical art, where enjoyment of the fiesta and religiosity occur in an indissoluble blend.

The showing of the film was not a premiere because it dates back to 1997, when it participated in the Havana Film Festival.  Nevertheless, it remains compelling in the present, and it’s much in tune with current debates on race and the imprint on the island of the cultures of Afro-descendants.

Daniel, who to my good fortune has been a friend of mine for a few years, displayed his excitement with the reception of his work at the institute – and even more so for the presence of the artists who can be considered Ross’s students, spiritual descendants and continuers of the Cuban musician’s work.

Also in the audience was part of the team that worked on the documentary, as well as the wife and children of the French producer, and researcher Gisela Arandia (who worked closely with the production of this work).

This is not the sole event being presented by the Institute of Anthropology, located in Old Havana.  Mario Castillo, promoter of the activity and researcher with the center, invited everyone in attendance to a series of video-debates that will have as their central themes “the cultures of work in the world of popular Cuban culture.”

I hope to see you there.