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 plastic artists and performance art. African origin. 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 fruits 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 La 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 Orichas 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-believer. 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 santero’s, 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.