This is an archived article. For the latest news, go to the Advance Homepage
For more archives, go to the Advance Archive/Search Page.


  February 26, 2001

Stephens Examing Cuban Music
for Clues to History of Slavery

Before sugar, Cuba was largely undeveloped, a somnolent Spanish tobacco and cattle ranching outpost in the Caribbean Ocean. But the notorious "quot;Triangle Trade" turned the island into a cultural crossroads, fueled by demand for sugar and the rum made from it. Practically overnight, as the 17th century waned, Cuba was transformed into a plantation society.

Between 1835 and 1864, it is estimated that nearly half a million Africans were brought to Cuba as slaves. And no city in Cuba was changed more decisively by this phenomenon than Matanzas, on Cuba's northern coast.

Three years ago, pursuing a longstanding interest in Afro-Cuban music, Robert Stephens, a professor of music and interim director of UConn's Institute for African American Studies, made his first trip to this island nation 90 miles south of Florida.

There he met, and became fascinated with the Yoruba religion, which originated in Nigeria but came to Cuba with the slaves. He also met Israel Molinar Casteneda, an ethnologist affiliated with the University of Matanzas, and began a collaboration that may occupy both men for the balance of their careers.

Music of Life
The slaves brought with them an extraordinary range of cultures, and they survived by retaining and nurturing those cultures in social clubs and mutual aid associations called cabildos.

When Cuban slaves were emancipated, in 1886, the cabildos fell under control of the Catholic Church, which required them to register with local church authorities. It is ironic that in trying to seize control of the cabildos, the Church actually created the milieu in which Afro-Caribbean religions blossomed.

Eventually, many of the cabildos disbanded. But the extraordinary religion Lucumi (or Santeria) - a synthesis of Catholicism and ancient African traditions - flourished. And throughout the Caribbean and South American nations where slavery was practiced, it remains a vibrant cultural force today.

Stephens has long been interested in the language of music - the stories, dreams and hopes that people throughout the world encapsulate in their songs, chants, and dances. A music educator specializing in ethnomusicology, Stephens has directed programs such as "Project Southwest," a field-based research and teaching/learni ng experience on the cultural traditions of native Americans at the Hopi Reservation in Arizona.

Since 1998, Stephens has made several more trips to Cuba in search of information that can help him to understand how the culture of the Yoruba has survived in the ceremonial language of Lucumi. Yoruba people made up the majority of Africans transported to Cuba between 1820 and 1840, and more were brought to Matanzas than any other Cuban city. That is where Stephens is focusing his research.

"In Matanzas," he notes, "it is still possible to find temples of Yoruba subgroups, such as the Oyoes, the Edwardos, the Iyessa, who made important contributions to Lucumi."

Slavery did everything it could to destroy Yoruba culture. "The violent legacies of the slave trade, European colonialism and imperialism were extraordinarily successful in obliterating historical continuities of Africans in Africa and the Americas," Stephens says. But the Yoruba survived. In Cuba, they became known collectively as Lucumi, from a Yoruba phrase meaning "my friend."

In defiance of slavery, the Yoruba kept their traditions and beliefs alive by continuing to worship the orishas, the emissary deities that, in Lucumi, rule over nature and all aspects of human existence. Portrayed, in Lucumi rites by followers of the faith, the orishas are essentially benevolent and can be summoned through the use of ritual drumming (using a set of sacred drums called Bata, the secular rhythm of which is known worldwide as rhumba), chanting, prayer, and offerings. Although the Lucumi were often compelled to conceal the orishas behind Catholicism (in which the orishas became analogous to and sometimes indistinguishable from the saints), the religion survived. In its language, Yoruba traditions have lived on as well.

Finding Yoruba
Assisting Stephens in his research is Rosa Carrasquillo, a graduate student from Puerto Rico, who is completing her doctorate in history at UConn. "I was attracted to Bob's work because of my interest in women in Latin America," she says.

Carrasquillo brought to her dissertation, which examines political culture in rural Puerto Rico, a passionate point of view. In Puerto Rico, she notes, urban prejudice against people from the country is widespread.

What she and Stephens have unearthed in Cuba, says Carrasquillo, who has also studied women in voodoo, is a "mountain of information. " They have been able to establish comfortable relationships with hosts who not only practice Lucumi, but allow their rituals to be videotaped. And they have discovered, often with the assistance of Casteneda, that a wealth of documents exists in various institutions . " The Spanish were both meticulous and articulate in their records," says Stephens.

An archive in Matanzas, for instance, houses the largest collection of information about Africans in the Caribbean. Another massive archive exists in Havana, where there is also a museum of music. And still more documents exist in smaller archives all over the country.

In the research, Carrasquillo has found threads that unite work she has been engaged in throughout her academic career - spiritualism, the impact of Catholicism throughout Latin America, the roles of women. "The research in Cuba is very exciting," she says. "Through it I have found an opening to a different world - academic, humanitarian and spiritual."

The research benefits, as well, from a growing quest for cultural roots in Cuba and Africa alike. "Recently," says Stephens, "Nigerians and Cubans have been attempting to retrace their cultural and religious histories across the Atlantic in both directions. Cubans have started to search for their roots in Yorubaland, and Yorubans are searching for African cultural expression in the Americas."

In this quest, Stephens is searching for the language - musical and theological - in which the memories of Yoruba survive. It was those memories that kept the spirits of hundreds of thousands of people alive during one of the darkest chapters in the history of the world.

Jim Smith