The story behind this sound begins in late sixteenth-century Cuba, way back when the air was thick and wet and the verdant green reached for sky. Spaniards had arrived years before, establishing a colonial system, decimating the Siboney and Taino Indian populations. That left the invaders short on the labor needed to mine for the yellow metal that made them so feverish. Enter the Yoruba people.
The Yoruba brought more from their African west coast region (now named Nigeria) than labor. They also delivered their beliefs, rituals, dances, and music, seeding a legacy that to this day remains vibrant in the New World -- despite the slavery, tyranny, persecution, embargoes. The diaspora of the Yoruba -- particularly its Cuban segment, the Lucumi -- would yield another resonant culture: Afro-Cuban. One of today's foremost ambassadors of this is Lazaro Ros -- a virtual history book of Yoruban and Afro-Cuban music and chants who was the first akpw centsn (lead singer) of the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional de Cuba, formed in 1962. A teacher (and spiritual mentor to some) still living in Cuba, Ros has united with one of the island nation's foremost pop bands, Mezcla. And the product -- sabroso!
All except one of Mezcla's members are Cuban by birth; all still live there. Guitarist and arranger Pablo Menendez is, ironically enough, a San Francisco native, although he was reared and educated in Cuba. Mezcla (Lucia Huergo, Jose Antonio Acosta, Sonia Cornuchet, Juan Carlos Abreu, and Octavio Rodriguez) uses a blend of keyboards, guitars, bass, sax, and drums. With Ros carrying the mike, the stage was set for a fascinating union, and that has been realized with their album Cantos.
Traditional Yoruban songs have been used mainly for religious ceremonies. Other modern Cuba-based electric bands such as Irakere (former members include trumpeter Arturo Sandoval and saxman Paquito D'Rivera) have mixed Afro chants with Spanish, even incorporating into Latin jazz the traditional rhythms played with Yoruban ceremonial bata drums. But with the exception of Sintesis, an all-electronic band that also blended the talents of Lazaro Ros and members of Mezcla, the combination of Yoruba and electronic has never been recorded. The collaboration provides this music a much broader popular appeal, more accessible for Lucumi practitioners and nonpractitioners alike.
As is customary in ceremonies, and even in underground recordings, the first song on Cantos is dedicated to Eleggua, a messenger god, owner and keeper of roads and doors. He has a double personality -- one is Eleggua and the other Eshu. Together they symbolize the beginning and end, life and death, the ultimate duality. Cantos begins and ends with songs to the deity. The opening cut is titled "Barasuayo," which literally means "the one who travels in front" and is a name frequently given to Eleggua. The chant is actually very short -- one line sung by the akpw centsn and then echoed by the ankori (chorus). However, the piece is extended by an explosive mix of saxophone, keyboards, bata, conga, bass, and guitar, with the chant serving as an invocation (like many of the other songs) for Eleggua to protect the initiate's journey. The keyboards and bass closely follow the original percussive rhythms. An occasional guitar and low-end percussion give it a jumpy, manic -- and yet often serene -- feel. The finale, "Eshubelekeo," is a more percussive piece with a nervous mood.
The second song, as in traditional Yoruban/Lucumi ritual, "Ikiri Ada" is dedicated to Oggun, and it recalls the archetypal traits of this jungle-dwelling god of war and metals. Oggun, after being caught by his father committing an incestuous act, condemned himself to constant labor. This song addresses Oggun's roaming machete, eternally cutting. Guitar and keyboard riffs provide a Haitian sensibility. There are lots of stops and changes, making the song almost scattered, though it's held together by flowing soca guitar melodies.
A very popular orisha (Yoruba god) in the Lucumi pantheon is Shang cents (often spelled Chang cents in Latin America). "Iya Masse Lobi Shang cents" begins with crunching, thundering guitar chords, which is appropriate because Shang cents is the god of thunder, virility, drums, and dance. The song builds hectically, reaches a crescendo, then softens into a mix of keyboard and sax melodies, then rises again -- achieving the ebb-and-flow of a thunderstorm.
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Shang cents, being the personification of male virility, has several lovers. His favorite is said to be Oshun, patron saint of Cuba and the goddess of beauty, love, rivers, and fertility. "Imbe Imbe" begins with keyboards imitating sounds of the percussion instruments such as it centstele and ok centsnkol cents as well as kalimba (not traditionally used by the Yoruba), then breaks into a bata solo.
The remaining three songs -- in honor of Obatala (father of all orishas, god of creativity, wisdom, and peace); Oya (goddess of lightning and wind and a constant companion to Shang cents); and Yewa (goddess of cemeteries) -- are much in keeping with the previous four, adding some pleasant surprises: crackles of lightning, jazzy horn effects, screams. (For those not familiar with these chants, an informative sleeve/booklet with brief stories of each deity and a rather loose English translation of the lyrics is included.)
With the current popularity of electronic and computerized music -- not to mention increased interest in the music of the Third World -- the collaboration of Ros and Mezcla was inevitable. Fortunately that meant a marriage of intelligent musicians and a valid ambassador of the Yoruba/Lucumi tradition.
Lasting music, the stuff that really sticks with you, is rarely made for only a certain population to enjoy. The fact that Cantos is such a hybridization of tradition and modern music confirms that this is not for santeros only, or for Cubans only, but rather for humans only. Ache.