In Afro-Cuban religious ceremonies, it’s common for participants to become possessed by spirits. All sorts of people are possessed: older ladies and teenage boys, lifelong adherents and new initiates. Most are handled expertly by other ceremony participants, who flank the person being “mounted,” make sure he or she doesn’t injure anyone, usher the person out of the ceremonial room and help him or her out of a trance.
In the 11 days that I’d been in the small, bustling, crumbling city of Matanzas, I’d already seen several ceremonial possessions. During my last night in town, I witnessed my fifth Santería ceremony, where batá drummers accompany liturgical song and dance. It was the most dramatic one yet.
There had already been several brief possessions at this last toque for Yemayá, the deity associated with the ocean. Suddenly, a man in his early 20s was mounted. He began to spin in place quickly, like a 33 rpm Sufi dervish played at 45 rpm. He placed his wrists on his hips and pushed his elbows back like a duck. His eyes were wild as he let out loud, periodic cackles, directed primarily at the sacred drums as the rhythms increased in intensity to a frantic but deeply grooving pace. The laughter, I was told afterward, symbolized enjoyment, not menace.
When I left an hour later, I saw the young man who had been escorted out of the building long before. He was still cackling, eyes wide, deeply in trance.
About a year ago, I took a two-week study trip to Cuba, supported by a research grant from SUNY Maritime, where I’m a humanities professor. I spent 11 days in Matanzas and three in Havana, studying Afro-Cuban folkloric music every day and attending traditional ceremonies or secular rumbas most nights. I don’t speak much Spanish, so I was lucky to get some amazing contacts (including a translator and guide, Antonio Pérez) from two Americans with extensive experience in Cuba. One of those Americans, Los-Angeles-based drummer Chuck Silverman, has led research trips to Cuba for 25 years — he fielded literally dozens of my phone calls and generously offered counsel. I could not have done what I did without him.
Matanzas is about two hours east of Havana. Cuba’s 11th most populous city, it has the feel of a big town. I stayed at three different casas particulares (privately owned bed and breakfasts) within walking distance of the neighborhood where I took most of my lessons and attended most ceremonies. Havana, by contrast, is unmistakably a big, sprawling city — full of traffic and bustle. I have been to other world capitals in less than working order — Cairo and Dakar come to mind — but Havana is its own version of heartbreaking. There’s 500 years of history there (it was founded in 1515), crumbling under the weight of island isolation.
My story is not really about Havana or Matanzas, per se. It’s about a North American jazz drummer and composer on an information- and inspiration-gathering trip to a place that felt much farther away than it actually is. I went to gather rhythms, songs and forms to write a new book of music for a new ensemble; I wasn’t looking to become a drummer for Afro-Cuban ceremonies or rumbas. I was after a more personal, poetic assimilation of musical materials from Africa and its diaspora. Cuba was the perfect place to find what I was looking for.
AfroCuba is not a literal place. The term comes from Cuban scholar Fernando Ortiz, and perfectly encapsulates the country’s inescapable African-ness. Below are five things I learned in AfroCuba.
Harris Eisenstadt is a drummer and composer living in Brooklyn, N.Y. The new ensemble inspired by his trip to Cuba, Aberikula, presents its first performance on March 30.