Coming Soon, the Choir I direct “The London Lucumi Choir” is involved in an amazing Event on the 8th May in South of the river in Brixton, London. The evening is dedicated to the three major female Orishas Oya, Yemaya and Oshun. The evening is part of a festival called Survival Guides Survival Guides. 1-14 May 2014 which is hosting a multitude of interesting talks, workshops, films. The reason why I am so excited about the evening is that we are collaborating with Spoken Word and Visual Artist, Jacob V Joyce; Contemporary dancers, Hannah Anderson-Ricketts and Ffion Campbell-Davies and Yolanda Perez formally from the Conjunto Folklorico de Cuba . There will be also slide shows, story telling and visual effects. The amazing artwork directed by Janine Francois from the Introducing Oshun Exhibition will also be hung around the place.
The event will take place at Brixton East between 8 and 10pm, 8th May 2014
As an artist, I am always looking to express my self in new and creative ways. Unfortunately for me with the rise and interest in Cuban Culture there has been a commercialization of the Orisha songs and dances that are presented in such a way that they simply seem to stereotype and mimic the culture. Even the costumes have started looking tacky and cheap which for me is a sad state of affairs. There is limited connection to Orisha energy and it has become a parody of what for me was beautiful and connected. I look at so many videos on You Tube of Orisha dance and classes and I can only ask myself “where is the connection? What is this saying? What is this all about?” With the rise of dancers and musicians ( not all of them originally dancers and musicians but some of them are of course) coming from Cuba to Europe and the UK who can use their skills for economic reasons in times of recession, there are more and more dance classes, festivals, congresses taking place around Europe. With the general rise of tourism in Cuba there is also a larger market. There is the general rise of tourism in Cuba, where culture is easy to package and sell. The very limited political tourism of the 70’s and 80’s where foreigners went to work on brigades and see a Revolution in action has been replaced. The blockade has ensured the necessity of finding income and tourism has become an increasing industry in Cuba. I also see how many people are incorporating the “Orisha experience” and are unfortunately jumping on the bandwagon and using the religion to sell their Salsa Dance Holidays. “Come and dance in Cuba and visit a real live Bembe”. I have heard of fake Bembes where the tourists have to pay to get in being organised. They believe that they have been to a real ceremony when it has been just a set up. It is for me, highly irresponsible of these tour operators to be using the religion to attract more clients. It is sadly becoming a curiosity for tourists all eager perhaps to witness something extraordinary as long as it is at a distance. This not only is happening in Cuba. Let me refer to Sabrina Gledhill’s Blog.
I am aware that interest in Orisha as culture rather than a spiritual path is not new although internationally it is on the rise. The Book “Divine Utterances” By the Late Katherine J. Hagedorn ( Ibae Bae T’orun) has spoken in depth about the formation of the Conjunto Folklorico and the complexities of preserving song and dance from a living tradition at the risk of it becoming purely cultural for the entertainment of the masses. Recently many clips from Hollywood and Mexican films that used drummers and singers has been circulating on Facebook . Films from the 1950’s where the so called “exotic” captured the imagination of the international film industry ( and not for the last time). Most of the films, although the music is fabulous send out a message that the religion is something to be feared. Here is an awful film distorting our belief system but with great music and legendary musicians from our tradition such as Merceditas Valdés, Olga Guillot, Paulina Álvarez, Xiomara Alfaro and Omo Aña Trinidad Torregrosa. See in particular from 1 hour and 13 minutes into the film. Preferable to listen to the music with your eyes closed then actually watching! The Rezo for Chango, Iyesa sequence for Oshun and sequence for Elegua is accompanied by crazed dancing which eventually ends with blacked up actress Ninon Sevilla running off a cliff.
The film is a sad reminder of the selling of the sacred to the highest bidder and the dangers of using the spiritual in a secular context. There has always been for me the dichotomy of being a crowned daughter of Oshun walking this path everyday and the use of the tools so to speak outside of a religious context. This is particularly marked in countries like the UK where the community is small and there are few if no public ceremonies such as tambors. What is more prevalent is the amount of people learning Bata, Song and Orisha Dance in a purely cultural context which more often than not is lacking connection and , as far as I have seen and understood there is not a lot of reference to the religion or the path. People are unaware that the roots of the dance comes from the movements and symbols of seeing the Orisha come down and “mount” their initiates in ceremonies, although now it is a separate cultural dance form that has grown and developed. What sometimes is offensive to me as a practitioner is the eagerness that some non practitioners find at dominating the culture and then packaging it and selling it how they wish. I have even seen a class which was teaching the Oro Seco ( a series of rhythms used to salute the Orisha) in a ‘purely secular way”. This kind of annoyed me. Why do people feel that these traditions are open to being taught for someone’s private gain? How is it possible to teach something so entrenched in deeply spiritual practice in a secular way? These songs and rhythms are not museum pieces. For me this is clearly disrespectful towards drummers that have maintained the tradition for years. I recently read the Biography of Carlos Aldama by Umi Vaughan and Carlos Aldama
It is a book that should be read by everyone, indeed anyone that is involved in Orisha singing, dance and drumming. I think it is a personal responsibility to the history of the religion and ancestors who have preserved it to find out what they are involved in.
For me it is important in my own practice to be very clear about the divide. I truly love the London Lucumi Choir. It is a non audition community choir that meets on a regular basis. We not only learn about the Songs but it is about singing and being open to singing in a country where singing together has sadly died out in many places. People gain confidence and learn that it is their right to sing. It is also an opportunity for me to sing for Orisha and singing to me is life itself. My father is a singer and my grandfather also. The spiritual and physical benefits of singing can not be stressed enough and I know members of the Choir have come to this particular Choir because of the connection to drum, to spirit, and the general feel good factor.
However for me, it is not enough to sing. I like to create; I like to have something to work towards which is meaningful in todays settings. For me connecting with artists that have put a lot of thought into the creative process is fundamental; something that can really touch people’s hearts and resonate with them. To me being an artist means finding art in the individual, using art in the community and opening people’s hearts and minds to history and ancestry. This is why I am so excited about the performance on May the 8th. Jacob has put a lot of thought, and effort into the presentation of the evening. I am looking forward to seeing one of the best dancers that epitomizes traditional Orisha Dance in the UK, Yolanda Perez.
I am also looking forward to seeing Hannah Anderson-Ricketts and Ffion Campbell-Davies performing an contemporary improvisation to a Oshun Iyesa Sequence using Whacking which is a form of street dance using specific arm movements, and Balinese fan dancing. Both forms used in a way to embody Oshun’s energy.
Here are Hannah and Ffion dancing together :
Jacob V Joyce who curated the whole event will also be providing us with stories and visuals and Janine Francois’ work will also be up.
If you are in the London area on May the 8th 2014. Come and See us in Brixton!!