Oluwo Popó Awó Bokono Pedro Abreu, Vessels and attributes of four deities (foduces, voduces) of the Arará Sabalú pantheon of Havana, September 2000; Bisque-fired and painted terracotta pots (tinaja); staffs of dried Royal Palm shoots (pirigayo), goat skin, burlap, glass beads, cowrie shells, string, canvas, and vegetal ingredients (the herbal carga or “load” inside the handle).

On the left is the tinaja for Asojuano Nengué (6 _” tall x 10 _” dia.). As a general archetype, the Afro-Cuban Asojuano (aka Babalú Ayé, Chakuata, “San Lázaro”), is a deity of the sick and the poor; he embodies skin ailments, immune disorders, damaged internal organs, bodily decomposition, and the great sufferings of the World. Asojuano is one of many voduces of the Cuban Arará pantheon of Dahomean origin, which parallels the Yoruba-Lukumí pantheon of orishas. Asojuano manifests in seventeen different “roads” or “paths,” including Da Soyí, Aliprete, Daluá, Nengué, , Kútu Máse, Gáuse, Afimaye, and Adú Kaké, each with its own history, personality characteristics, iconography, and ingredients for its fabrication. Nengué, the Arará say, appears as “the vulture [aura tiñosa] with the head of a man” (see text for photograph of Nengué for further details).

Second from the left is the pot of Nanú, the “Mother of the San Lázaros,” who always accompanies, and is “received” along with, Asojuano (her pot is 7 _” tall). Nanú (aka Ananú) carries her own já, made from the same materials as Asojuano’s broom---palm shoot, beads, and cowries---it’s pirigayo roundly curves back, and is tied across itself, intending to mark a feminine form. Nanú’s ajá and necklace take a pattern of 7 light blue and 7 white beads, separated by one white bead with blue stripes (17 _”).


Next (third from the left) comes Naná Burukú, considered to be the “Grandmother of the San Lázaros” and the “Mother of Da Soyí.” Her vessel is white with blue organic motifs; two lyrical designs on the vessel’s front recall the sagging breasts of old age (12 _” tall). Nana Burukú’s já, sewn with white and transluscent brown beads (17 brown, 17 white, 7 brown) curves back into it’s own handle (17”). Naná Burukú is the origin of all fresh water high up in the mountain spring (manantial).





On the far right is the tinaja of Gueró (10 _” tall), the “husband” of Naná Burukú. The Spanishized name, Gueró, is pronounced Hwedó (the d softened to an r; accent on the last syllable). This is none other than Dan Gueró, the ancient serpent vodú, which the sinuous figure on his vessel’s lid reflects. Arará Sabalú priests compare Gueró to Ochumaré, the Yoruba-Lucumí deity represented by the rainbow—Ochumaré has become very rare in Cuba, and is often considered to be a “road” of Obatalá. However, Abreu believes that the Arará Sabalú nation “borrowed” Gueró from the pantheon of the Arará Dajomé (Dahomey) nation.

The small, but rich, ethnographic literature on the Arará proposes that the various Arará sub-groups in Matanzas interacted with each other, as well as with the Lukumí. Without doubt, Gueró is the Afro-Cuban cognate of Danbala Wedo of the Haitian Vodou Rada pantheon, also of Dahomean origin. In Haiti, Danbala Wedo’s vertebrae symbolically connect Vodou priests to their ancient ancestors across the water in Giné, the African continent (see Karen Brown, Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn). Like the Yoruba-Lucumí Obatalá, Gueró carries a horsetail flywhisk, yet Gueró takes white beads with blue stripes, unlike any of the Obatalás (18 _”).

Arará derives its name from the ancient West African city of Allada, Arada, or Ardra, as found on the earliest maps. Cuba’s Arará “nation” originated among the Ewe, Fon, Mahi, and other peoples of the former Dahomean Empire (now the Republic of Benin), which historically had itself borrowed religious traditions from the neighboring Yoruba to the east. Many of the Empire’s peoples were sold off into slavery and taken to Western Cuba, particularly to the sugar growing province of Matanzas. There, in and around the sugar factories (centrales) linked to the commercial hub that was the City of Matanzas, with its great port, the Arará reorganized themselves into numerous sub-nations. These included the Arará Sabalú (from the Dahomean city of Savalu), the Arará Magino (from the Mahi people), Arará Dajomé, Arará Cuévano, Arará Abopá, and Arará Cuatros Ojos. Following emancipation, many former slaves migrated to, and formed cabildos (religious mutual aid societies) in, the nearby small towns, most notably Perico, Jovellanos, and Agramonte, as well as the City of Matanzas itself. These cabildos, founded by the Zulueta, Baró, Fernández, and Ruíz/Heredia families, respectively, exist today. The last, the Cabildo Arará Sabalú Nonjó (Cabildo Espíritu Santo), founded between 1889 and 1895 in the City of Matanzas, is the genealogical root of the lineage to which Havana’s Pedro Abreu belongs.

Today, the Arará Sabalú Nonjó Cabildo of Matanzas and its Havana extension in the house of Pedro Abreu consider its tradition of Asojuano to be distinct from that maintained by the other extant Matanzas Arará Cabildos. They consider their Asojuano, his priestly hierarchy, and the rules and protocols for initiating others to this vodú to be more in conformity with original Arará traditions. At the same time, they acknowledge that the authenticity of their current Asojuano practices resulted from relatively recent “reforms,” which, apparently, had much to do with events in Havana. The Arará Sabalú tradition was established in Havana by Asojuano priestess Oluwó Popó Pilar Fresneda (“Sansupento”) and her goddaughter, Taurina Enujere Montalvo, early in the twentieth century. They were responsible for “delivering Asojuano Arará to all of Havana’s babalawos,” particularly the house of Bernardo Rojas. Through family connections, both women, it seems, developed their ritual system in collaboration with Havana’s Ifá community. The Asojuanos and other voduces of this Arará Sabalú lineage would “speak” not through cowrie shells—which are sewn to their staffs. Rather, they would speak through the opele divining chain of the Yoruba-Lukumí Ifá system. Male Oluwó Popó would undergo special ceremonies directed by Havana’s babalawos to authorize the Arará use of Ifá divination through the opele. In this way, priests such as Pedro Abreu would become Oluwo Popó Awó Bokono Arará—bokono being the historical Dahomean equivalent of Ifá diviner. The significant role of Ifá within contemporary Arará Sabalú practice is marked by the yellow and green beads of Orunmila that Abreu sews to the of Asojuano, Nanú, and Naná Burukú (see illustration).

The Havana reworking of the Arará priesthood and its practices reproduced, in effect, the historical role, centralizing hierarchy, and new powers of the West African Dahomean bokono, or Fá priest, following the eighteenth century importation of Yoruba Ifá divination by King Agaja (1708-1740), founder of the Fon Empire. Though it is possible that African-initiated Fá diviners arrived in Cuba as did Yoruba babalawos, their practices were, apparently, lost. In Cuba, the reintroduction of Lukumí Ifá divination, would, among other elements, come to distinguish the Havana Arará Sabalú traditions from those of Matanzas’ other Arará cabildos in Perico, Jovellanos, and Agramonte. For example, though the shape of their early ritual systems remains unclear, the will of the voduces would come to be divined in the Zulueta Cabildo of Perico with the cowrie shells of Eleguá, the Lucumí messenger orisha. Moreover, a Zulueta descendant, Armando Zulueta, is believed to have “invented” a hybrid vodu-orisha now commonly called “San Lázaro Lucumí”—essentially an Asojuano that speaks via Eleguá’s cowrie shells and radically differs in its fabrication from that of the Arará Sabalú. Whereas the Arará Sabalú Asojuano is prepared as a cement-sealed vessel, “San Lázaro Lucumí” is an unsealed container filled with stones, much like the lidded pot containing the secrets of the Lucumí orishas (As one of Lydia Cabrera’s “old informants” told her in the 1940s, while the “San Lázaro Lucumí” contained stones….[t]he Arará [San Lázaro], which does not carry stones inside, is a hermetically sealed pot,” El Monte, p. 134). In another significant contrast, within the Arará Sabalú tradition, the direct initiation of Asojuano priests (Oluwo Popó) and the “giving” of Asojuano to ohers remain the exclusive right of the Oluwo Popó. Within the Zulueta tradition, any Lucumí orisha priest who has “received” Asojuano can then “give” it to someone else; in this sense, Asojuano was cast in the model of the Lucumí orishas. Indeed, Lukumi babalawos, if not also orisha priests, are accustomed to “give” not only San Lázaro Lucumí, but also the roads of Asojuano Arará to others, without deference to the rights claimed by the Oluwo Popó of Cuba. The Cuban ethnographic literature affirms that the Arará of Perico blended their practices with those of the Lucumí—practices that were then transferred to the United States. However, the literature does not reflect upon the reworking of the Arará Sabalú’s own traditions, and more generally, the process of self-conscious reform and inter-lineage politics that have characterized the history of Afro-Cuban religions in general.
(Text © Copyright David H. Brown, 2001.All Rights Reserved).