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Pid: 176

Iyalocha Felicia of Habana Vieja with godchildren on the Playa de los Chivos, 8 September 1999.

The well-known Iyalosha Felicia Omí Saidé made a great offering (ebó) to Olokun on 8 September 1999 on the coral beach just east of Havana, called the Playa de los Chivos, Goat Beach. Her goal was, through propitiating Olokun, a grand orisha of the Creation who can set things in motion, in order to realize her dream of founding a cabildo in her barrio of Old Havana. The ebó functions to create solidity (firmeza), an push upward from that foundation. In otherwords, she was working to ground her position (fundamentarse) in order to build a house—the cabildo. Historically in Cuba, a cabildo was a formalized African religious institution with its own establishment, which, brought together many people under one roof for mutual benefit.

The entire ceremony consisted of two principal parts: the “feeding” of Olokun and a drumming and awán* of cleansing and gratitude for the riches that Olokun provides. At water’s edge, four babalawos offered Olokun a young pig, a male sheep, a swan, duck, two roosters, two doves, and a guinea hen (eledé, abó, aboní, kuekuellé, akukó, ellelé, and etú). A sacred batá drumming (batá de fundamento) would provide a context for the awán and the ceremonial honoring of Olokun and the orishas.

The Olokun of an orisha priest or priestess is considered by Cuban babalawos to be a form of Yemayá, called Mayeleo, who is close in ocean depth to Olokun, but is not Olokun as such. Olokun is the master of the deepest secrets of the ocean and forms one great consitutent of the Creation, another being the Earth, which was created by Odudúwa. “No one knows,” except Olokun, people say, “what there is at the bottom of the sea (nadie sabe lo que hay al fondo del mar). Olokun is central to the mysterious questions of life, death, and great transformations, since the dark bottom of the sea is the lowest point on the earth’s surface, the ultimate grave, in a word. For this reason, the feeding of Olokun at the sea has always been considered a dangerous, if not also mortal, undertaking. Until a half century ago, babalawos fed Olokun from a boat out in the water, often in preparation for the momentous ceremony of the masks of Olokun, which were “danced” to a special set of Olokun drums. In effect, the ceremony honored and invoked the ancestors, the egún, and reflected aspects of Yoruba Egungun celebrations. A carved wood mask covered the dancer’s face, while a cloak of burlap saco covered the body. A babalawo was expected to die with the realization of each Olokun ceremony.

The center of Olokun celebration in Havana was the town of Regla. Over a period of years spanning nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the ceremony and the dancing of Olokun were directed, in turn, by the most famous babalawos, such as Adechina Remigio Herrera, Tata Gaitán, Quintín García, and, finally, Quintín Lecón Lombillo (Tín). Tin’s grandfather, Atandá Ño Filomeno García, a babalawo, drummer, and carver, and his father, Quintín, also a babalawo and drummer, were intimates of Adechina and Tata Gaitan and central to the dynasty that guarded the Olokun masking tradition. Tin directed the last Olokun mask ceremony in 1963 in Regla, where the Herrera and García families had lived as neighbors within Regla’s African “Third Barrio” since at least the mid nineteenth century.

In order to realize the offering, the babalawos gathered at the Playa de los Chivos fed both the Olokun-Mayeleo pot belonging to Omí Saidé and the bottom of the sea itself, Olokun’s natural domain. Because Olokun lives not on the surface, but at the bottom, of the sea, they were required to consecrate a messenger in order to communicate prayers and offerings to Olokun. The messenger was an Eshú in the form of a large rectangular rock, which was placed over a blue satin cloth. Right at the shoreline, amidst the spray, each animal was offered, in turn, over this temporary altar/Eleguá and then over Omí Saidé’s blue Olokun pot. Each animal was first presented to the body of Omí Saidé in order to symbolically “identify” her with the animals offered and to connect her to Olokun. In the Lukumí religion, animals are not killed arbitrarily; they are sacrificed--they give up their lives—for a higher cause, such as to save the life of, and substitute for--a person. For this reason, all the participants must pinch their necks before the sacrifice in order to empathize with the animal to be killed.

Each animal was killed, in turn, and then cast into the sea. When finished, the babalawos bound up the rock Eleguá in the blue cloth and dropped it into the sea, where it swiftly plunged to the bottom. The ceremony had opened with a coconut divination (obí) to Olokun to verify that the preparations were correct, and it closed with another coconut divination to determine that Olokun had accepted the sacrifices and required nothing more.

Meanwhile, two groups of batá drummers had set up on a flat area in order to “play for” Yemayá and Oshún, as the formal drumming of Olokun with special drums is no longer performed. Not coincidentally, 8 September sat right between the annual feast days for these two female orishas of salt and fresh water, respectively (the 7th and the 12th respectively). Two batá groups—six drums and 12 drumheads altogether--were needed to produce an adequate level of sound out in the open air. Prior to the drumming, Oshún was fed two hens, as she had requested, and then a guinea hen was fed to the two of them.

Felicia’s family organized the large awán, which would cleanse all of the participants and offer thanks to Olokun. The awán consisted of many plates and bowls of grains, beans, root vegetables, eggs, and other ingredients around a basket lined with a burlap sack (saco de yute). All present, in order of seniority, circulated around the awán, cleaning themselves with each type of food and then casting it into the basket.

The drumming typically features two parts. By custom, just prior to the awán, the drummers presented an oro seco (rhythms without song) directly to Yemayá and Oshún, including special rhythms for Olokun and the awán ceremony. Then, following the awán, the second phase of the drumming began—in which the drums would allow the orishas to “come down,” dance, and counsel the participants. Priests and priestesses danced joyously before the drums, as the soloist and chorus sang to praise and invoke the orishas. Soon, Yemayá mounted one of her priestesses. Olokun does not possess priests in Cuba, for Olokun is simply “too big” to come into the head of a single person Olokun. In coming down, Yemayá, the “Mother of the Waters” and owner of the sea’s layers above its bottom, naturally responded to the sacrifices. She would be the ideal vehicle to lead the awán to the deep, where Olokun lives. Thus, Yemayá led a procession to water’s edge in order to deposit the awan directly in the sea. The drumming then continued in a grand baile de santo.

Following the return of the procession to the performance area in front of the drums, the orisha priests danced, and Yemayá reappeared in regal blue satin clothes in order receive salutations and dispense healing and advice.

* Technically, the term awán is used to refer to a similar cleansing ceremony for Babalú Ayé (aka Asojuano, San Lázaro), the deity of sickness and the world’s suffering.

Note: as the ceremony was considered public—held outside on a public beach—the babalawos permitted and even encouraged the taking of photographs and video. Photographs were prohibited after the mounting of Yemayá.

David Brown  •   Folkcuba.com  •   Ocean  •  New Jersey  •  
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