Grupo Folklórico Palo Santo: The Ethics of Making Afro-Cuban Music and Dance, for Haiti, in Northampton by Morgan Greenstreet

It was the last night Tuesday of January, and the NEA dance studio in Northampton was the most festive and crowded I had ever seen it. There were families with kids clustered around the door, young men and women were stretching on the floor inside, and the drummers were setting up as usual against the right wall. Old friends and acquaintances greeted each other with hugs and I joined in, greeting Miguel, the lead dancer, Brandon the singer and organizer, Julian, the lead drummer, and the other drummers Christine and Hannia.

I hadn’t been to the NEA dance studio for over a month, but the other members of Grupo Folklórico Palo Santo had been there in some formation or other every Tuesday night for over three years, drumming, singing and dancing traditionally Afro-Cuban religious and popular music. The first time I climbed the four flights of wood stairs, I had recently returned from a three-month stay in Havana, Cuba, where I had been arduously studying percussion and drum set. That first Tuesday I was so focused on the musicians that I barely noticed the dancing. I watched from the bench as the singer invoked the Yoruba trickster deity Elegguá through nasal call-and-response songs with the drummers singing chorus and sounding the sonorous skins. The rhythms and songs were familiar to me and the lead drummer played with the confidence, strength and improvisatory dexterity that can only be developed through many years of sustained practice and performance. His hands rolled and slid over the skin, drawing out sharp slap accents, muffled mid-tones and ringing, triumphant bass notes marking the beginning of the rhythmic cycles maintained by the two women on mid and high drums.

The group was my best hope for maintaining contact, here in the Pioneer, with the world of Cuban music that I had recently left and already desperately missed. While I wasn’t sure of what my real connection to this music was or how I would fit into the group, I realized right away that I could learn a lot from these people. After the class I approached Brandon, the singer and organizer, and asked if he needed another drummer. Soon I was a regular member of the group, meeting for weekly rehearsals in Brattleboro, Holyoke or Florence and playing for the Tuesday night dance class and an occasional performance.
I had been away for a while, so when I returned to the dance class that Tuesday, I asked Brandon if I could play with them again. “Yeah, sure,’ he said in his usual brusque tone, “hop on the high drum.” In a moment we were set up and the crowd became focused, without a real introduction, Elizabeth, a seasoned dancer in the troupe began to lead warm-ups. She rolled her shoulders, stomped her feat, swung her long, silver hair in circles, and leaped and whooped and the crowd did their best to follow her. For me, it physically felt very good to be behind a drum again, playing my small part in the rolling, cyclical, interlocking melodic rhythm of this music.

After the warm-ups, Brandon addressed the crowd, “I want to thank you all for coming out tonight. Tonight is a special dance class, because it is a benefit for relief work Haiti. The earthquake which devastated Haiti earlier this month has hit close to home for some of the members of Grupo Folklórico Palo Santo and their extended families, and we have all been affected by this tragedy.” I looked around at Christine, one of the drummers, whose husband Ayizan is from Port-Au-Prince and has close family living in the area of worst damage. Miguel stood on one side, listening as Brandon continued in his high, slightly shaky voice, “Haiti and Cuba have a long, interconnected history: since the Haitian revolution, there have been several major waves of Haitian immigration to Cuba’s eastern-most province; the first was when white landowners fled the revolution, bringing their slaves with them. There are many Cubans of Haitian descent,” Brandon paused and put his hand on Miguel’s shoulder, “for example Miguel Periche’s family, like many in his home town of Holguín, is of Haitian descent. A little later, Miguel will teach you some of the dances of his native Oriente that share common roots with Haitian culture. But first, as this is a special evening, more than just a dance class, we want to open with a salute to the Yoruba orisha Elleguá, the trickster deity and the opener of the way.”

The crowd sat around the edges of the room and Brandon checked with us to make sure we were ready to play; then he launched into the familiar song, “Mo juba o, mo juba orisha.” Locking into Brandon’s bell part, we played in unison and sang the response“Aché mo juba orisha.” As we played, a tall, sleek dancer named Effie Molina entered the room from the hall, dressed in a red and black silk costume. She carried a curved stick called a garabato, which she swept through the air as she crouched and sprung around the room. She approached Brandon and greeted him in the ritual manner, crossing her arms and touching each of her shoulders in turn to each of his. Then she danced playfully off around the circle, rolling a red and black cloth ball to individuals and flinging candy from her pockets. At the height of the song, people got up from and audience and danced in a half-circle around Effie as danced in front of the drums. She imitated the ‘characteristic’ gestures and postures of Elegguá, based on the movements of someone possessed by the deity in a traditional Afro-Cuban Santería ritual. Effie danced with animation and joy, we pounded the resonant drum skins and sang the Lucumí words of praise in tight unison. The energy in the room was strong and the faces of the dancing audience showed delight, but I felt a familiar, creeping discomfort. Even as the drum rang out beneath my hands, my mind ran along an uncomfortable, but increasingly urgent line of questioning, “Who are we to be playing this music? Who are we to invoke a god we do not actually worship, but rather imitate? What are the ethics of removing this music from its traditional context and performing it for pleasure alone? Is it enough to be historically accurate, or is there something fundamentally disrespectful about this kind of appropriation? What would a Cuban believer in the orishas, for example my aging batá teacher in Havana, think of our group? What does this music and dance mean to us in this context, if it has been so removed from its traditional Cuban context?”

The music and dance of Afro-Cuban Santería has a long, convoluted, crucial history: brought from Yorubaland in West Africa to Cuba through the extreme violence of slavery, these songs, rhythms and dances were carried and re-created from the memories of Africans and used to worship their deities in a strange land. Free and slave communities formed and focused around self-preservative religious and social events, and because of the harshness of their lives, religious music and dance became more ritualized and sacred to the Afro-Cubans than they had been or continue to be in West Africa. In Cuba there are serious taboos on who can play what type of drums, what music is played when and for which deities, whereas there is often more flexibility in modern oricha worship in West Africa. After the Cuban Revolution there was an official move to nationalize Black artistic expression, especially the music and dance, removing it from its specifically African, counter-cultural and religious context and appropriating it for the creation of a ‘new national culture.’ The Cuban government effectively secularized and commercialized the artistic religious traditions of Afro-Cubans, partly by categorizing these traditions as ‘folklore,’ a condescending term which disempowers them of their sacred importance and relegates them to a lower cultural status—something fascinating for study and performance but not worthy of true respect and equal standing with European traditions.

Grupo Palo Santo and I are part of one of the most recent results of this shift: because of this ‘folkloricization’—secularization and commoditization— traditional Afro-Cuban religious music and dance have become increasingly available for study by foreigners such as ourselves. These rhythms and dances are now performed though-out the world as secular ‘folkloric’ representations of Afro-Cuban religious events. Having seen, heard and felt the power of this music in religious rituals in Cuba, I often feel very uncomfortable on an ethical level performing ‘folkloric’ versions of this music. And yet I am honored to play with the accomplished musicians in Palo Santo, and I love the poly-rhythmic complexity, the clear, strong melodies and the collective aesthetic of Afro-Cuban music. I live within this paradox whenever I play with Palo Santo, and I felt it strongly that evening.
After Effie/Elegguá left the room, Brandon announced, “Miguel will now teach Gagá.” Turning to Miguel, he quietly asked, “Do you want to say anything about it?” Miguel shook his head, and said, “No, you do it.” “Okay,” Brandon took a step forward, and spoke up, “Gagá is a dance that was brought from Haiti, where it is called Rará, to Cuba by Haitian slaves and immigrants. It is a social dance, a couple dance, and it remains a central part of Oriente’s annual Carnaval celebrations.”

The dancers lined up facing the front of the room, and Miguel demonstrated the stomping steps and frenetic leaps of the dance. Brandon and I began the rhythm, he playing a repeated, tight rhythm called ‘tresillo’ on a cowbell and I filling in some gaps, playing a rhythm called ‘cinquillo’ on the section of caña brava bamboo called guagua. After a few minutes of instruction, the room was filled with couples spinning and pounding around each other; they stumbled and swung, holding hands, laughing and sweating. At one point the dancers formed a circle and people took turns showing off their moves in the center. We tore into the blistering, fast groove, responding to Brandon’s song calls with responses in a Cuban dialect of Haitian Creole. As the rhythm and dance built to a rapid, sweaty, climactic plateau, the dancers gathered close around us drummers, clapping to the beat as Julian thundered on the low drum, Brandon called “Bobo kwa!” and we responded, “Se wale mo!” My sticks thwacked the wood, I shuffled my feet and my voice soared to join the others in the repeated, rolling chorus. It was a moment of elation, or elevation.

By the end of the evening, I felt physically and spiritually satiated and content; everywhere I saw smiles and heard laughter as people lined up to make their contribution to aid relief in Haiti. I felt good realizing that everyone in the room had participated towards the creation of a positive energy in this place; this evening we had transformed our appropriation of Afro-Cuban music and dance to give back, to show our love for and acknowledge our cultural debt to Haiti through a joyous celebration and a practical, financial contribution of $500 dollars to the Haitian Community Development Project ( My ethical concerns and questions hadn’t disappeared (and I hope they never will) but I left the dance class that night excited by the possibility of striving for ethical musical making in a time of globalization and appropriation; a kind of music-making that gives back as much respect as it takes inspiration from traditional cultures, a kind of music making that creates community across nations and races but honors difference. Simply said, that evening gave me hope.

This entry was posted in Issue # 1 February 2010, Literary Non-fiction, Social Constructions. Bookmark the permalink.

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