Five men, clad in white, walk silently onto the stage in Paris. The percussion starts, and Jorje Alberto Duquesne Mora, one of the charismatic singers of the Afro-Cuban group San Cristóbal de Regla, begins a plegaria, or prayer, taking the audience from their seats to the Regla neighbourhood in Havana, Cuba.
San Cristóbal de Regla was invited to perform at the Festival of the Imagination, created by Maison des Cultures du Monde, a group that showcases diverse cultures to theatres in France and throughout Europe.
This is the first time the group has come to Europe, sharing their music and their spirituality.
“This tradition is passed down orally – the singing, the playing, and the elements of the same religion. It’s passed down to my son, who will pass it to his sons. It’s a link to the past,” says singer Mora.
Mora also plays the bell, güiro, a gourd surrounded by a net (with beads or seeds), and clave, an instrument with wooden sticks that provides the rhythmic pattern in most Cuban musical styles.
“During the performance we are communing with our ancestors … and there are times where we’re filled with emotions while playing and singing,” he adds.
He can play the sacred trio of drums to provoke a trance during the tambor drumming ceremony.
Both Mora and Chinicle stress that the group is more than just music – it’s a multi-dimensional form of worship, a connection to their ancestors who were enslaved, and ultimately a way of life.
It’s a family affair for San Cristóbal de Regla. Director Chinicle’s son, Andres ("Andrecito") Lazaro Balaez Gutierrez plays batá drum, and the catá, a Congolese percussion instrument that is traditionally made from a hollowed tree trunk and struck with wooden sticks. He also plays the bell, the güiro and he sings.
His uncle, Osvaldo Cáceres Balaez, plays the clave, bell, güiro, bombo, the tumbadora, and he sings and dances, too.
Fifth member Bartolomes Espinoza Peraza plays the batá, cajón, the tumbadora, and sings.
At one point in the interview, Mora pulls out his phone to show a photo of the band – still dressed in white – in front of the tomb of Allan Kardec in Père Lachaise, a Parisian cemetery.
Kardec, a 19th century French spiritualist philosopher and educator, made a mark on Afro-Cuban religions and spirituality while communicating with the dead.
“We had to go to Allan Kardec’s grave – this was very important to us,” he says.
Steeped in tradition
San Cristóbal de Regla group was founded in 1953 in the Regla neighborhood of Havana, an area where enslaved people lived.
The music, prayers and practices of Santeria, which comes from the Yorùbá people, and those of Palo Monte, originating from Bantus, are quite different.
The styles come together in this musical group, where some band members call themselves Santeros, or followers of Santeria, who worship Orichas, similar to saints,Tamboleros (or, Omo Aña, who can play sacred bata drums in the ceremony), while other members call themselves Monteros, those who practice Palo Monte, which is centered on the relationship with the dead.
“In my case, I am Oba Ilu,” says Chinicle, meaning Dueño del Tambor in Yorùbá, or the master of the house where the batá drum is kept.
In addition to these types of worship, the practice of Catholicism and Afro-Cuban Spiritualism is intertwined, according to Ana Koprivica, ethnomusicologist.
However, while the musicians have roots in Africa from those who were enslaved and brought to Cuba, the music and practice is Afro-Cuban.
“Their African roots are valued among two instrument ensembles: the güiro, which is used like a small drum, and the batá drums that are particularly tied to the Yorùbá culture, that creates the African culture present in this music,” says Koprivica.
The Yorùbá, an ethnicity originating from parts of present-day Nigeria, Benin and Togo, were the last group of people forcibly brought to the island, at the end of the 19th century, so their culture is the least diluted.
Although the Bantus were the most numerous in Cuba, they were forced on the island at the beginning of the 16th century.
“Their culture was maintained not so much musically, but in terms of religion,” she says.
Onstage, Mora begins to sing, belting out a number of plegarias, including one called “Mama Francisca”, evoking an African spirit of the same name, and a common slave name.
Francisca, according to the legend, was a very powerful African woman of Yorùbá origin who was gifted with miraculous powers. He sings as the percussion enhances his voice.
“Mama Francisca, reina africana, soy Lucumi!” he sings.
“Mother Francisca, African queen, I am Lucumi”, referring to the word used in Cuba for the multi-cultural mix of various African cultures.
In Cuba, under a revolutionary government, religious tolerance is the norm, says Chinicle, adding that 80 percent of all Cubans are religious.
“If we have a religious ceremony, with a group of people, we tell the police, but that’s for any gathering, religious or not,” he says.
On stage, the musicians switch instruments, depending on the type of song or incantation, and for one song, Osvaldo, one of the musicians, exits, to return as a hooded dancer.
For the Ireme dance, which comes from the Abakuá, a secret society created in Cuba by enslaved Nigerians, it features a spirit from the past who represents the ancestors.
Osvaldo, wearing a burlap hood and ruffle, with a Harlequin-like costume, greets the moon, the earth and nature, but also the people present in the theatre. He dances and acknowledges the three with a shake of the bells around his waist.
The symbolism of bells refers directly back to slavery, according to ethnomusicologist Koprivica. While many chants refer to slavery, it’s a direct link to Cuban history, more than African history.
“It’s a call to the spirits, but it’s also a bell to call the slaves on the plantation –when they heard the bell, it was for them to return or to go to the fields,” she says.
“Using the bell is also to show who participates in this history of the plantation,” she adds.
The audience, watching rapt in their seats, begin to respond to the music, some moving to the aisles to dance to the rhythm.
Mora explains that although San Cristobal de Regla plays religious music, they make an effort to create a connection with concert-goers who are not members of Afro-Cuban sects.
“If we can connect with the audience through the music, the rhythm and the movement, we’re satisfied,” he says.
“When people are listening to a language that is sung that they don’t understand, there’s always the music, and they can dance,” adds Chinicle.
By the end of their set, Mora has the audience on their feet, clapping and dancing, the aural voyage to Cuba complete.