(Excerpt from the self-study book entitled Bembe Conversations, by Arturo Rodriguez – Mel Bay Publications)

The Roots of Bembé

The history of West Africa springs from three main sources — archaeology, oral tradition, and the written logs of foreigners who traveled there. Unfortunately there was no written form of the African-based languages until about 1700 AD.

Archaeology can provide us with little information about the evolution of drums in West Africa. As mentioned previously, since most drums were made of organic materials, their history and former cultural significance have literally disintegrated over time.

Oral tradition usually consists of part fact and part fiction, as the history of a people is passed from generation to generation in the form of stories and parables. If you ever played the “telephone game” when you were younger, you know how easy it is for a simple message to become completely turned around as it is told from one person to the next. Most of the stories that still remain today only provide means for conjecturing about the history of drums in West Africa.

Lastly, there are the written notations of all the travelers that visited West Africa over the course of history. These include North Africans (Berbers), Arab travelers, missionaries, and eventually European traders. Their accounts of events in this area are, as expected, stilted and from their own point of view.

The oldest written account of West Africa survives in Greek records from about the 5th century BC. These records describe the journeys of Greek explorer, Hanno of Carthage. Hanno, as with other explorers from the “civilized world,” saw West Africa as another great unknown — a dangerous and scary place full of heathens and barbarians. For example, one of his written stories describes an island area in the “Horn of the West” (West Africa). It reads:

“We could discover nothing in the daytime except trees; but in the night we saw many fires burning, and heard the sound of pipes, cymbals, drums, and confused shouts. We were then afraid, and our diviners ordered us to abandon the island.” (Palmer 1931:2)

Even given that these historical sources are relatively few and far between, and that the reliability of information leaves something to be desired, it’s still possible to piece together a good portion of our “Bembé path.” By 800 AD, trading was heavy between North Africa and West Africa. North Africa provided climatic conditions that were more conducive to raising cattle. West Africa’s climate was more conducive to raising crops. These diversities stimulated trade between the two regions which, in turn, stimulated the transfer of culture and traditions.

Three main trade routes were used. The first route went into the western regions of West Africa, with Ghana as the major gateway. The second route went into the central regions of West Africa, with Timbuktu and Gao as the major gateways. The third route went into the eastern regions of West Africa to an area known as the Hausa states.

The Hausa states, situated in what is now northern Nigeria, were socially, governmentally, and economically advanced, with well-established trading ties to:

  • Libya and Tunisia in the far north
  • Egypt in the northeast
  • Nubia in the Nile Valley
  • Eastern Guinea,now southern Nigeria and the home of the many Yorùbá tribes

The trade routes between these entities flowed with both tangible and intangible goods, all of which played an important part in the cultural evolution that took place at the center hub, the Hausa states, and at the ends of the spokes, including the area where the Yorubá reside.

Inside the Yorubá Culture

The Yorubá people would appear to be the descendents of two separate and distinct ethnic groups. The first group was the Stone Age “Nok Culture” mentioned earlier. Evidence of the existence of the Nok dates from 900 BC to about 200 AD. The Nok also provide the first evidence in West Africa of having used smelting. They were pioneering metal workers, stone carvers, and had also mastered the use of the terracotta. They were the earliest known sculptors yet found in sub-Saharan Africa. Master artists in their own right, they paved the way for the tradition of extremely ornate portrait terracottas and bronzes that later developed in the city of Ifé in what is now western Nigeria.

The second group of Yorubá ancestors are only talked about in legend and folklore and, according to these stories, would seem to have emigrated from Arabia via Bornu, an area north of the Hausa states and somewhere along the middle of the Nile. (They might have been the people of the ancient Egyptian-like empire, Kush.) The migrations probably occurred in about 1000AD. Two main groups of migration occurred, one towards Ekití, Ifé and Ijebú, inside the dense forest belt, and another towards Oyó on the northern edge of the forest.

Yorubá culture abounds with myths and legends, almost all of which seem to have had a profound impact on their music. We will explore one of the more well known stories in this next section.

Yorubá Myths and Legends

The Yorubá people practice a religion called Ifá. At the core of this religion is a supreme being called Olodumáre or Olórun, the creator of the heavens, the earth, and the earth’s inhabitants. “Communication” with Olodumáre is not performed directly though, as one might “talk with God” in the Christian faith. Instead, communication is accomplished through other divine beings called Orishá.

Each Orishá has control over certain specific aspects of the universe. Some are considered to have been around long before the earth was created. Some are the personification of certain natural forces such as the wind, trees, rivers, mountains, and oceans, while others represent certain historical figures such as kings, cultural heroes, and war champions who have been deified. In essence though, the Yorùbá believe each Orishá represents a familial ancestor who possessed a certain power or ashé. During moments of emotional crisis, these ancestors would shed their material selves, leaving only their ashé, which manifested as pure energy.

In all, the Yorubá worship anywhere from 200 to 1,700 (or more) of these Orishá through a myriad of myths and legends that explain their existence. As with the Bible, these mythical stories are told metaphorically, and are subject to the interpretation of the reader. (Think of the many forms of Christianity practiced today, each with their own particular “twist” on how the Bible is interpreted.) One of these, the legend of Oduduwá (pronounced like oh-doo-doo-wah), is particularly significant as it endeavors to explain some of the political and social changes that occurred during the history of the Yorubá.

The Legend of Oduduwá

As legend has it, Oduduwá was a great warrior who came from the far eastern realms of Africa and conquered the original inhabitants of Ilé-Ifé, the area the Yorùbá believe is the cradle of their nation. These original inhabitants were called the Igbó. Oduduwá, who shall remain gender-less for now, married one of the Igbó people, in order to keep peace and unify the two peoples. One version of this legend identifies Oduduwá’s spouse as Obatalá, another Orishá worshiped by the Igbó. However, it is unclear from any of these accounts whether Oduduwá was a man or a woman. For that matter, Obatalá is considered a rather androgynous entity, too. Some believe that perhaps Obatalá was male and represented the “father” of the Igbó people. When they were conquered, they were forced to worship Oduduwá who was female. However, when the conquering leader died, the Igbó may have expressed their discontent with this new Orishá and, in their defiance, assigned a male gender to Oduduwá. Suffice to say, it’s all very confusing.

Regardless of the gender of either, Oduduwá and Obatalá’s descendents were sent to rule in different parts of the Yorubá Kingdom. One of their sons became the first alafin or king of Oyó. He went on to father another son who became the first Oba (or monarch) of Bénin. As you can see, these Orishá legends tie into and attempt to explain, at least in part much of the political and social change that went on in the area throughout the history of the Yorubá.

By 1300 AD, all the Yorubán states were under Ifá spiritual leadership, and the area had developed into a strong economic force. Yoruban influence spread to neighboring countries, including the Kingdom of Bénin. Around 1486 AD, the Portuguese landed in Bénin and began establishing strong political and trading ties with this, one of the largest and most well established of the political systems in Western Africa.

As the Europeans improved their seamanship, they were able to explore further into West Africa using the Niger and Senegal Rivers as key entry points to reach the in-lands. They sought the wealth of natural resources that were so prevalent there, including gold and salt, and which were also so desperately sought after back in Europe and in northern Africa. It was cheaper and better for both West Africans and Europeans to bypass the inhospitable Saharan trade routes to accomplish these tasks.

But as the Europeans expanded their territories westward into the “New World,” the need for resources changed from precious metals to manpower. This was the driving force behind the slave exploitation of West Africa’s many inhabitants.

The African Diaspora

Diaspora is a Greek term meaning “scattering, spread out, or disperse.” When used in conjunction with the history of Africa, the term “African Diaspora” generally refers to the dispersal of Africans and African culture primarily as the result of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Although Africa was no stranger to slaving herself, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade carried out by the Europeans had perhaps the most profound impact on the export of African culture and tradition to new lands.

For thousands of years, from the time of Egyptian rule to the formation of large West African states, “free labor” was very much a part of daily life. It was common for war captives between warring states to become enslaved by their victors. Slaves were important commodities – status symbols by which to measure the relative power and control of a monarchy. The more slaves, the more power.

Actually, this concept was not unique to Africa. In all areas of the world, the use of “free labor” in support of a conquering force or higher social class was a well-accepted practice, whether called “slavery,” “indentured servitude,” or some other semi-politically correct “term du jour.”

As the Europeans continued to expand their empires around the globe, the need for gold was outweighed by the sheer need for manpower to cultivate the resources in these far off lands. When Spain began their colonization efforts in the Caribbean, including Cuba, they initially enslaved the local Indian population. However when these indigenous people were all but eliminated through the ravages of war and disease, a new source of manpower had to be found and exploited. It was inevitable that the peaceful trade the Spanish had established with West Africa would soon give way to the massive exporting of the West African population to the New World.

Over ten million Africans were forcibly removed from their native lands during the European slave trade. Many did not survive the trip across the Atlantic. Of these, over 700,000 were sent to the tiny island of Cuba. Most of the Cuba-bound slaves came from a seven-hundred-mile wide corridor in West Africa that stretched from present-day Senegal and Mali in the north to Zaire and Angola in the south. Many different ethnic groups were affected including the Yoruba.

The commonality in language and tradition among these people helped form the cohesive ties that bound these groups together spiritually and culturally. It formed the basis by which many of their religious and social practices would fuse and take on a new appearance in Cuba.

Religious Life in Cuba

The Yorubá accounted for almost 45% of the 700,000 slaves sent from West Africa to Cuba. These included the Egba, Egbado, Ijesa, Ijebu, and Oyo. Other Yorubá-related ethnic groups, including the Fon, Gun, Popos, Bini, and Nupe, accounted for an additional 15% of the slave population. Actually, the term “Yoruba” was not even applied to these diverse regional groups until the 19th century. Prior to that, the Yoruba were known as the Lucumi, a term that is still applied in Cuba today and not only defines the spoken language of these people, but identifies those who clearly distinguish themselves as being Nago, Egbado, Ijesa, Oyo, and Ijebu in origin.

The Yoruba in Cuba continued to worship their Orisha but, under a certain amount of pressure from the Spanish Catholic Church to embrace Catholicism, a process of syncretism ensued. (Syncretism is the fusion of two fundamentally different belief systems such as religions.) The Yoruba manifested a way to camouflage their Orisha deities as Catholic Saints. Some found enough similarities between the Orishas and the Saints to embrace those element of the Catholic religion, while others simply viewed Saints as another manifestation of the Orisha. This camouflaged form of Orisha worship continues today and is known as Santeria.

In Cuba, these diverse regional groups over time were able to form into their own social groups. These social groups allowed people of similar language and ethnic origin, such as the Lucumi (a.k.a., Yoruba) to maintain and continue some of their customs and beliefs. This social structure is known as a cabildo. Many cabildos exist all over the island of Cuba, even today. The Lucumi cabildos honor and celebrate the Orisha in a festival called Bembe. (Thought we’d never get there, did you!)

So Just What Does “Bembé” Mean?

The word bembé itself has many different definitions depending on where you might happen to be standing on this planet, and in what context you’re using the word. For example, many different regional groups throughout Africa have used the word Bembé to mean different things.

  • The Dahomey, Malinke, and Hausa people have a drum named bembe.
  • The Mandinga’s define bembe as a platform upon which a king or great leader might make a ceremonial speech.
  • The Bambara’s call a particular type of tree in their neck of the woods bembe.
  • The Yoruban definition of bembe is derived by conjugating two smaller words – be and mbe. Be means “to supplicate, as in a religious prayer or pleading.” Mbe means “to exist or live.”
  • In Cuba, “Bembe” is also defined as:
    • A classification of percussion instruments
    • A religious celebration or gathering
    • The toques, changes, and/or dances used at these religiouscelebrations and gatherings
    • To communicate, as with the Orisha

Bembe is also sometimes called Bokoso which is loosely translated as “to reunite or find” or sometimes even as “the reunion of the drum.” In Cuba, Bokoso means “a festivity, dance, and reunion of people to the sound of the drum,” and is considered to have carried royal connotations.

Cuban Styles of Bembé

In Cuba, there are three distinct styles of Bembé that are played on the Igbin family of drums.

Bembé Lucumí

Considered the most genuine in form (closest to its African origins), Bembé Lucumí songs are very old and are always sung in the Lucumí language.The drums are usually played with sticks. At the start of any Bembé Lucumí celebration, a ritual “feeding” of the Orishá Elegguá, guardian of symbolic crossroads, takes place to protect the dance and to encourage good story telling. Even within Bembé Lucumí, there are several styles of music that appear.

Makawa

Makawa style Bembé Lucumí is characterized as upbeat and funky with an unusual meter or swing to it. In this style of music, the Bembé drums are played with both sticks and hands.

Bembé Oro

Bembé Oro style is extremely popular in Cuba. Considered more modern in origin, it was most profoundly impacted over time by the large Congolese population in Cuba, and by the widespread use of the conga drum in popular music. In this style of music, the drums are played primarily with the hands rather than with sticks. It is also not uncommon for the drums to be accompanied by two bells or guatacas, making the music that much more engaging for the audience. The drums play salutes to each Orishá in a form called Oru Cantando.

Obakoso

Obakoso style sits sort of halfway between Bembé Oro and Makawa. It is played more in the Cuba’s cities and suburbs than in the countryside, as it’s particularly “laid back” style tends to draw less attention from those nearby neighbors!The lead drum in the Obakoso style of Bembe is played either with one stick and one hand, or with two sticks.

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