Sunday, August 08, 2010

29, el tambor

Yesterday I went upstate for the celebration of my Santeria godfather's 21st birthday as a priest of Yemaya. Two of my godsisters were giving him the ultimate honor, a tambor fundamento, or fundamental drumming. Many people honor their orisha birthday, the anniversary of their initiation as priest/ess in the religion, by throwing a tambor: Hiring a group to play conga and shekere and sing to the orisha, this is called a guiro. But fundamento is different: the sacred and powerful triple bata drums, the anya, are played. These drums are so sacred that initiates in the religion must undergo a separate ceremony where they are presented to the drums before they are allowed to dance in front of them. A priest is specially selected at a fundamento to dance for the orisha being honored: this priest will always be mounted by the orisha who comes to earth to grace the celebration with their presence.

My godfather, called Asinyabi in the religion, is a priest of Yemaya Okute, the warrior aspect of Yemaya. He is completely and utterly devoted to Yemaya: his home shrine to his Orishas among the most beautiful I have ever seen. Though he no longer lives in New York City, he belongs to a Brooklyn-based Egbe Yemonja, a society of other Yemaya priest/esses who carry on important traditions of Yemaya outside the normal ile, or house, structure of the Santeria/new world Yoruba religion. Anyway the birthday celebration, even being held so far outside the city at an elder's house upstate, had a terrific turnout.

I'm not a great santero. Although I was fully initiated over thirteen years ago as a priest of Obatala, I'm not very active in the community, I don't have godchildren, and I don't usually throw celebrations for my own orishas, and I attend tambores rarely, either guiros or fundamentos. But I love the religion, I love the orishas, and I love my padrino; it was important for me to be a part of this event.

A huge altar, called a throne or trono, literally a sacred seat for the orisha, to Yemaya was set up in the back. While some Santeria lines are not strict about this, in my padrino's ile there is no photographing the orishas or the celebrations, so there are no pictures of the beauty that was this event; only the pictures in the memories of the participants. The throne was like an art installation to Yemaya, a kind of beach scene with rich cloths and even sand, seashells and a pool with fishes. The throne was surrounded by fresh fruit offered up to Yemaya and then handed out as blessings to the participants afterwards. The room is filled with priests and priestesses dancing, or greeting each other by prostrating themselves at the feet of those older than themselves in orisha years. It's a sacred occasion but a joyous one.

The bata drumming was extraordinary. It's an oddly syncopated sound, instantly recognizable, and unlike what a person would think of as the typical "Afro-Cuban drumming" that came out of Yoruba religious tradition to become a foundation of Latin music and jazz. Each of the three drums is covered in a special cloth decorated with symbols of the orishas, and the center drum, the iya, is draped in bells. Their rhythm coaxes the orishas to earth: as initiates present themselves to the drums and later dance to the songs played to each orisha, the air becomes charged with sacred energy and priests and priestesses shake and twitch with the touch of the divine beings. At this tambor two Yemayas and one Oshun came down. The Yemayas were that of the priestess hired to dance for Yemaya, and my own godfather's. A number of Changos, Oyas and Obatalas lingered briefly, mounting their horses just enough to remind us of their presence. The singer would engage in a dialogue with the descending orishas, trying to persuade them to fully come down and bless the crowd with their mysterious presence.

The details of how exactly all this comes to be are secrets of the initiated. There are details that those of us who have sat in the room and been crowned with orisha are sworn not to reveal to those who have not experienced them. But those secret details are of little importance next to what one experiences at an event like this. We who are believers don't really talk about how what we have just witnessed and experienced works, we just bask in its blessing, doing what is necessary to maintain the tradition that keeps the orishas alive. The orishas, the divine beings of Yoruba legend, come to the new world in slave ships, come to the north on the backs of immigrants, they actually materialize in flesh and blood at tambores like these to remind us of the miraculous world of nature and the spirits, to remind us of our destinies, to bless us with their touch. It's not an intellectual experience of religion but an emotional one. What must look a little crazy to people outside the wall of believing and accepting is to those who know a revelatory thing of beauty. I can't tell you what it feels like, exactly, to feel that energy, that aché, in your head, that open connection to God's messengers, but it's like nothing the secular world has to offer.

One of the most beautiful things I have ever witnessed in the religion I saw last night as Yemaya closed the ceremony. A bucket is filled with water, and normally a dance is done with the bucket by priests, carrying the bucket about the room to cleanse it before being carried outside where the water is flung into the street. But last night in the golden hours before dusk, even inside you could feel this, Yemaya herself seized the bucket. She swirled in her brilliant blue skirts with multicultured panels flying, the bucket outstretched from her hands yet not giving up a drop. It was a vortex of divine spirit, the crowd calling out to her as Yemaya spun around and around. I was in awe. And reminded of why I believe things that other people cannot see. And why I see things that other people will not believe. And I was so so grateful that I heard that drum, el tambor, calling what turned out to be my own name so long ago, and whether or not I am a model santero or a slacker, how profoundly blessed and lucky I feel that Yemaya, that Obatala, that all the Orishas, that God him or her self, has chosen my eyes, my heart, and my head for the mysterious revelation of the presence of such transformative magic in the world. Maferefun Yemaya; all praises due. Aché.


  1. Thank you Ian. I have deep respect for your spiritual practice. I really liked the fact that photographs were prohibited. Lately, in the Christian church I occasionally attend, cameras have become a real nuisance. At critical moments in a ceremony swarms of relatives will rush forward and block the moment from the congregation while they videotape their memories. This, to my mind, completely defeats the purpose of the ceremony.

  2. Funny how people go for memories rather than experiences, eh? What kind of church do you go to?

  3. Oh, it's a nice little redwood gothic Episcopal church with a rainbow next to the door and a sign saying "We are an inclusive and welcoming congregation."
    The thing about Episcopalians, like Catholics and Orthodox, is that we are a liturgical church; which is to say that we are defined by our ceremonies (The Sacraments). We recite a creed and state our belief in it during the mass but what defines an Episcopalian is not a set of beliefs but participation in the sacraments. To participate in a sacramental ritual is to become a part of the Anglican Communion. When you dive into the middle of the thing with your minicams and cellphones you cut the participant off from the church and make it a private event. I guess I consider that vastly more troubling than the fact that we have an openly gay bishop or any of the other things we do that are upsetting to some other Christians.