Santería is a religion shrouded in mystery; well known, but not well understood by those outside its practice.Possessions, Orishas, ceremonies – all terms associated with it, but what do they mean?
Music and dance group Afrekete are bringing their show 'A Tale Of Moving Gods' to BEMAC (10 November) in Brisbane to provide an inside look at Santería's practices, its historical development and transformation, and to celebrate Afro Cuban dance and music.
"Christina [Monneron] started Afrekete over ten years ago now," Afrekete member Kent Windress shares, "originally in Coffs Harbour with Israel and Adrian Medina, another great dancer, and she's been doing this festival every year.
"From Coffs, she went to the Gold Coast, and then the last one in Townsville, so it's been moving around a bit. She incorporated it as a not-for-profit about a year ago, and we have a board now. We're trying to have a presence across the whole year, rather than once a year."
Windress divulges the history of Santería, from its African origins to its global infiltration and transformation.
"I use the term Santería because it tends to be easier. It's known by other names by practitioners, and there's different strands of it, different levels of priesthood that wouldn't say they practice Santería.
"They might say they practice the Okana. Santería is a general term that itself is a little bit problematic, but if people have any idea about it, they will know that word.
"The practice is basically Orisha worship. Orishas are the gods, the spirits of the religious practice of the Yoruba people of West Africa, mainly in Nigeria and Benin. Each village would have different Orishas that the village was dedicated to.
"There were certain Orishas that were pan-Yoruban, across all the different tribes and peoples that call themselves Yoruban today.
"With the slave trade, a lot of those Yoruba came over in the 18th and 19th centuries, during the height of sugar production in the Americas. They brought their practices to Cuba, and it underwent transformation.
"So whereas you might have regional Orisha in Yoruba land; in Cuba, they became amalgamated under the term Santería or Regla de Ocha. It became more integrated as people from different localities were next to each other in this situation of slavery.
"It had parallel development, and underwent formalisation. Practices became formalised, some were cast aside, and other practices became dominant.
"Then Cuba practitioners travelled to the United States in the '50s, so there were small pockets, then it got picked up by other Latin American immigrants around New York and Miami, especially Puerto Ricans and other nationalities with a similar background to the Cuban history.
"It really started becoming international in the 1970s, as Cuba had a special period of peace when the USSR collapsed. It was a dire situation for them, so they liberalised. Some hardcore, communist, atheistic doctrines were relaxed, religious practice surged and more people came to Cuba to learn and become initiated.
"It continued spreading as Cubans immigrated to other countries, so now you have this practice in all parts of the world.
"One of the first times that religious, Cuban music was heard [in Australia] was from my godfather Hacinta Herrera. He came in the mid '90s playing these Bata and singing songs for these Orishas.
"A lot of the Afrekete performers and artists came over doing these big shows in Cuba: Havana Nights and The Bar at Buena Vista. Especially after the Buena Vista Social Club, Cuban music became popular across the world."
The show incorporates drumming as the musical centre-point, mirroring the significant use of Bata drums in Santería ceremony. "The music is used to connect with the spirits, the Orishas in very specific ways. In Santería specifically, they have ceremonies where they have Bata drums that are consecrated, so they actually are an Orisha.
"So the Orisha Anya is the Orisha that lives inside of these Bata, and when they have these fiestas, these formalised drumming ceremonies, it's considered an offering.
"One of the most important parts is that it's used to bring the Orisha down, so the people who are being initiated as priests of differential Orisha have the potential to be possessed by that Orisha at any time, but during these ceremonies it's particularly powerful for that to happen, and then that person is considered to be that Orisha for that time in that space.
"They go around and talk with people, give advice and warnings, as well as dance and enjoy themselves. The closing of the ceremony is sending the Orisha back up. The Bata that we're using are not consecrated, and you can play them in front of an audience like this.
"It's pretty explicit in this case, those specific drums, because the drum itself is considered an Orisha. There's taboos around who can touch it, who can't touch it."
Dancing is the other focal point of the show, as both Santería dances and secular Cuban dance are expressed, with world-class dancers such as Yasim Coronado Veranes performing their own approaches to contemporary dance.
"This show itself will include these Orisha dances, a simulation of what you might see at an actual ceremony where the person is possessed. They dress them in all the regalia of their Orisha, the specific colours and clothing that the Orisha would use, and simulate that possession that occurs at a ceremony.
"But it will also include secular Afro Cuban music dances. Another style is Roomba, which is what people in the slums would perform as entertainment. We'll have some modern takes on Cuban dance. Because of the system of Cuba, many went to high level dance schools modelled on Russian style and classical dance, so they have this amazing combination of very modern, very disciplined practice with this tradition they've come from themselves.
"We'll be showcasing Yasim Coronado Veranes, he's a great example of the contemporary approach to Afro Cuban dance; he came with Ballet Revolucion when they toured. So the dancers will highlight the Orisha part, as well as other styles and the contemporary approach as well."
Afrekete's 'A Tale Of Moving Gods' plays BEMAC (Brisbane) 10 November.