The Ewe, Fon, and Arará in Cuba

Arará is the name given to the Ewe and Fon people who arrived in Cuba, as late as the 1860s, from Allada in the former Dahomey, West Africa as enslaved Africans to work at sugar refineries and mills in Matanzas Province (Basso 1995; Daniel 2005; Fernández 2005). (Slavery was not abolished in Cuba until 1886.) The ruins of Unión de Fernández, Melba Núñez Isalbe PhotographyEspaña Sugar Refinery, Jill Flanders Crosby PhotographyThe Ewe and the Fon not only share a physical proximity to each other in West Africa, they also share a cultural heritage and common attributes of artistic and religious expression (Daniel Avorgbedor, interview March 2, 2008). 

Across Matanzas Province, former enslaved Africans and their descendants who eventually settled in the Perico area, one of the key sites for this project research, worked primarily at a sugar refinery called España now abandoned and located just outside Perico.  According to interviews in Agramonte, the second key research site in Cuba for this project, people who settled in the Agramonte area worked at a sugar operation called Unión de Fernández which is now in ruins.

For Ewe and Fon people brought to Cuba as enslaved Africans, their religious musical and dance expressions were their identities as a people dislocated from Africa under the weight of slavery. In Cuba, they continued their religious practices to the best of their ability. The Arará religion, as it was eventually named, both is and is not a continuation of Ewe and Fon religious expressions as they exist in West Africa.

The West African roots permeate, underpin and inform Arará. However, Arará is its own revitalization and reinvention of the Ewe and Fon religious expressions as the people who practiced them endured slavery and later worked together to rebuild a new life in Cuba.

Dancing in Perico, Brandon McElroy Photography

Arará as a religious expression in Cuba did not adopt a homogenous form across Matanzas Province any more than there are homogenous religious forms across the Ewe and Fon areas of West Africa.  The Ewe and Fon peoples had (and still have) multiple variations of music and dance-making (Avorgbedor 2005) along with diverse deities from their respective West African communities.  

However, there are common attributes -- shared and discernible larger deep structures across these diverse music and dance expressions (Flanders Crosby 2007), along with shared deities, often with slightly different names depending on location and people (Daniel 2005; Fernández 2005). These commonalities and diversities met each other in multiple locations across Matanzas Province. As peoples were isolated in individual forced labor communities, Arará evolved differently at each site.  Thus, individual Arará variations are prevalent.

The fundamento for Sakpate in Adjodogou, Togo, Brian Jeffery Photography

However, just as deep unifying structures are discernable across the Ewe and Fon religious, music, and dance expressions, it follows that there are shared and discernible underlying deep structures across the various sites where Arará is practiced. There are core aesthetic similarities in dances, rhythms, ritual procedures, and in religious deities and their physical representations (known as fodunes or fundamentos) that evolved from the shared attributes among the Ewe and Fon.

Likewise, interviews conducted with elders in both Perico and Agramonte revealed very rich individual oral histories. But through each interview runs a shared theme of transformation and retention, pride in the roots of Africa, remembered stories about relatives who were enslaved, and insistence on objects arriving "directly from" Africa.

 The Fundamento for San Lázaro in Perico Cuba, Jill Flanders Crosby Photography  

The Fundamento for Togbui (Sakpate) in Dzodze, Ghana, Jill Flanders Crosby Photography

 

Perico

Streets of Perico, Brandon McElroy PhotographyIn general, Perico, located in the Matanzas Province, Cuba, was first a municipality that was founded as railroad lines were built through the area in the mid 1800s. In 1861, the sugar refinery España in the Perico municipality was founded and by 1868 all the acquired plots of land of Julián de Zulueta y Amondo, owner of the refinery España, belonged to the municipality of Perico. According to residents in Perico and documents located in the Perico Municipal Museum, the majority of the enslaved peoples who worked the refinery were brought from West Africa mainly from the former Kingdom of Dahomey (present day Benin and parts of Togo, West Africa).

Ma Florentina's Dress in the Perico Municipal Museum, Susan Matthews PhotographyPerico, as a town today, is where freed Africans from España were eventually re-settled in houses built by the España owner. There are many evocative elder oral history stories from Perico in regards to its growth and its Afro-Cuban religious development, particularly the Arará religion. Many of these stories can be found on Susan Matthews' page. These manuscripts are all based on the interviews conducted in Perico by the research team of Jill Flanders Crosby, Melba Núñez Isalbe and Roberto Pedroso García between 2005 and 2010. Of these stories, Ma Florentina's story is perhaps the most legendary and well known.

According to the still circulating story in Perico, Ma Florentina was a princess in Africa before her capture. Therefore she was not only treated differently by other enslaved Africans at España and by the refinery owners, but she was allowed to bring objects from Africa to Cuba. After she was free, Ma Florentina was instrumental in starting La Casa de la Sociedad Africana (The African Society House) in 1887 in Perico (Alonso 1997). According to elders, Sociedad Africana was the heart and soul of Arará in Perico, functioning as a collective aid society and as a center of religious activities. Such societies were called cabildos. Oral history tells the story of how early members collectively housed their individual fodunes together under the roof of Sociedad Africana. After the death of Ma Florentina, the various fodunes were dispersed and went to live in houses of individual family members.

Lazarita Angarica in front of the African Society House, Brandon McElroy Photography

Apparently many of these fodunes were made by enslaved Africans who lived and worked at España, while several others were made by their first descendents.  The fodunes are still cared for and revered by the current descendents of their original owners. They are not only the direct link with the first practitioners of Arará, but they appear to provide the direct link to Africa since so many of them are believed to have "arrived here" from Africa. Sociedad Africana is currently under the direction of Victor Angarica, known as Prieto, who is godson to Ma Florentina's goddaughter Victoria Zulueta. Prieto is an important member of the community and is critical to the survival of Perico's Arará tradition.

Fodunes at the African Society House, Brandon McElroy Photography

Ma Florentina's fodunes, along with the drums that were brought to Perico by Ma Florentina, still receive annual ritual blessings by Prieto's extended family and other important drummers and religious leaders in Perico. According to local legend, several of her fodunes and the drums were brought by Ma Florentina directly from Africa although Prieto has indicated that the drums were bought to Perico from a nearby community.  True or not, the legend of the drums' and fodunes' African origin is strongly believed in Perico.

 

Prieto, Brandon McElroy Photography

 Ma Florentina's Drums, Melba Núñez Isalbe Photography




 

Agramonte

Melao, Melba Núñez Isalbe PhotographyIn Agramonte, a half an hour drive from Perico, where stories of Perico Arará elders are known and shared in Agramonte and vice versa, African roots are as resonant as in Perico. The ruins of Unión de Fernández, located outside of Agramonte, once housed a sugar operation and many enslaved people who eventually settled in nearby Agramonte.  In December 2007, the research team all spent an afternoon in Agramonte, sitting on the porch of 93 year-old Melao (Hilario) Fernández Fernández  as he narrated stories of Manuela Gose, also known as Ma Gose.  According to oral history, she and another elder called Coso-Coso were both tricked into getting on board a slave ship and were brought to Cuba to work at Unión de Fernández.  After her freedom, Manuela continued to live at the small community of Unión de Fernández before moving to Agramonte.

Next, we went to the house in Agramonte  that Ma Gose lived in and talked with Israel Baró, husband of Manuela's great-granddaughter Onelia Fernández Campo. When Manuela came to Agramonte, say Israel and Onelia, she brought her fodunes and established an African Society at her house sometime in the late 1800s. Unlike Perico, all the fodunes of Agramonte were not housed in Ma Gose's house.  Rather the fodunes stayed with the individuals who carried them to Agramonte.  Israel and Onelia are adamant that Ma Gose's fodunes and her ritual necklaces, still located in her house, came with Ma Gose when she was transported as a slave.  Israel says:

She brought them from Africa, but secretly because that was forbidden … That's been talked about a lot because it was difficult to bring any object from Africa, however, she brought them. That is why this is so important here since it was so difficult to bring things from there (personal conversation, December 31, 2007)

Manuela Gose's Ritual Necklaces, Jill Flanders Crosby Photography

There are several evocative stories about Ma Gose. According to Agramonte religious leader Mario José, during the dry season, Ma Gose threw water upwards, spoke in Dahomeyan language and rain began to fall on her property. One time, he told us, she was taken to jail in trance with her San Lázaro during a celebration at her house (the story of why she was taken to jail has, apparently, been forgotten):

They put her in jail. They took Ma Gose to the police headquarters and she was in trance with San Lázaro. They locked her in the cell and every time the guard went to sleep, she was sitting by his side, 'oh I left the lock open.' Those are the stories. 'Son take me to my house' for the celebration couldn't continue. When they were going to lock her for the third time, the lieutenant of the guard arrived … and said, 'ah what is Ma Gose doing here?' When they got here (Ma Gose's house), the two guards got possessed …They had to put away their guns and uniforms (personal conversation December 31, 2007).

Mario José, Brandon McElroy Photography

For more detailed stories, see Susan Matthews' page and her illuminated manuscripts. Also reference the following publications by Jill Flanders Crosby for more information on the Ewe and Fon, and further elder oral histories in both Perico and Agramonte:

Crosby, Jill Flanders (2010). "The Social Memory of Arará in Cuba: Oral Histories from Perico and Agramonte."  Southern Quarterly 47:4 (summer 2010 in press).

Crosby, Jill Flanders (2010). "Secrets Under the Skin: They Brought the Essence of Africa." In Making Caribbean Dance: Continuity and Creativity in Island Cultures Editor, Susana Sloat. University of Florida Press.

 

Sources Cited

Alonso Andreu, Guillermo. 1997. The Arara in Cuba. Translated by Carmen González. La Habana, Cuba: Editorial José Martí 1997. Originally published as Los ararás en Cuba (Editorial José Martí, 1992).

Avorgbedor, Daniel K. 2005. "Musical Traditions of Ewe and Related Peoples of Togo and Benin." In The Ewe of Togo and Benin, edited by Benjamin N. Lawrance,  197-214. Accra New Town, Ghana: Woeli Publishing Services.

Basso, Alessandra. 1995. "Las celebraciones ararás in Perico y Jovellanos." Unpublished Master's Thesis, CNSEA: La Habana, Cuba.

Crosby, Jill Flanders (2010). "Secrets Under the Skin: They Brought the Essence of Africa." In Making Caribbean Dance: Continuity and Creativity in Island Cultures Editor, Susana Sloat. University of Florida Press.

Daniel, Yvonne. 2005. Dancing Wisdom. Embodied Knowledge in Haitian Vodou, Cuban Yoruba, and Bahian Candomblé. Chicago and Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Fernández Martinez, Mirta. 2005. Oralidad y Africania en Cuba. La Habana, Cuba: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales.

Flanders Crosby, Jill. 2007. "A Felt Authentic Grounding: Intersecting Theories of Performance, Authenticity and Tradition." Paper presented at the annual meeting of Congress on Research in Dance, New York, NY, November 8-11, 2007.