Situated Narratives and Sacred Dance: Performing the Entangled Histories of Cuba and West Africa
"As is fitting for its subject, this work is a blend of forms, inputs, voices, and visions. Collectively they reveal the complexity of the study and practice of 'Afro-Cuban' religion. They constitute an authoritative, potentially discipline-altering, stance on the question of African origins embodied in the presumed distinction between the Lucuml and Arara traditions. The respect this work affords the voices of the practitioners clearly emerges from its origins in the study of a collectivist, non textual mode of communication: dance."
-Beauty Bragg, author of Reading Contemporary African American Literature: Black Women's Popular Fiction, Post-Civil Rights Experience, and the African American Canon
Situated Narratives and Sacred Dance explores the shared stories and experiences of the Arará, a cultural group that brings together descendants of the Ewe-Fon peoples in West Africa with other traditions in Cuba. Because many of these experiences come alive through ritual performance, such as oral storytelling, dance, and song, our special contribution is employing a fieldwork methodology framed by theories of art and performance.
There is much at play in the book. Art and fieldwork intersect at moments when history, religion, and social memory become entangled with one another. Longitudinal research was conducted in four specific communities: Dzodze Ghana, Adjodogou, Togo, and Perico and Agramonte, Cuba. Placing these fieldsites in West Africa and Cuba in conversation does more than illuminate shared roots. The complex assemblage of narratives illustrates the emotional, spiritual, and personal impact that has lasted throughout generations of families ripped from their homeland as enslaved people and carried to a new world under the brutality of the Middle Passage. The violent collision of diverse traditions created new encounters. Diverse religious traditions from West Africa and Europe met one another; rituals intersected; and spiritual practices overlapped in an historical effort to survive colonial violence.
The Arará sustain their culture largely through the performance of social memory, such as ritual ceremony. The work presented in the book proposes a process of layering ethnographic information like interviews and fieldnotes with literary techniques like point of view and characterization to bring together diverse storytellers, including their inherent contradictions and slippages. What makes this approach compelling is its reliance upon artistic modes to uncover cultural truths: the “fiction” of social memory, which changes depending on region, speaker, or historical perspective, becomes the “fiction” of truth. As the book’s “authors,” it is not our job to (in)validate stories. We act as a medium, helping these stories reach new audiences, keeping Arará alive.
Footer image by Brian Jeffery