November 30, 2021

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Afro-Latinas sing to the santos, the ancestors, and the culture


In the West African Yoruba tradition, which survived in various places in the New World, all ceremonies are opened with homage paid to the orisha Elegua (or Eleggua), known also as the Voudou lwa Papa Legba, the owner of the crossroads and the opener of paths. 

And so I will open today’s story with songs to him, starting with Afro-Cuban jazz singer Daymé Arocena, from her album Cubafonia.

In a 2017 interview with Okay Africa, Arocena speaks to the album’s opening. “Eleggua begins and finishes everything in Santeria,” she said. “He is the God of the 21 Ways and for us it’s really important to always take the right path. That is why [I] started this album playing for him, ’cause we are looking for the key of the best ‘way.’ In Cuba we call this kind of rhythm ‘Afro’—we adopted many traditions from Africa that are now part of the folklore and culture of Cuba.”

Arocena opens “Eleggua” by pouring a libation and praying.

Omi tutu (Fresh water)

Ana Tutu (freshen the road)

Ache tutu (freshen my spiritual power)

Ile Tutu (freshen my home)

The powerful song centers around a chorus of “Moyuba.” 

When Arocena sings “Moyuba” (or “Mo’juba”) to the orisha, she is giving praise to them. Many ethnolinguists have stated that the root of the term “mojo” we use here in the States (and here on Daily Kos) comes from “mo’juba.”

The Yoruba of West Africa have a sacred word, Mojuba which means simply Thank you. The origins of the word Mojo lie here. The Mojubas are prayers that are uttered to the divine thanking them for their glory and powerful guidance. Over the years this has drifted towards a more modern definition meaning power and magic in general.


Mojo is everywhere.

In 2016, Shanna Collins profiled Arocena for VIBE magazine.

Raised in Havana, she was hailed a musical prodigy, becoming a trained composer, arranger, choir director, and band leader, in addition to singing. At eight, she began performing semi-professionally; six years later, she became the lead singer of Los Primos. Her charming demeanor has captivated audiences worldwide, particularly with Grettel Jimenez Singer of Paper, in a fascinating interview piece.

The Cuban songstress is an avid practitioner of Santería, an Afro-Caribbean religion based on Yoruba beliefs, frequently dressing in a turban, complimented by an all white ensemble, symbolizing the faith. “”Madres”, the first song in the Nueva Era album is meant to be a prayer for my two spiritual mothers, Oshún and Yemayá, who are also mothers to the rivers and the seas. It’s essentially about mothers and daughters in the world and the strength we need from each other.”

She credits the faith for helping her to deliver an otherworldly performance onstage: “My head is definitely Yemayá, practical, yet nourishing and forgiving, but very protective of those I love. My body however is one hundred percent Oshún. She is the orisha of love, beauty, femininity, and sensuality. Her body is voluptuous and it carries joy just like mine. I wasn’t always fond of my body.” With the practice of Santería came a blossoming of confidence. “I wasn’t always fond of my body. I used to be ashamed of how I looked, how short I am, about my skin color. As a result, my spirit was crushed and my presence on stage was tarnished by my own judgment. That’s in the past now. I have mastered the art of not just loving but adoring myself. As women, we must understand who we are and what we’re made of, accept what nature has given us, and be comfortable with our sexuality. Nobody can resist that,” says Arocena.

Here is Arocena’s song to the orisha mothers, Yemaya and Oshún.

Also from Cuba, the vocal group Sexto Sentido sings to Eleggua, with the drum and clavé rhythms provided by hand clapping.

Gemma Wilson wrote about Sexto Sentido for ISingmag in 2017, describing the group as “a Cuban vocal revolution.”

The group consists of Arlety Valdés, Yudelkis LaFuente, Eliene Castillo, and (new girl) Wendy Vizcaíno and they are easily a force to be reckoned with. Imagine if Beyoncé, Mariah Carey, and Alicia Keys were born and raised in Cuba, and had been friends since 13 years old. Because that’s essentially the story of Sexto Sentido. The four friends (which included their original singer Melvis Estevez) met at one of Havana’s elite conservatoires that was designed to pick up emerging talent from a young age and nurture it no matter the child’s background. They formed their band soon after and became unstoppable, receiving numerous awards and being sent by the Government all over the world as well as working with legendary Cuban musicians such as Chucho Valdés.

Their work has been a large cultural success, often bringing in talent from other parts of the world. Their first album, “Bossa Cubana”, had a Russian producer and was supported by the Brazilian musician João Donato. It gave them their first hit (title track) and was a mix of international covers, as well as their own original pieces.

The second album “Mi Feeling” was rooted in Cuba’s indigenous jazz movement (‘fílin’) of the 60s and although it was a niche album, it was rated as one of the best jazz CDs in the USA that year (2008). The songs can still occasionally be heard on rotation in certain US markets.

Not all songs to the orishas use African rhythms or Yoruba (Lucumi) language. The aforementioned Celia Cruz, with La Sonora Matancera (The Sound of Matanzas), salutes Elegua in this famous bolero. The lyrics reference various rituals and attributes of Elegua: knocking on the floor three times for him (3 and 21 are his sacred numbers), as well as getting him candy and toys. Elegua is often seen as both a playful trickster child and an old man. 

Though La Reina Celia sang some of the music of Santeria, the woman most famous for her knowledge of Afro-Cuban religious music was Merceditas Valdés, whose nickname, given to her by Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz, was La Pequena Aché de Cuba (The Little Aché of Cuba). 

Valdés was born in the Cayo Hueso neighborhood in Havana on 14th October 1928. When she was twelve years old, and without her parents´consent, she applied to compete in “The Supreme Court of Art” (a programme that launched the careers of many musicians); she sang two pieces: “Babalú”, a theme popularised by Miguelito Valdés, and “La negra Mercé” by Ernesto Lecuona. She was granted an award, the first of many.


At the end of the 1940s she recorded ritual music for the Victor company, and in the 1950s her voice was recorded by the Panart label. This last decade was important for her artistic life: she made intensive tours as part of important productions of the renowned Tropicana cabaret, performing in Paris, Venezuela, and other South-American countries. At Carnegie Hall in New York she gave the first concert of Afro-Cuban music, with an eighty-strong orchestra conducted by Gilberto Valdés. Their success was so resounding that the they were hired, together with Tito Puente, to make a tour across the United States that extended to Canada. She also sang at the Apollo Theatre in New York.


Over the years that followed she continued working, frequently performing on radio and television, offering concerts both in Cuba and abroad and making records.  Together with the Yoruba Andabo, Oru (directed by Sergio Vitier), and Los amigos groups (the latter directed by Guillermo Barreto, her life partner), Valdés carried out important work rescuing and disseminating African music.

Here, Valdés pays homage to Yemaya. YouTuber Habana Harlem notes that the 1991 concert at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires “documents an important period of collaboration between Merceditas and Yoruba Andabo” and “features Pancho Kinto, Roman Diaz, Chan, Fariñas and Olga Lydia dancing the part of Yemaya.”

In Brazil, Yemaya is written as Iemanjá, which I wrote about here in 2014. Yemaya is the priesthood I am initiated to in the Afro-Cuban tradition of worship, and one of the singers I admire who pays homage to her is Brazil’s Virginia Rodrigues. 

World Music Central offers this 2018 profile of Rodrigues.

Virginia Rodrigues was born in Salvador, Brazil, December 31, 1964. Virginia Rodrigues is a woman of humble origins who grew up in Salvador de Bahia. She spent her youth singing in church choirs and Afro-Brazilian candomble ceremonies. She was invited to participate in the Olodum Theater, a musical theater open to young people from the favelas (shanty homes), where legendary artist Caetano Veloso first heard her. Captivated by her voice, he immediately asked her to record for his label, Natasha Records, with the help of Olodum director Marcio Meireles.

Virginia’s first concerts in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo were a tremendous success. Sophisticated Brazilian critics and media were left speechless and often in tears. Her visits to Expo ’98 in Lisbon and New York City left these audiences equally amazed at the power and beauty of her voice.

Caetano Veloso wrote about producing her debut album, “This is our wealth: the love that in Brazil those who love music devote to one another. No one takes this from us. And the voice of Virginia is as the expression of this loving substance in a pure state.”

Belinda Acosta wrote about a 2003 performance Rodrigues gave in Texas for The Austin Chronicle.

When Rodrigues’ enchanting voice wafted from the One World stage during the second of two sets last Sunday, it was as if the gods said, “Yes, this is where the divine comes to visit Earth.” Singing entirely in Portuguese, Rodrigues’ beautiful voice is understandable in any language. While it seems like overcooked praise to say her voice is incomparable, in this case, it’s simply the truth. Singing selections from her new disc, Mares Profundos, Rodrigues delved into the classic Afro-Samba song cycle first made popular in the Sixties by Brazilian music legends Vinícius de Moraes and Baden Powell. Backed by cello, guitar, percussion, and a flute/sax player, Rodrigues’ profound voice moved from majestic contralto in “Lapinha” and “Canto de Xangô” to an ethereal soprano in “Canto de Iemanjá” with jaw-dropping effortlessness. Sung only with flute accompaniment, “Iemanjá” was perhaps the most stunning display of her celestial high notes. Contrasted with a moody cello accompaniment on “Lamento de Exu,” Rodrigues electrified the space with her otherworldly glide from deep, mossy notes, to that pinprick sharp soprano that breaks through the sky like a shaft of sunlight through menacing clouds.

Check out a studio recording of the “ethereal” and “stunning” “Canto de Iemanjá” below.

Yet another Afro-Brazilian singer who pays homage to African tradition is Mariene de Castro, who was born in 1978 in Salvador, Bahia, which is one of the major homes of Afro-Brazilian religion. Her website has a short biography in Portuguese; I’m posting a loose translation.

At the age of five, she already performed in dance shows at Teatro Castro Alves, in Salvador, her hometown. In her teens, she released her voice as a member of the group Timbalada, by Carlinhos Brown and, in 1996, she had the opportunity to perform her first solo show, in Pelourinho. That day, French producers were in the audience who were enchanted by Mariene, and invited her to a tour of 20 cities in France. At the time, she was even compared by local critics to the mythical singer Edith Piaf, due to the strength of her interpretation and the uniqueness of her vocal timbre.

In this video she sings to the orisha Nana, who was brought to Brazil by the Fon people of Benin and Dahomey. Nana is a water deity, but not of the turbulent waters of the ocean represented by Yemaya, or the waters of the rivers that are Ochun’s domain. Nana is the deity of the still water of lakes and muddy swamps—in essence, she is the primordial ooze. Nana is old, walks slowly, and uses a stick to support herself. 

Beyond religion, Afro-Latinas also pay tribute to entire cultures which would not exist were it not for the history of the slave trade and colonization.

One of the most amazing figures in contemporary Afro-Cuban music is Omara Portuondo, who is currently 90 years old. Angel Romero wrote her profile for World Music Central in 2017.

Omara Portuondo Pelaez was born in Cayo Hueso (Havana) in 1930. Omara’s mother came from a rich Spanish family and was expected to marry into another society family. Instead she ran off with the man she loved, a tall, handsome baseball player from the Cuban national team. Moreover he was black and in those days mixed race marriages were still frowned upon in Cuba. “My mother always hid the fact that she had married a black man. If they bumped into each other in the street they had to ignore each other. But at home they recreated what society denied them – a haven of peace and harmony. They loved each other very much,” Omara recalls.


American musician Ry Cooder had first come across Omara when he was in Cuba in 1995 recording with The Chieftains. The following year, when Cooder returned to Havana with World Circuit’s Nick Gold for the Buena Vista sessions, Omara was by coincidence in the Egrem studios at the same time. Cooder immediately invited her to sing the bolero ‘Veinte Años’ with Compay Segundo, and it became one of the highlights of the album.

Omara went on to become part of the legendary Buena Vista performances in Amsterdam and at New York’s Carnegie Hall, and appeared on the follow-up album, Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer. Her own Buena Vista Social Club Presents Omara Portuondo, was the third release in the series.

Her video “Sabanas Blancas” (white sheets) paints a visual and aural portrait of Havana, Cuba.


While most music fans readily place songs in Spanish into the Afro-Latino category, we often forget that French is also derived from Latin, and the Creole languages of the Caribbean are also Latino.

The Creole dialect spoken by the largest group is heard in Haiti. Outsiders assume that French is the primary language of Haiti, but that is far from the truth: Only about 10% of the population speaks French.

One of the most famous songstresses of Haiti actually had to spend much of her life in exile from her homeland. Her name was Martha Jean-Claude.

Born on March 21, 1919 in Port-au-Prince, Martha Jean Claude was an actress, dancer, singer, writer, compositor, philanthropist, an activist and perhaps the most respected Haitian artist in the international scene. Martha Jean Claude was very successful from the beginning of her career, due to her extremely beautiful voice and the deep connection she had with the people through her folkloric and Voodoo lyrics. An avid speaker against the abuse of the masses by authorities, led to her arrest in 1952, under then President Paul Eugene Magloire, after the publication of one of her play “Anriette” which officials deemed to be against the government. She got imprisoned while pregnant. Had she not been released when she did, she would have given birth in jail, because just 2 days after her release, her first child was born. Fearing for her life, Martha Jean Claude exiled to Cuba, on December 20, 1952, joining her husband, Victor Marabal, a Cuban Journalist whom she had met in Venezuela at one of her concert, prior to her incarceration. Martha was already known in the Spanish speaking community, and her fame just risen even more. She went on to make appearance on many TV and Radio show in Cuba.


After nearly three decades in exile, and clearly being home sick, as she expressed through many of her singing. Martha Jean Claude came back to her beloved land after the fall of Jean Claude Duvalier in 1986, where she would have one of her most acclaimed concerts, in front of thousands and thousands who were happy and eager to see her.

Here is Jean-Claude’s full album, Chante Haiti, A Voodoo Experience.

It never fails to amaze me how much music we miss out on simply because we tend to limit our listening to songs in English. Known worldwide, though not as well here in the U.S., is Haitian chanteuse Emeline Michel.

Named the “Joni Mitchell of Haïti,” Emeline Michel has emerged as the reigning queen of Haitian song. Her songs merge native Haitian compas and rara with jazz, pop, bossa nova and samba. A captivating performer, versatile vocalist, accomplished dancer, songwriter and producer, Emeline sings in French and Haitian Creole, and her world-wide concerts and seven CD recordings have catapulted to international acclaim. 

Here’s a 2021 upload of “Fò’m Ale.” 

Here’s part of Michel’s biography, from her official website.

Haitian songstress and Red Cross Ambassador Emeline Michel is internationally acclaimed for fusing pop, jazz, blues, and traditional Haitian rhythms into deeply moving, joyful music delivered with a charismatic live show.

A master entertainer, Michel has shared her message with audiences for more than 20 years, including appearances at Carnegie Hall, The United Nations, Milan’s Teatro Manzoni, Florida’s Kravis Center, Festival International de Jazz (Haiti), Ontario’s Luminato Festival, Montreal International Jazz Festival, New Orleans Jazz Fest, Tasmania’s Ten Days On The Island, Zimbabwe’s Harare International Arts Festival, and MTV’s Hope for Haiti Now: A Global Benefit for Earthquake Relief.

Hailed by the New York Times as a “diplomat of music” and “the dancing ambassador with a voice serene and warm like the breeze,” Michel began singing with the gospel choir in the church of Gonaïves, Haiti. After studying at the Detroit Jazz Center she returned to Haiti, where her career blossomed. Now based in New York City, she runs her own production company, Production Cheval de Feu, and is a cherished voice for social issues surrounding women and children worldwide. Her most recent album Quintessence captures the reverence and gratitude for the present moment, showcasing Michel’s virtuoso vocal, singing in Creole, French and English, with finger-picked guitars, soulful backing vocals, a children’s choir, Haitian percussion, lush strings, playful trumpet and accordion lines.

Some artists with Haitian roots who started out performing in English have gone back to explore their heritage. One such performer, who now sings in both English and Creole, is Haitian-Canadian Mélissa Laveaux.

April 2016. Singer, songwriter and guitarist, Mélissa Laveaux heads to Haiti in search of her roots and on a mission to honour her ancestors. Two decades have gone by since she last set foot on the island when she was 12 years old. She feels like a stranger and yet, at the same time, she experiences the thrill of an exile returning home, for Haiti is an intrinsic part of her identity.

Born in Canada to Haitian parents and armed with a patched-together vocabulary of Creole  from the metaphor-laden expressions and vibrant catch-phrases she’s heard her mother trade with her aunts over long-distance  phone calls, she doesn’t know what will emerge  musically from her pilgrimage. But as she dives in and discovers the folk songs that bred and nourished Haitians artists for generations, she is seduced by the depth and opulence of her extraordinary heritage.

She returned home from Haiti with a head full of sounds, melodies, moods and stories of distant times, as a track-list emerged, rich in the multi-layered allegories and symbolism that are characteristic of Haitian poetry and song, like a coded language of resistance.

Here’s Laveaux, performing at Radio Nova Live in 2018.

Another elder songstress of Haiti was Emerante de Pradines. The video below offers a brief biography.

De Pradines’ most famous song invoked Papa Legba. “Legba Na Console” translates as Legba, We Console Ourselves!” Since we opened the road in this Sunday’s music journey with Elegua, we will close it with him as well, with Mélissa Laveaux’s version of the de Pradines classic.

I hope you have enjoyed this musical journey to the Afro-Caribbean and South America. Please join me for more Afro-Latin music in the comments below, and feel free to share your favorites.


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