The Bearers

By Ned Sublette

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Musicians of Ojundegara
Musicians of Ojundegara, Musicians of Ojundegara. Photo by Ned Sublette.


Viñales's spectacular natural beauty makes it one of Cuba’s busiest tourist attractions, but tourists don’t come to this mango grove, and the bus driver who brought us wasn’t happy about taking the beat-up road that leads here. Plus, it’s raining. No matter, there’ll be a party.

As we arrive, we see the piglet, roasting on a spit. Someone opens a bottle of rum. We—my Cuban colleague, musicologist/producer Caridad Diez and I, along with 27 travelers from the United States—are in the only part of Cuba (that we know of ) where traditional Congo tambores yuka are still played in family and community celebrations, summoning the neighbors from over the hillside with drum calls to fiestas that don’t stop the same day they start.

When sugar was creating fantastic wealth across a wide swath of western Cuba in the 19th century, these drums were ubiquitous. When work stopped long enough for a dance, the drummers brought out tambores yuka. Rumberos say that the yuka is behind the 19th-century style of rumba called the yambú, still danced widely today—or, as Diosdado Ramos, director of Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, put it, “slow down the baile yuka a little and you have the yambú.”

Different Cuban drums are classifiable by the way the drumhead is rigged to the shell. These tambores yuka are hollowed-out avocado tree trunks with the heads nailed on; they’re Congo (which I will spell here with a “c” instead of the anthropologists ‘“k”), from Central Africa.

Over the years in Cuba, I’ve seen ceremonies, or recreations of ceremonies by practitioners, from five different African naciones. The most visible is the Yoruba (or Lucumí, or Ifá, or Regla de Ocha, or santería), with its beads, its color codes of dress, its white-clad first-year initiates on every street in Havana, its exportation to countries around the world, and above all its spectacular, formalized repertoire of music. And there’s also Carabalí (including the Abakuá secret society for men in Havana, Matanzas, and Cárdenas, but also other groups); Arará (from present-day Benin, especially the city-states of Ardra and Ouidah); and Gangá (Sierra Leone). And massively, there is Congo, which I think of as the base layer of Afro-Cuban culture since perhaps the 1580s.

All over Cuba, people continue ancestral musical and spiritual practices, most commonly through the efforts of particular families, maintaining and transforming them in turn. Prudencio Rivera, the director of Grupo Tambores Yuka and a truck driver by day, is one of those people the Consejo Nacional de Casas de Cultura calls portadores— bearers, who take charge of the tradition for a time and pass it on the next generation.

As we watch, the drummers lay the drums on the ground and make a small fire in order to tune them, as described by Anselmo Suárez Romero in his 1838 Cuban novel Francisco:

Then it was necessary to heat up the drums; for that reason they had lit the bonfire, with which the skin that covers the broader end of the drum acquires its sonority, and springs to the touch, and the sound resonates better in the hollow cylinder of the drum’s body; it is the tuning key of the instrument; without flame it doesn’t get heard, it doesn’t reach far away to farms all around; it doesn’t thump, it doesn’t give pleasure, it doesn’t make anyone leap.

Then they begin to play, continuing a tradition that Swedish writer Frederika Bremer described during her 1850 visit to Cuba:

The music consisted, besides the singing, of drums. Three drummers stood beside the tree-trunk beating with their hands, their fists, their thumbs, and drumsticks upon skin stretched over hollowed tree-stems. They made as much noise as possible, but always keeping time and tune most correctly.

The group has the typical African three-drum configuration, with two drums playing an ostinato while a third comments. Congo songs tend to be highly repetitive–indeed, the origins of groove-based pop music the world over have much to do with Congo musical tradition–and, perhaps because Congo has been a part of Cuba for so long, Congo songs and even religious ritual tend to incorporate more Spanish than the other African traditions of Cuba.

The singers repeat the line over and over: El rey del Congo tiene que vení’, el rey del Congo. The Congo king has to come, the Congo king.

I’d heard about tambores yuka for years, but I’d never actually seen them.


In the Congo religion, called palo in Cuba, there are two worlds, the land of the living and the land of dead, which are in constant contact, separated by a watery barrier called kalunga. On a Cuban sugar plantation, where the labor force was systematically worked to death and replaced with fresh arrivals from the other side of the water, the border between living and dead was a familiar one, with two-way communication.

Fernando Ortiz tells us of a Congo instrument called kinfuiti that communicates with the dead. I didn’t think I’d ever see one in real life, but that was before I went to the little town of Quiebra Hacha—also in western Cuba, in Artemisa—to see the group Ta Makuende Yaya. Cuban musicologist Sonia Pérez Cassola, who’s worked with the group for years, calls the kinfuiti el tambor de los muertos— the drum of the dead, whose call reaches to the other side of the kalunga line. It’s a friction drum. That is, instead of percussing the drumhead, a wand attached to the drumhead is stroked with wet hands—an organological cousin of the Brazilian cuica or the Venezuela furro. It makes a sustained low-register push-pull: grunk GRUNK, grunk GRUNK...

The group performs for us in a video projection room that serves as the town’s movie theater. They’re Congo-identified, but they also play songs addressed to the Yoruba deities (called orishas) that don’t sound much like the orisha music I’ve previously heard. These are understood to be distinct traditions, but they overlap and cross in all kinds of ways, all over Cuba. After the performance, we walk down the road to a small temple originally founded by the enslaved, and rebuilt by the community, dedicated to San Antonio, or St. Anthony, whose name denotes Congo.

Throughout the history of transatlantic slavery the Congo were identified with Catholicism; the kingdom was first Catholicized in 1491—yes, the year before Columbus—when missionaries came to Mbanza-Kongo (in present-day northern Angola). Nzinga a Nkuwu, the manikongo, or king, immediately and enthusiastically accepted baptism as Rei João I, and converted his entire kingdom, which adopted the new power objects and symbols while continuing traditional practice. So the much discussed syncretization began before the Middle Passage, and was carried to all parts of the Americas; all up and down the hemisphere, Congos were assumed to be Catholic.


In the center of the island, Sagua la Grande was once a wealthy river port for sugar, as the town’s elegant architecture makes clear. It’s bristling with African religion: the Congo cabildo, Kunalumbo, was founded in 1809. There’s a strong Yoruba presence in Sagua, and there’s even a Gangá society. 

The Kunalumbo house is small but well kept—a dedicated space, a testament to perseverance. Its interior walls are painted with cosmograms and historical narrative, proudly noting a 1950 performance there by Orquesta Aragón— one of the grand names of Cuban dance music, a flute-and-violins charanga founded in Cienfuegos in 1939. When they played Kunalumbo, Aragón hadn’t made a record yet, but their career soon got a boost with the help of their hometown friend Bartolomé Maximiliano Moré.

A black guajiro, the oldest of eighteen children, Moré grew up in the south central part of the island, in a little town not far from Cienfuegos that the world knows about primarily through his song extolling it: Santa Isabel de las Lajas. Beginning his career as a strolling singer in the dockside taverns of Old Havana, Moré became a singing star during an extended stay in Mexico with the Conjunto Matamoros, in which he sang with Francisco “Compay Segundo” Repilado, and changed his professional name to Benny (or Beny) Moré. After appearing in Mexican movies and on hit records with Pérez Prado, he returned to Cuba in 1950. After starting his Banda Gigante, “El Benny” began his reign as Cuba’s most loved singer, the one who sang all the Cuban genres to everyone’s satisfaction. He was powerful enough to insist booking agents stop locking the provincial Aragón out of the Havana market.

Benny grew up in Lajas, where he lived next door to the Casino de los Congos, a mutual aid society founded by his African- born great-great-grandfather, Ta Ramón Gunda Moré. From his earliest years, he had free run of the place, a young Congo prince dancing to tambores makuta, drums that have long since disappeared from daily Cuban musical life. I’d never seen tambores makuta outside of a museum before. But the Casino de los Congos still exists in Lajas, in its own house now as then, and the tambores makuta that Benny heard as a child are still there. Its members perform a solemn ceremony, advancing with the Cuban flag around the perimeter of the house.

An hour later, we’re down the road in Palmira, a center of santeros and babalaos in the Yoruba tradition. Palmira was the site of Benny’s last concert; after a short life with too much cheap rotgut, he vomited blood before singing a show there and died in the hospital in Havana on February 19, 1963 at the age of 43. In Palmira, we visited the leader of the group Obacosó, who guarded a set of three two- headed cylindrical drums I’d never seen before: tambores de guerra, or war drums, consecrated to Changó, the orisha of drums and thunder. (Ethnomusicologist Amanda Villepastour has sent me a photo of a similar set in Jovellanos.)

The next day, in Trinidad, the group Leyenda Folk played for us tambores trinitarios—sawed-off little drums with a powerful crack. That made three kinds of drums I’d never seen before in less than 48 hours, and I’ve been doing this since 1990. Cuba is inexhaustible.

In Jovellanos, in Matanzas province, the group Ojundegara, centered on the Baró family, maintains its Arará heritage, singing in Fon to the fodduces who are more or less counterparts to the Yoruba orishas. In front of Ojundegara’s house. there is a monument that matches a counterpart erected in the modern nation of Benin following a visit the group made there in 1991. 150 years wasn’t that long ago: one of Ojundegara’s members, Patricio Pastor Baró Céspedes, who died in July 2016 at the age of 89, was the son of Esteban Baró Tossú, brought in slavery as a child from Dahomey ca. 1866.

After 1850, Cuba was the last place in the Americas importing Africans. The final decades of slavery were peak years for the introduction of kidnapped Yoruba, who were brought where the sugar mills were at that time: western Cuba, particularly Matanzas province.

Everyone agrees that Matanzas, the port city and “Athens of Cuba” on the north coast, was and is the great crossroads and transmitter of Afro- Cuban religion. With time, the Yoruba religion moved farther east, coming to Oriente (eastern Cuba) only in the 20th century. Fundamento (the activating element in the Yoruba batá drums) came to Camagüey in the middle of the island only in 1980, I was told by Ángel Echemendía, the erudite director of the Conjunto Folklórico in Camagüey, and, according to Abelardo Luardet Luaces, only came to Santiago de Cuba in 1986.

So there’s a layer of Congo that covers the country, and a Yoruba power in the west that moved east. People often are initiated in more than one Afro-Cuban system. In eastern Cuba, which was not 19th-century sugarland, people generally become rayado (initiated in palo, evidenced by permanent skin scratches) before making santo (Yoruba).

And there’s another factor: the lwa live in Cuba too. There is plenty of vodú (or vodou, or voodoo) in Oriente, and other parts of Cuba, if you look.


There’s no way to understand the history of mountainous Oriente—or, for that matter, of the Cuban revolutions that have blown from east to west—without taking into account St. Domingue/Haiti, whose mountains are visible from high points in Oriente. 

There are three Domingan-descended societies called tumbas francesas (in Santiago de Cuba, Guantánamo, and a rural one in the foothills of the Sierra Cristal, near Sagua de Tánamo). Acknowledged by UNESCO as Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, their wardrobe references French salon wear of the late 18th century. They dance contradanza as well as African dances, but the music is entirely drums and voices.

The rural tumba francesa of mountainous Bejuco was so isolated that Cuban scholars learned about it only in 1976, but it’s recognizably the same set of instruments and rhythms as its urban counterparts. Its story is a key to understanding all kinds of movements and migrations in post-Haitian Cuba. In Guantánamo, meanwhile, the beautifully dressed Santa Catalina de Ricci (or Pompadour) society is regal in its headquarters. The last time I saw them was at a world music festival in Havana in March, where their slamming battery of drummers jammed memorably with a group from the island of Reúnion; such is Cuba.

After a performance by the Tumba Francesa La Caridad de Oriente, the Santiago group, some years ago, one of the group’s elders asked me if I was satisfied. When I made an affirmative response, she smiled and said, “you know, it’s not only we the living who are dancing here.” Meaning, the dead were dancing with them.

But though spirit is everywhere, tumba francesa is not vodú (or vodou, or voodoo). There is indeed vodú in Cuba, much of it courtesy of the large number of Haitian cane-cutters brought to Cuba in the 20th century, when sugar had expanded to eastern Cuba during the pre-revolutionary neocolonial republic. Many remained, becoming a Kreyol-speaking minority.

In his surprise worldwide hit “Chan Chan,” Compay Segundo commemorated a line of railroad stops in eastern Cuba: “De Alto Cedro voy para Marcané / Llego a Cueto voy para Mayarí.” “From Alto Cedro I go to Marcané / I get to Cueto and go on to Mayarí.” I haven’t stopped in Alto Cedro, but I took a group to visit Cueto, where there’s a statue of Compay, no tourists to speak of, and something that doesn’t appear in Buena Vista Social Club: vodú.

In Cueto, a group of schoolgirls in a community project sing songs in Kreyol before we visit the house of a recently deceased powerful mambo (female vodú ritual expert). Family members salute the lwa, but one woman fails to get far enough away before the drums begin, and she’s “mounted,” or “ridden,” by the spirits.

In Guantánamo, we visit the home of the houngan (ritual expert) Francisco; in his humble back patio, the vodú group Los Cossía rehearse. But vodú doesn’t only exist in pockets of Oriente; it’s in central Cuba, too. It’s strong in Camagüey. There’s vodú in Ciego de Ávila; when I ask Ariel “Goma” Gallardo Ruiz, director of the group Rumbávila, if vodú came to central Cuba overland from the east, he said, “it also entered by north and south”—that is, straight into central Cuba via Haitian sugar workers during the rst half of the 20th century when there was a demand for cane-cutters. I show Goma a video of a vodou ceremony from New York the week previously, and he identi ed it at once. “That looks like a ceremony for Erzulie,” he says. Pause. “We do it differently.”


The Cuban sugar industry has been downsized, but it still exists, and wherever there are still centrales (sugar mills), they’re important nuclei of culture. In the small central Cuban town of Primero de Enero, home of the Violeta mill, a community project plays vodú drums and dances, and then its directors take us to the Casa de las Flores, an extensive orchid garden. Down the road in Baraguá, members of the group La Cinta offer their guests black cake (a delicious rum cake, panatela in Spanish) and plays Anglo-Antillean music handed down by cane-cutting ancestors from the English-speaking islands. It’s 90 degrees or so and there’s no fan, but they deliver an intense, impeccable, high-energy performance with stilts, a maypole, a hobbyhorse, and propulsive drumming.

In Colón, in Matanzas province, Eneida Villegas Zulueta takes us into her community, largely Yoruba-descended, that lives in the very barracones (barracks) where their ancestors were enslaved at the infamous Julián Zulueta’s Central Álava. She shows us the works of their community project Tras las Huellas de Nuestros Ancestros (in the footsteps of our ancestors), whose members have created their own museum out of artifacts conserved in their households since slavery days. After visiting a ring of magnificent casa templos (house temples), we hear not one but two bembés (sacred party for the gods) back-to-back: one with children dancing the orishas, one with adults.

In Güines, home of the Amistad sugar mill, Luis Pedroso Sotolongo guards the Cabildo Briyumba Congo, which boasts the largest prenda I’ve ever seen. (They have a larger one, but you have to have a limpieza, or cleaning, before you can see it.) Even though Luis performs Yoruba divination in front of it, this is straight-up Congo. A prenda (the Kikongo word is nganga) is the center of the palero’s practice—a large iron pot containing all sorts of power elements, significantly including human remains, but also various natural elements, including sticks of different kinds of wood.

Briyumba Congo’s prenda is made from a former sugar cauldron, making the connection explicit. There are also other prendas in the room, and there is a wooden chair that dates from the early 20th century, when the police would bust up rumbas and ceremonies, requiring the camou age of drums as household items; no sir, no drums here, I’m just sitting in my chair. Luis’s chair is really a big box drum, all of its parts giving different tones as he slams out a rhythm on the sides while sitting in it.

Around the corner from Briyumba Congo, in the barrio of Leguina, is the Catholic chapel of Santa Bárbara, which is the center of one of the biggest processions in Cuba for that saint (famously syncretized with the orisha Changó), whose day is December 4. And there’s the community project called Patio de Tata Güines, named for Arístides Soto, whose professional name, Tata Güines, was a Congo shoutout to his home town. The Patio is in the solar (multiple apartments around a central patio) where Soto grew up, across the street from the house where the great Arsenio Rodríguez lived.

For all his fame, Arsenio, who brought black consciousness to Cuban popular music beginning in the 1930s, is still an understudied gure. Though he’s mostly known for his musical innovations, the texts of his songs contain a world of lore and deserve a scholarly edition. Sitting in the Cabildo Briyumba Congo, I ask Luis something I’ve always wondered: what does Arsenio’s “No hay yaya sin guayacán” – there is no yaya without guayacán – mean?

Luis smiles, and points to a smaller prenda alongside the big one.

“This is yaya” – he points to one stick of wood sticking up out of the prenda, then to another – “and this is guayacán.” If you don’t have both, neither will be effective.

If you want to know about Arsenio’s lyrics, go across the street from where he grew up, and ask.

Ned Sublette is the author of four books including Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo, and (with Constance Sublette) The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry. He is a Fellow of the Committee on Globalization and Social Change at the CUNY Graduate Center, and is an adjunct at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at NYU. His Postmambo Cuban Music Seminars take people to Cuba. Info:

The author acknowledges the help of Caridad Diez, Orlando Vergés Mar-tínez, Doris Céspedes, Sonia Pérez Cassola, Eneida Villegas Zulueta, Teresita Baró, Elivania Lamothe, Queli Figueroa Quiala, Rodulfo Vaillaint, Ben Socolov, Constance Sublette, and many others.