Cuba reveals the secrets of the saints

The African-influenced religion of Santería has long been part of life on this idiosyncratic island. Lydia Bell explores its legacy

Rain is beating down on steaming asphalt in central Havana, a hard-bitten patch of town. I am looking for a street-corner rumba and know my destination will call me by the 12/8 slap of a palm on the Cuban batá and cajones – wooden boxes – that distinctive clave sound. Finally I find Callejon de Hammel, a graffiti-plastered alley where, at noon on Sundays, Havana's Afro-Cuban community worship their gods with bewitching dance and song.

Rumba is more than music and dance – it is the expression of Cuba's creole identity. The music is a hybrid, blending Congolese percussion and flamenco-style soul-baring singing in the Yoruba language. It is rhythmic, dark, intense – one of the island's first and enduring sounds, and one that has changed little since the colonial era. I see a man and a woman doing a rooster-hen dance. Soon, other dancers join. At some point, it becomes a drum-fuelled marathon with spectators piling in. The air is thick and soupy, the beat relentless. Finally, I've had enough, and elbow my way out of the tiny corridor, the work of local painter Salvador González Escalona, who started plastering the walls of this back alley with vivid murals in 1990, bringing a sacred space to this poorest part of town.

Four centuries ago, African slaves brought to Cuba by the Spanish were forbidden to practise their native religion. They resisted by fusing African deities with Catholic saints, worshipping them like the Spanish did, but imbuing them with their own gods' characteristics. So the super-macho African God, Shango, became Santa Barbara, a woman clothed in the red colour associated with her fiery African counterpart; Oya, the undergoddess of the Niger River, became the Virgin of Candelaria.

Over time, they genuinely integrated customs and beliefs from the Spanish. Some white Creoles – native born Cubans of European descent – adopted African practices too, and continue to do so. Santería is growing in every sector of the community, more publicly so since the mid-1990s, as the government started to show a new tolerance towards religion.

In many Cuban houses, eerie, unblinking dolls form a mini altar laced with fruit and tobacco offerings, icons of saints, crosses and seemingly random objects. You might think this is a deep devotion to Catholicism. But these are in fact marks of Santería, still one of the best-kept secrets here.

You can spend weeks in Cuba, learn about the revolution, cigars, the proportion of Cadillacs to Chevrolets, and how to live on ration books – and yet learn nothing about Afro-Cuban culture. This is due not to the lotus-eating indolence of tourists, but the secrecy in which Santería is cloaked.

It was born in Nigeria, along the banks of the Niger River, among the Yoruba people who had a pantheon as rich as the Ancient Greeks. In Cuba, about 25 deities remain. Santería says the orishas need to be placated through gifts, or in extreme cases, animal sacrifice, to keep evil from the doors. There's a common phrase in Cuba: "Yo tengo que ir a Guan-abacoa"or "I have to go to Guanabacoa." But what it actually means is: "I am in trouble; only a priest can save me."

This township in eastern Havana, once a major trading centre for slaves, has a marked Afro-Cuban musical and cultural identity, strongly associated with Santería; the secret brotherhood of Abakua, and Palomonte, a nature-worship cult. It's one of those barrios where the potencia – literally, spiritual potency – is strong. I go there with Tomas, a Santería practitioner who runs grassroots Santería tours in Havana for the uninitiated.

The Museo Histórico de Guanabacoa tells a compelling story of the evolution of Afro Cuban culture. Here, clever, youthful guides will prep you on the main deities, from maternal Yemaya to firebrand Shango. My guide, José, tells me that you cannot understand Cuba until you know Santería, which is present in the way Cubans eat, dress, speak, think and act. He also tells me Santería, because of its natural-born secrec, could never be suppressed during the austere Communist years in the way Catholicism was.

Next stop is the babalawo, the high priest. Tomas takes me to the top guy in his neighborhood, Diez de Octubre. The babalawo is a tall white man in his sixties, who is quietly dignified. I ask for a consultation and I offer him some money. (He makes the sign of the cross with it before pocketing it.) He says he will consult Olorun – the divination aspect of the great divine entity – about my past, present and future, and leads me into a bare kitchen.

He begins by writing details of my name and date of birth, then embarks on a ritual of chanting in Yoruba (invoking his ancestors to clarify his mind, Tomas advises), splashing water from half a coconut shell, tapping the table, clicking his fingers and throwing a chain hung with discs of coconut rind on to the table. He keeps telling me to keep my open palms towards him. I am slightly distracted by the sound of a squealing pig somewhere in the house – Tomas tells me that there is an initiation ceremony going on as we speak, when the faithful make official their association with Santería through days of intense ritual and animal sacrifice. Then his wife bursts in and makes everyone coffee, he lights up a cigarette and starts chatting with Tomas. The famous Cuban pragmatism is not diluted by any magic at work, and it puts me at ease.

He tells me (Tomas is available to translate for anyone who cannot speak Spanish) that I am in a state of positive evaluation, that I have been blessed with great tranquillity in my relationship, gifted to me by the orisha Oya. I'm feeling quite relieved. Then he announces: "… until the point of marriage. The trouble is you are very bossy. You seem quiet now but you could change suddenly and become like a hurricane, doing something completely out of character. You are way too demanding and your husband knows this."

He leans forward: "You better watch out because you could become demented."

Later that evening, slightly perturbed by this onslaught, I read up on Oya. She is a warrior woman who raises tornadoes and hurricanes, and who guards the underworld.

Ever since meeting Tomas, I can't help noticing motifs of Santería everywhere I go. Discarded herbs on street corners; "initiated" Cubans wearing white from head to toe (even their earrings, shoes and umbrellas); strange artefacts and animal bones in the surf.

One day, crossing the Rio Almendares, I look down the lush, irridescent green vista of palm smothered banks. On a boulder at the river edge is a smiling woman about to chop a chicken's head off into the swirling emerald waters. Santería is everywhere, if you choose to see it.

TRAVEL ESSENTIALS

Getting there

Lydia Bell travelled with Esencia Experiences (01481 714 898; esenciaexperiences.com), which offers a seven-day Santería-themed holiday to Cuba from £1,590pp, including Virgin Atlantic flights from Gatwick, B&B at the Saratoga Hotel in Havana, an expert-led half-day Santería tour with a visit to a rumba and the Museo Histórico de Guanabacoa.

More information

Cuba Tourist Board (020-7240 6655; travel2cuba.co.uk).

News
people
News
A survey carried out by Sainsbury's Finance found 20% of new university students have never washed their own clothes, while 14% cannot even boil an egg
science...and the results are not as pointless as that sounds
News
politicsIs David Cameron trying to prove he's down with the kids?
News
Dominique Alderweireld, also known as Dodo de Saumure, is the owner of a string of brothels in Belgium
newsPhilip Sweeney gets the inside track on France's trial of the year
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Cumberbatch was speaking on US television when he made the comment (Getty)
people
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge, Travis Barker and Mark Hoppus of Blink-182 pictured in 2011.
musicBassist Mark Hoppus and drummer Travis Barker say Tom Delonge is 'disrespectful and ungrateful'
Sport
football
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'
tvBroadchurch series 2, episode 4, review - contains spoilers
Sport
cyclingDisgraced cycling star says people will soon forgive his actions
News
Britain's Prince Philip attends a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace in London
people
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Sheeran will play three sell-out gigs at Wembley Stadium in July
music
News
i100
News
Lena Dunham posing for an official portrait at Sundance 2015
people
Arts and Entertainment
Under the skin: Sarah Kane in May 1998
theatreThe story behind a new season of Sarah Kane plays
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Group Sales Manager - Field Based

    £21000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

    Recruitment Genius: Tour Drivers - UK & European

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join a is a...

    Old Royal Naval College: ORNC Visitor Experience Volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary work: Old Royal Naval College: Join our team of friendly volu...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service / Sales Assistant

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This airport parking organisation are looking...

    Day In a Page

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea