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).

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Sport
Premier League Live
footballLIVE Follow all the Premier League action as it happens
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
gadgets + echSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
News
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
News
James Argent from Towie is missing, police say
peopleTV star had been reported missing
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
i100
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
News
i100
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
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Graduate Sales Executive / Junior Sales Exec

    £18k + Uncapped Commission (£60k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Sales Exe...

    Web Developer / Software Developer

    £25 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Web Developer / Software Developer is needed ...

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Day In a Page

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone