Interview: Ivor Miller 2007
|Place and Date:||Brooklyn, New York
VOICE OF THE LEOPARD: IVOR MILLER talks to NED SUBLETTE
Ned Sublette: I’m talking to Dr. Ivor Miller, Research Fellow in the African Studies Center of Boston University and author of the forthcoming Voice of the Leopard, from University Press of Mississippi in the Fall of 2008. What does Voice of the Leopard mean?
Ivor Miller: The voice of the leopard is the main symbol of the Ekpe society of the Cross River region ofNigeria and Cameroon, which was re-created in colonial Cuba as the Abakuá society. And it’s a symbol in both. Essentially the leopard is a sign of royalty all over Central West Africa and the Calabar zone, and it’s a symbol of their political autonomy. Every village in the Cross River region that has Ekpe has their own way to manifest the voice, which means, “we are independent.”
NS: In Cuba the Abakuá occupies a unique position in the history of the society. Can you give us a sort of thumbnail of what Abakuá has meant in Cuba?
IM: Abakuá is at the foundation of Cuban society. It was founded around the 1830s in Havana by African Ekpe members who had been enslaved and brought over. They reorganized themselves in the cabildos and they would not allow their offspring born in Cuba to join, because of the well-known tensions between the so-called old world and new world people. So eventually they decided to establish a lodge of their offspring, the black Creoles, and they called it Efik Butón, after a settlement in Calabar. To do that they had to create afundamento [consecrated object], which represented the autonomy of that lodge.
NS: When you say they created a lodge, that’s a word that we associate maybe with the Masons or the Odd Fellows.
IM: The great Cuban scholar Don Fernando Ortiz used to refer to Abakuá as “African masonry,” because there are similarities in the fact that it’s a graded system – there are titles – and they are an independent group of mutual aid. The function of Abakuá was to buy people out of slavery, so Abakuá is known as a force of liberation in Cuban history. And in the wars of [Cuban] independence, representatives of Abakuá lodges interacted with Freemasons – people like Antonio Maceo, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, all the leaders of the Mambí independence army, were Masons – so they’re parallel systems.
NS: What about the aspect of secrecy? The Abakuá is a secret society of men…
IM: Yes. Abakuá is exclusively for men, and there’s a lot of reasons for that we could talk about. But another way of saying a secret society is to say an initiation society. Once one is initiated, one takes oaths about maintaining discretion about what one learns. What they call the esoteric knowledge, the insider’s information, are the secrets. There are secret societies all over the world. The Vatican is a secret society. Whatever happens at the top layers of the U.S. government, those are secrets too. Essentially these secret societies or initiation schools are really schools of learning, and in order to begin to learn, you’ve got to take an oath.
NS: Now these hermetic societies also existed in the Cross River Delta of Africa. How did they function there?
IM: In the Cross River region, Ekpe is the indigenous government. As an example, in order to found a settlement – okay, we want to take my family and move to a new place? We’ve picked a piece of land. The first thing we do is create the Ekpe lodge, and then we create the settlement, because that is the symbol that we are an independent settlement. You can’t come here and do anything you want, you’ve got to deal with Ekpe. It’s the indigenous system. The legal system, the judiciary, the executive branches, are all Ekpe.
NS: In place of a strong centralized government, there were Ekpe lodges throughout the region.
IM: That’s exactly it. Whereas the Yoruba have a centralized system, Ekpe was how a series of autonomous villages could trade and interact in meaningful ways. If one was an Ekpe member in the Cross River region, one could travel anywhere and be safe. Because wherever there was a lodge, you were protected.
NS: So there were offshoots of this system that were transported to Cuba. But unlike the Yoruba system – or santería, or Ifá, or Ocha, or Lucumí, whatever you want to call it – which has gone all over the world now, Abakuá has remained only in Havana and Matanzas province, not even in Oriente in Cuba. Only in these two parts of Cuba and only there in the entire New World. Why is that?
IM: Because the Abakuá have retained what they were given by the Africans with a remarkable orthodoxy. In order to establish a lodge, one has to get the permission of all the elders. There has to be a collective consensus. And that’s part of what makes Abakuá so important. They want to control the morality of their citizens, as it were, of their initiates. And if it starts spreading anywhere, it will be transformed and perhaps used for other means.
NS: So it has been a decision of the elders in Cuba that this not spread.
NS: How did you get involved with studying this, and what is your status vis-à-vis this practice?
IM: I first went to Cuba in 1991 as a student of the Conjunto Folklórico Nacional to study dance — I danced professionally in New York — and really became interested in Cuba from being in New York and going to toques [Yoruba ceremonies] with Puntilla [Orlando “Puntilla” Ríos]. While there [in Havana] studying the Lucumí [Yoruba] system, in my andanzas [wanderings] in the city, I was introduced to a gentleman  who was in his 90s. His grandfather had come over from Calabar. He wanted to tell me the story of this, and he was an incredible storyteller. Andrés Flores was his name. And all the members of his family were members [of Abakuá]. He was not. That gave him certain liberty to tell me the story.
NS: Because an initiate can’t tell the stories.
IM: Or one would run the risk of being castigated.
NS: Well, they’re quite serious about their secrecy within this practice. Can you explain about how the militancy with which this secrecy is maintained?
IM: You have to understand the context within which Abakuá was founded and created: the extreme oppressive society of colonial Havana. Anyone who reads the history knows that the Year of the Lash, 1844, was an extreme repression. Abakuá, in order to survive, have maintained discretion in order to not announce their presence.
NS: So there are things you can talk about and things you can’t talk about.
IM: And in much of the Cuban popular music we’re going to listen to [in the Hip Deep episode in which portions of this interview appear], there is Abakuá language. It can be spoken, because people don’t understand what they’re saying. So in “Ritmo Abakuá” of the Muñequitos de Matanzas, they’re essentially greeting the first lodge in Cuba, Efik Ebutón, they’re greeting it as a way of saying, “we thank God for the birth of Abakuá. We’re members from Matanzas, and we greet Havana.” And this is all in Abakuá language.
NS: And this is recorded in 1956.
IM: It’s the first Abakuá recording from Matanzas, as far as I know.
NS: So if you’re not an initiate, there are sounds you’re allowed to hear, and sounds you’re not allowed to hear. I recorded the Muñequitos de Matanzas, as you know, playing a number called “Abakuá Makánica,” in which they play traditional Abakuá drums. And that’s allowed. But in their ceremonies, there’s a drum you can see that does not make sound.
IM: Exactly. There’s a drum that is called the eribó – the sese eribó, which is a silent drum, it’s symbolic. It represents the mother of Abakuá. This refers to the foundational myth of how Abakuá was perfected, in a place called Usagaré, now known as Isangele in southwestern Cameroon. The story is that a princess went to the river to get some water. She put her ceramic jar in the water, and inadvertently, a fish entered it, and the fish made a roaring sound. She put the jar on her head and she became in effect the first initiate. This is a story to talk about divine creation. She’s the universal mother, and when men are initiated they’re effectively reborn, so as in any other religion, initiation in Abakuá is a rebirth, symbolically.
NS: And this story is what Benny Moré is referring to when he sings “En el tiempo de colonia / tiempo de senseribó.” [“In colonial times, times of the senseribó”]
IM: A classic! That’s a classic. Yes, so this is the drum that’s symbolic and it doesn’t make a sound. And why? What is the message there? This is Ekpe philosophy. If you know esoteric secrets, you don’t talk about them. That’s the message in the silent drum.
NS: Now what about the sound? The voice of the leopard is a sound. What is that sound?
IM: In Ekpe they describe it as a mystic sound that emits from the butame, the temple, and only the high levels of society’s leaders know what makes that sound. It’s not known by others. But the sound is the symbol that Ekpe’s in session, and those who are not members should move away, should stay clear.
NS: Do you consider Abakuá a religion? Do you consider it a society? Do you…
IM: Well, Abakuá describe it as a religion. But that’s a very interesting question, because it’s an exclusive thing that not everybody can join. So it’s really a club of prestige that has a very deep spiritual base.
NS: And this is based on a sound.
NS: But it’s a secret sound. It’s a sound that we can’t play on the radio.
NS: Why can’t we play it on the radio?
IM: [pauses] Well, because that might be seen as disrespectful by the leadership. They don’t take this lightly at all. And as a matter of fact, on none of the recordings that I know from either West Africa or Cuba is that sound reproduced.
NS: That sound is never heard outside the sacred region.
NS: And you can’t really talk about it.
IM: Exactly. But the point is that it’s not the vehicle that makes the sound that’s important. It’s the sound that is adored, that is worshipped, that is seen as the voice of God. It’s connecting humans with the divine.
NS: And at the same time, the sound has been evoked frequently in popular music by Abakuá members. It’s not the same sound, but it’s evoked.
IM: Exactly. As you well know, some of the same recordings by Sexteto Habanero in the 20s, there’s a track called “Criolla Carabalí”, we’ll hear some of the bongó drum, the glissade-making.
NS: When the bongosero moistens his finger and slides it across the drumhead, making a friction sound.
IM: It’s a reference.
NS: There are friction drums all over Africa, that make various sounds. One place the sound is referenced, and it’s a unique recording — could you talk about the importance of Arsenio [Rodríguez]’s recording of Abakuá music?
IM: Well, one of the incredible things about the story of Abakuá is that like other African-derived traditions it’s expressed most fully through artistic means – through popular music, through dance, through theater. The commercial recordings made by Abakuá people and people who love Abakuá, whether they’re members — or not, like Arsenio – these commercial recordings are important to understand the history of Abakuá. And New York has played a fundamental role in this story. Many Cubans have come to New York throughout history. Ignacio Piñeiro was one. Chano Pozo was another. And Arsenio in New York in 1963 recorded “Canto Abakuá,” a fantastic tune. In it he’s evoking Abakuá, and he’s speaking about the relationship of the Congo, of which [religion] he’s a member, and the Carabalí, which is the base of Abakuá. And it’s a very important track for bringing up the relationship between Congo and Carabalí. And also, at the end, there is an evocation of the voice of the leopard by the bass.
NS: In your work, you did something no one else has done: you made a re-encounter between Cuba and Africa. The Ekpe of Cuba, which began in 1830, has continued all this time, but meanwhile, in the Calabar region, the Ekpe society there has also continued. But there was no contact between Cuba and Calabar during all this time, as far as anyone knows.
IM: I don’t know of any contact, if there was. And this is quite a unique situation, because in the Yoruba case, especially between Yorubaland and Brazil there was a lot of contact and moving back and forth. In terms of Cross River and Cuba, as far as we know, there is none. That’s why it’s extraordinary that Ekpe in Calabar can listen to speech by Abakuá, and music and chanting, and understand it and recognize the rhythm and many of the words.
NS: Now tell me about what you did.
IM: From 1991 until the 21st century I was in Cuba documenting history. Cataloguing when each Abakuá lodge was founded, its name in Abakuá language, et cetera, et cetera. Because I recognized there was an incredible story that had not been told about the migration of African peoples and how their actions helped found Caribbean societies. And in order to prove that, in 2004 I was able to go to Calabar.
I brought some videotapes of Abakuá ceremonies. I brought some recordings of Abakuá music. And I gave a talk at the National Museum in Calabar. And the Ekpe people there were overwhelmed. When I played “Criolla Carabalí,” they freaked out. They got up and started dancing, and they said, “This is the way our parents used to play.” And they recognized the very specific rhythms that the Cubans were playing as the rhythm of a particular grade. The Ekpe system has nine different grades. One of those grades is called bonkó. Bonkó really represents the universal mother, the myth of the woman I talked about, and this is the rhythm that they recognize in the Cuban music. They’re playing the bonkó rhythm. There happens to be a grade in Cuba called bonkó, which is the talking drum that we hear referred to in a lot of the recordings.
Bonkó enchemiyá is the full name of the drum. And as we know from Joseíto Fernández’s recording, “Así Son Bonkó,” and Arsenio Rodríguez’s “Oigan bonkó / Como se gozan en el barrio,” bonkó has become a word that means truth.
NS: How many times have you been to Calabar?
IM: Three times. I went in the summer of 2004, and I brought materials. I met essentially with all the paramount rulers of Calabar, which has three different groups: the Abakpa, which are also known as the Qua Ejagham, and the Efik, which are [known as] the Efí in Cuba, and the Efut, which are [known as] the Efó in Cuba, so I met with all three of these leaderships.
And it so happens that the leader of one of the lodges – Efé Ekpe, Eyo Ema, and the lodge is also known as Ekoritonkó, which happens to be a lodge in Havana — the leader of this lodge invited me to come to a ceremony soon after I had showed them all this material. During that night they initiated me. It happened that way – “please come to our ceremony” — and essentially they recognized the importance of this connection with Cuba, and in order to help me with my research, they initiated me so I could actually go to different settlements and talk about Ekpe, because it’s off limits to non-initiates.
NS: So you haven’t been initiated in Cuba, but you have been in Calabar.
IM: Exactly. So I’m an unofficial ambassador of Calabar Ekpe to the Caribbean. After the talk in the National Museum, there were some government representatives there, and they announced that they were going to put their support behind this project for the Third International Ekpe Festival. There’s a festival there every December, to which y’all are invited.
NS: I’m there.
IM: And I was able to go with two Abakuá members – Vicente Sánchez and Román Díaz, who both happened to be from the Ekoritonkó lodge of Havana.
NS: And who both live in New Jersey now.
IM: They’re both professional musicians from Havana that now work in the New York area. It was a very spontaneous visit. You know, Abakuá’s a collective society. To have a full conjunto, a full ensemble of Abakuá, you need about ten people, with the dancers, the drummers, the chanters, and all that. We had two. But they did a beautiful job, and we have some recordings of Román chanting to an audience of about 2,000 in Calabar.
NS: What happened when he chanted?
IM: We came to Calabar in December of 2004, invited by the government of Cross River state for the Third International Ekpe Festival. The day we arrived to the Calabar Cultural Center, there was a huge open space, and at what they call the “high table” in Nigeria, where the important people sit, was the governor of Cross River state and the iyamba of the Eyo Ema lodge Ekoritonkó, who were judging the event as a competition of masked dancers. Masked dancers are another thing shared by Ekpe and Abakuá. They represent ancestors, who are there to make sure that the living conduct the ceremonies in the right way, another part of the orthodoxy we talked about.
So Román Díaz and Vicente Sánchez arrive. There’s about 3,000 people there in a circle, about the size of a football stadium, a hundred-yard circle. And the masked dancers come out one by one and are performing. There is no rehearsal for any of this. Román Díaz is asked to come out. He goes over to the percussion ensemble and gets them in a pace that he likes. Which is very easy, because they’re basically playing the same music as the Abakuá do – the same instruments, fabricated in the same way, the same construction. So Román goes out and he starts chanting the phrase about the foundation of Abakuá in Cameroon: Iya, iya, kondondó. And all of a sudden the crowd starts responding, two to three thousand people. Usually an Abakuá ensemble is ten people, but Román is going out there essentially alone, with Vicente on the bonkó. And the entire crowd responds. And then using, of course, Cuban methods, he calls out the masked dancer, who responds to him and enters the competition. He picks up a drum which he uses as the symbolic drum to call out, because the drum is the symbol of authority, so the drum calls out the masked dancer, and he brings it to the high table, just like the others had done. The crowd goes wild, and for everyone there it’s the confirmation that the Abakuá is obviously an extension of their own culture. Iya, iya, kondondó is related to the myth of the woman who goes to the river. Iya is the fish. The fish who was an ancestor, who came back to bring the divine voice. In Efik iya is fish. In Abakuá iya is fish.
NS: What does kondondó mean?
IM: It means arrival. The people understood what he was saying, and they responded. Unrehearsed. Very powerful.
NS: So what then happened in terms of your experience in Calabar with the Abakuá?
IM: Essentially what I’m trying to do as a historian, as a scholar, is facilitate this conversation. Because the first thing is to confirm that this cultural migration actually happened. The Cubans have had no contact with Calabar since the 1830s. They know this language and they’re told it comes from somewhere. But there’s doubt, if you don’t have concrete information, so I’m trying to share information, very much in the way that Pierre Verger did between Yorubaland and Brazil. And the Calabar people are very happy about this, because all of a sudden they have an international dimension to their culture, which they never knew about. Something they’re very proud of. I think this encounter is strenghtening the historical awareness of both groups, and it’s strengthening their practice.
NS: Let’s talk about some of the music we’re going to hear in this program.
IM: There are some wonderful field recordings done through the years. Harold Courlander went to Cuba in the 40s and recorded some beautiful stuff by Alberto Zayas, an important rumbero who had his own group in the 50s, an Abakuá man.
NS: The first person to record rumba in Cuba, in fact. Before the Muñequitos.
IM: That’s right, Alberto Zayas, “El Vive Bien.” So Courlander did a field recording, and then in the 60s, or maybe it was ’59 or ’62, Argeliers León recorded Víctor Herrera. Víctor Herrera had a folklore troupe called Efí Yawaremo – it’s an Abakuá term – and they did in the first-ever Abakuá performance in the National Theater. So he recorded the chant, Iya, iya, kondondó.
Essentially the Abakuá tradition is epic poetry. It’s Homeric in that way. The artists who are chanting it are drawn from an epic tradition, and they’re telling the story of the mythic past, which they believe to be their authentic history. And they are re-creating it in the present, so every time there’s an initiation, they’re recreating the original initiation in Usagaré.
NS: You were telling me about a recording that you believe is the most important, greatest Abakuá recording ever done.
IM: In 2001, a group of Abakuá masters – people who in the barrios performed the ceremonies and, really, the vanguard of the culture — got together in a studio and they recorded an album called Ibiono. Ibiono is an Abakuá word for music with swing. Each track is to a different territory in Cross River, and they’re laying down the basic elements of their mythic history. They start with the Efó group, who are the Efuts in Cameroon, then they move to the Efí, who are the Efik of Calabar, and they end with Orú, who are likely the Uruan people of the Cross River region. All of them have Ekpe, and all of them interacted to create what’s known as the modern Ekpe system — a cosmopolitan form of Ekpe.
NS: This is basically an album of poetry.
IM: And it’s an essential album for any student, any scholar, or any practitioner of this cultural system. The importance of this album is that it confirms all the Abakuá chants that have been recorded throughout the 20thcentury in little fragments. This pulls them all together into one epic narrative. And by the way, this album is only a small piece of what could be [done], what’s out there.
NS: These fragments have been dropped into popular music over the course of Cuban music history since the beginning of recording in Cuba. You made the observation to me when we were talking earlier that whatever the important style of recording Cuban music was in any given era, Abakuá was always present.
IM: As you well know, there’s no recordings from the 19th century, but the titles of habaneras and danzones have Abakuá terms in them.
NS: For example?
IM:  Miguel Faílde was using Abakuá rhythms – “andante ñáñigo” [ñáñigo: an Abakuá practitioner]. There was a danza by Enrique Peña, who was Antonio Maceo’s cornet player during the invasion of the west [of Cuba, in 1895]. He composed a danza in 6/8 rhythm called “El ñáñigo” that starts off with the trumpet call to arms of the military band. Abakuá musicians tell me the tune is definitely Abakuá.
NS: Let’s talk about Ignacio Piñeiro.
IM: “Los Cantares del Abakuá” by Ignacio Piñeiro – Piñeiro was an Abakuá man. He was a member of Efori Enkomo, the parent lodge to Muñanga. He was fantastically important in the development of the son. He had acoro de clave [19th-century style of ambulatory choral group] called Los Roncos at the turn of the 1900s. He played with María Teresa Vera in her Sexteto Occidental.
NS: And they recorded “Los Cantares del Abakuá.” Can you tell me about that?
IM: Ignacio Piñeiro is known as the poet of the son. He’s supposed to have composed about 400 sones. A prolific person. A lot of his compositions are in the costumbrista genre – meaning, he was describing the customs of the era, what was happening in the neighborhood. Things he overheard people talking about, or what happened last night at the Abakuá plante, the Abakuá ceremony. “Los Cantares del Abakuá” is talking about the police invasion of an Abakuá plante, because Abakuá, being a symbol of liberty for the black population, being an organized black society, was repressed throughout Cuban history.
NS: And was considered witchcraft by the ruling class.
IM: Everything that the nation was held to be, Abakuá was not. Progress, et cetera. And so Abakuá are essentially the boogeymen of Cuban history. And so “Los Cantares del Abakuá” describes the police invading a plante and how even in spite of that the plante continues, because the people and their culture cannot be stopped.
NS: What is a plante?
IM: A plante is an Abakuá ceremony that happens in the temples and the patios. And we talked about how in the Cross River the Ekpe lodges represent an independent community, and so the temple grounds of Abakuá are off limits to anyone who’s not a member. So it’s a very sacred space, and not anyone can just go there.
NS: So when the Cuban police came to an Abakuá plante…
IM: Well, as I said, the Abakuá have historically been the boogeymen of Cuba, and they’re described as criminals throughout Cuban history, especially the colonial period. So the police thought there was criminal activity happening, they wanted to get inside the temple, and they were not allowed to, so there were conflicts about that. Piñeiro’s describing one of these, and how in spite of the repression, the culture continues. And for me, the important lyric in this is: “En cuanto suena el bonkó, todo el mundo se emociona” — when the bonkó drum sounds, everyone is moved. This is a very poetic way of talking about the importance of Abakuá music in commercial recordings in Cuba. The Abakuá clave, when it’s heard, people get excited, because it represents their capacity to be autonomous people on their own terms. It’s a symbol of liberation, and so forth.
NS: So, 1928 – Septeto Habanero, “Criolla Carabalí” – what gives?
IM: The composition “Criolla Carabalí” evokes the union of tribes, territories and people through the adoration of Ekpe. There’s a phrase in this track that says, “aba íreme efí, aba íreme efó, bongó itá.” That is, it doesn’t matter if you’re from the Efí tribe or the Efó, our adoration of the Ekpe makes us one. So this 1928 recording is essentially describing the function of Ekpe in Cross River.
NS: But it’s a Cuban son, released commercially on Victor.
IM: Exactly. So this is part of my proposition, that the narratives left by Africans in Cuba are useful to understand African history. And also they’re describing, of course, the Cuban context, because there are lineages of Efí, Efó, and Orú. Each is considered a different territory in the Cross River, and they’re talking about, it doesn’t matter where you’re from, we’re all one in the drum. Because the drum is a universal mother, and we’re reborn as a brother. In Abakuá they say yeniká. It’s like saying ekobio, it’s brother. It means “brother of the same mother,” literally.
NS: Let’s talk about Chano Pozo and Abakuá.
Chango Pozo. Photo courtesy of www.latinamericanstudies.org
IM: Chano Pozo, one of the great composers of Cuban music in the early 20th century. He came to New York in 1947, ended up playing with Dizzy Gillespie and transforming the sound of bebop music in that era. And a couple of months before Chano met Dizzy, he recorded a very important Abakuá track. As you stated in your book, it’s the first real recording of rumbas de solar. This track is called “Abasí,” which is the prime mover, the supreme being. “Abasí” is God almighty. This track has an incredible swing in the rhythm. Oh my lord, it’s just a beautiful piece. Essentially Chano is evoking an Abakuá ceremony. It’s all in Abakuá language. You start off by greeting the astros – the stars, the moon, the sun, the ancestors, and then you greet the living leadership in all their hierarchies, and then you commence. He introduces himself as a member of the Muñanga lodge of Havana. And there’s a point where he starts to bring out the íreme, who are the representatives of the ancestors, the masked ancestors. And to do that he says, cle-cle-cle-cle-cle, which means, come, come forward, come forward.
Now this track influenced a lot of people in New York at the time. And one of them was Machito. In the 1949 version of “Tangá,” Machito is riffing on Chano Pozo’s cle-cle-cle-cle-cle, when this mambo-tanga begins, and he’s inviting the dancers to come out to the ballroom and get down. And he says, “Cle-cle-cle-cle-cle-cle-cle” – a wonderful example of the influence of Abakuá on the popular music of the day.
NS: What’s the influence of Abakuá on rumba?
IM: It’s profound. I believe that the influence of Abakuá and rumba begins at the foundation of Abakuá itself — let’s say, in the mid-1800s — when the Africans were in their cabildos, their nation groups, performing. Down the street in Matanzas there was a Congo cabildo, and on the other block was a Carabalí cabildo, and they would hear their music and they would interact, they’re part of the same community. That fusion, I believe, is how the rumba emerged as a so-called secular form, but all the people involved in it are definitely initiates in all the Cuban traditions, and they’re referring to it each time they play.
The Muñequitos are the best example of that. They’re an all-Abakuá troupe, as well as practitioners of Congo and Lucumí, and their messages are all about the importance of these traditions to the well-being of their communities. And they’re doing it in coded languages, but that’s the message. They’re talking about their philosophical system, and how it’s been a heartbeat for the communities in Cuba.
NS: You identified Agustín Gutiérrez, going back to “Criolla Carabalí” for a minute. We were talking about the referencing of the sacred sound in the bongó playing in son. Agustín Gutiérrez is, I think, one of the key figures in Cuban percussion, and often overlooked.
IM: I’ve heard some speculation that Agustín Gutiérrez came from Santiago de Cuba. I don’t know if that’s rumor or what. There’s also speculation that this sound, this glissade, actually came from Santiago de Cuba with the son already, because there are Carabalí cabildos in Santiago as well. So, whereas Abakuá was only established in Matanzas and Havana in northwestern Cuba, Carabalí culture was throughout the island in the cabildos, and that’s something that really hasn’t been studied yet, but I can tell you an anecdote that Fernando Ortiz got me started on. During the wars of independence, known Abakuá were captured and they were sent overseas, to Ceuta and to Fernando Pó, along with a lot of other people, like Masons and any rebel. And it was in Ceuta that Carabalí members and Abakuá people from Havana and from Santiago could meet and interact, and therein may be part of the history of the son and the story of that sound.
IM: So that’s a bomb I’m dropping. It’s unconfirmed, but it’s quite possible.
NS: And ironically, Abakuá were sent to Fernando Pó, which was right across from where Abakuá originally came from in Africa.
IM: Yeah, Fernando Pó is a really incredible story. From the 1820s to the 1840s, the British were centered there, and it was their anti-slavery base. They were trying to stop slavery in Calabar and in that whole Biafra region. Ekpe members were interacting with the British in Fernando Pó, so there was Ekpe going to Fernando Pó also. The Cubans started coming in the 1860s, because part of the Spanish project was to make Fernando Pó another plantation colony. At one point it was called the “African Cuba,” because there were so many Cubans being sent there. [Note: Cigars made from tobacco grown on Fernando Po plantations run by Cuban deportees won the Amsterdam Prize in 1878 ]. And of course the white Cubans didn’t want to go, so they were getting black laborers to go work the tobacco crops in Fernando Pó.
So again, it’s very under-researched, but there is definitely an Abakuá resonance, and perhaps they were meeting with Ekpe there. And some of those people came back. Most died. But many Cubans were able to come back, and if there was a meeting of Abakuá from Havana and Carabalí from Santiago, they each came back having learned more from the other folks.
NS: You identified Agustín Gutiérrez as an Abakuá member.
IM: I learned this from the director of Septeto Habanero in the 90s, because they know the story of their conjunto very well. And yes, he was a member. As I said, when I played this track to Ekpe people in Calabar, they got so excited, started dancing, they responded to this viscerally.
NS: Let’s talk about Tito Rodríguez and “Abanekue.”
IM: So Chano Pozo arrives. He records “Abasí.” With only Cuban musicians, by the way. It’s very interesting to listen to “Manteca” and the Afro-Cuban drum suite that he does with Dizzy Gillespie, because he’s so articulate when he’s chanting Abakuá in “Abasí,” and if you compare that to his chanting with Dizzy, he’s diminishing it, he’s become very discreet. He’s sort of turning it into a scat. Because he knows they’re not going to be able to understand him, and he’s also being respectful of the tradition by not articulating it among people who aren’t members.
So the work of Dizzy and Chano changes jazz history, essentially, and in 1950 Machito does another track called “Negro Ñañamboro.” I consider it to be in the dance instruction genre. You know, usually they’re teaching you how to do the latest step? Here he’s describing the person who catches the spirit. He’s mounted by an orisha, so the shirt is taken off, the shoes are taken off, and the hat is taken off, and he’s saying, “Negro ñañamboro, arrollando como es.” He’s dancing like it should be done. But ñañamboro is – there are two Abakuá phrases, ñaña is the masked dancer, and Embemoro is an Abakuá lodge. So it’s a playful use of Abakuá themes, but he’s evoking ritual in the mambo context in the Palladium. Kinda nice.
In the same year, Tito Rodríguez does “Abanekue,” which is a beautiful Abakuá-inspired dance tune. The title “Abanekue” means “initiate.” Some people in Cuba say obonekue, but the term is also abanekue, which is what the Efik call it. This is the earliest recording of Abakuá material by a Puerto Rican that I know.
NS: How did Tito Rodríguez, who was a Puerto Rican, learn about this?
IM: I wish I knew. That’s a great question. It’s an expression of the interaction of the musicians from all over the Spanish Caribbean in New York, and their mutual support and enthusiasm.
After Tito Rodríguez did “Abanekue” in 1950, there’s been some amazing recordings by Puerto Rican bands. El Gran Combo did “Írimo,” which is íreme, the masked dancer. And it’s a wonderful dance tune. This is popular music. And they’re talking about the íreme coming out, the representative of the ancestors, and interacting with the bonkó. Now what’s amazing for this – talk about the Abakuá influence in the rumba. That’s exactly what happens in the rumba – the caller and the drum bring out the dancer, and they begin to interact. It’s the same structure. Then another important track is La Sonora Ponceña, who did “Congo Carabalí,” which is a fantastic Abakuá-inspired track, which I hope you can play.
NS: Can you talk about the role of Abakuá in Puerto Rican culture in general? They have that famous word…
IM: Which is?
IM: Chévere, qué chévere, qué chévere. I was just in Venezuela, where chévere is in every other sentence as a term of affirmation. What’s so incredible about using music as a way to understand Abakuá — the perspective we get is totally different from what’s in the official histories of Abakuá as criminals, as something negative, like, “watch out, kids, don’t go out, the Abakuá will get you.” Because chévere is a positive term of affirmation. To be chévere is to be, that’s great, it’s positive, what could be better. It’s an Abakuá title, they say Mokongo machévere, because Mokongo was a valiant warrior who, thanks to him, the society was created in Africa. And the term Mokongo machévere is in almost all the Abakuá recordings that we’ve mentioned, somewhere. Usually it’s the last phrase –Mokongo machévere. It’s in the Muñequitos “Ritmo Abakuá.”
NS: Let’s talk about Mongo Santamaría, a figure who just gets bigger as time passes.
IM: In the 50s in New York, the mambo was happening, and the involvement of Puerto Ricans cannot be underestimated. It’s tremendous. Tito Rodríguez, Tito Puente. When Mongo came on the scene, Tito Puente hired him in his band – another example of Puerto Ricans supporting and sustaining this culture. Mongo ends up recording a very important Abakuá track called “Bríkamo” in the 1950s. I think around 1958 Mongo records “Bríkamo.” And Bríkamo is a Carabalí tradition in Matanzas, it’s sustained by the Calle family. They’re very famous rumberos.
NS: Co-founders of the Muñequitos.
IM: Exactly. And Bríkamo – the Abakuá language is called Bríkamo, and Bríkamo is understood to be a reference to Usagaré, the place where the woman got the fish in the river and Ekpe was perfected. So Mongo lays this track down with Willie Bobo and Francisco Aguabella in 1958.
NS: Now what about Julito Collazo?
IM: To talk about Julito Collazo, we’ve gotta talk about [choreographer] Katharine Dunham, a very important figure in the Caribbean cultural scene in New York in the 1940s and 50s, and onwards. Katharine Dunham went to Cuba, where she hired some Abakuá musicians for her international troupe to tour the world, and she did Abakuá-inspired pieces. One was called “El ñáñigo.” Katharine Dunham hired Julito Collazo, and brought him to New York, where he became a foundational figure in the culture of santería, in the culture of batá music…
NS: …and in the culture of palo…
IM: Exactly. And Julito taught a lot of people. René López, who organized the Grupo Folklórico y Experimental Nuevayorquino, worked with Julito Collazo. Mongo and Julito went on to record a very important track in the 70s – I think, 1976, called “Ubane,” with Justo Betancourt. “Ubane” uses jazz harmonies, and it’s an Abakuá track, praising an Abakuá lineage, Efí Obane. It just so happens that Oban is a very important Ekpe village of the Ejagham people in the Cross River region, so again, when I play this for people in the Cross River they get it immediately, and they’re amazed that their town is remembered 200 years later in Cuba.
NS: Ivor Miller, thank you so much for sharing your deep experience with us today. I wish we could go on longer because this is obviously endless, but this has given me a lot to think about.
IM: Well, thank you. This is really part of a process, and it’s been a real privilege for me to share this information and be part of this historic connection. And the Ekpe festival in Calabar is ongoing. It’s meant to be an annual event, and details are posted up on Afrocubaweb, so folks can go there and check that out.
Links for Voice of the Leopard|
Compiled by Jake Gold and Latasha Alcindor
Dr. Ivor Miller’s bibliography and some reviews and links
View the on-line discography for “The Voice of the Leopard”
Mongo Santamaria on YouTube
Mongo Santamaria with Tito Puentes and Max Roach –“Afro Blue” (YouTube)
Los Munequitos de Matanzas on YouTube from a PBS documentary
Ray Barretto playing “Canto Abakua” in 1975 (YouTube)