For some who came of age in the seventies, neither Christianity nor Islam offered an answer. Both religions come from proselytizing traditions that emphasize doctrine, theology and human intermediaries who approach the Divine.
All African religions recognize "God Almighty", yet none presume the supplicant's authority to pull the Almighty's shirtsleeve. Instead, worshippers commune with specified aspects of the Divine. These intermediaries can be thought of as angels; they are called, variously: "saints"/"Santos," "Loas," "Orishas," "Obosum," "Neteru," "The Gods." Worshippers consult with them to discover how best to live in harmony with God's Will. These "deities" are part of a highly sophisticated theology, within which people and nature are organized according to personality, function, chemical content, and appearance. Each Orisha has dominion over a certain class of energy; a certain spiritual valence is their domain.
Today, these deities form a melting pot in the New World. In Haiti, they call on Dahomean deities, but also invoke Mbundu (Angolan) names and Ibo powers. Cuba is home to the Lucumi religion, which is mostly derived from Yoruba traditions, as are Candomble and Macumba of Brazil. The Arar religion of Cuba, reflects Dahomean/Fon traditions. The Abakwa Society of Cuba maintains a spiritual and social fraternity from eastern Nigeria/Cameroon. Umbanda, also of Brazil, and Cuba's Palo Monte and Majombe are rooted in religious traditions of Central African peoples.
African religions demand years of practice and insist on a strict regimen of initiation to refine the cognitive process, that followers may develop their ability to recognize how the Deity manifests through seemingly simple, everyday actions. The signs, proof of one's living on or off the path of god, come every day.
Westerners are most familiar with aspects of African religions dissimilar to their own. Dancing, songs, the drumming "for the Gods" are practices that transform meditation into a full-body experience of the Divine. The steps and rhythms are based upon a system of cultivation of consciousness that corresponds to the refining of the mind's perceptive process, allowing informed energy to flow to the heart and manifest in movement. Of course, all the uninitiated see are dance and song.
Part of the liturgy of African peoples is music and instruments:
--Cuba uses the two-headed, hourglass shaped bat drums for its sacred Lucumi ceremonies. Each drummer, with the drum laid across his lap, plays a different drumhead with each hand, in effect making an orchestra of six out of three players.
--Palo in Cuba uses upright drums similar to congas in its rites.
--Trinidad's Shango religion also has three players, performing on two-headed drums with one stick and one hand. Haiti's drums of Vodun are also played in sets of three: one with a pair of straight sticks, one with hands, and one with a hooked stick and a hand. These drums' heads are made of skin and are attached to their shells with large tuning pegs at 45-degree angles. The Vodun
priest in Haiti is called a houngan. This minister wields an asson, a small rattle, like a maraca, except the hollow gourd is covered with a net of beads instead of being filled with loose pebbles.
--"Voodoo" is a derogatory derivation of the term "Voudou", the religion of the Fon people of Dahomey, modern-day Benin. During slavery, it was transferred to Haiti and the United States. A typical Voudou ceremony is built around the Loa tree, from where the Spirits descend. The tree is decorated with intricate, lacey corn meal drawings, known as V.V.
--Brazil also has "conga-like" drums, but the heads are tuned with pegs through a loop at the bottom of the drum. Their priestess is called a M.e. de Santos.
Increasingly, African Americans journey to Africa or the Caribbean to study these religions firsthand. Additionally, traditional practitioners who immigrated to the United States opened spiritual houses here. From this union have come such communities as the Akans of America organization and the Oyotunde, a traditional Yoruba village in South Carolina. The Ausar Auset Society and others recreate rites from the Ausarian (Osiris) tradition of northeast Africa.
The trained devotee's recognition of Spirit's hand in day-to-day living reinforces the African communal worldview practiced and maintained by enslaved people through the then-necessary filter of Christianity. Now, American Africans are turning back to the source, an interpersonal spiritual theology that offers the intimacy of and contact with another dimension, revealing purpose, transforming lives. Literal communion with the Divine, not simply a belief in the divine, is the transforming power. It is the certification of things unseen.
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- Contributed by Sule Greg Wilson