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Cuban Music Lesson: Toque De Santo


Get ready to be schooled, asere. It’s time for a Cuban music lesson! Learn to tell your cha cha cha from your mambo without leaving your couch. Put on your dancing shoes, guayaberas, park your 57 Chevy, light up that Habano, and pay attention.

If you’ve been reading these Cuban music posts – and we know that you have – you may have noticed a trend. In almost every music form we discuss it usually follows a formula: a style of music from Spain, the U.S, etc + African rhythms = X style of Cuban music. So, in this post we’re going to the source of these African rhythms: the toque de Santo in Santeria.

When you think Santeria, you probably picture dudes in white sacrificing chickens in front of a creepy statue of a saint. OK, so that’s sort of true, but it’s only a small part of the story. Cuba was once the world’s top producer of sugar cane, and the Spanish land owners sure as hell weren’t going to cut it themselves. So, they brought slaves from West Africa to Cuba by the millions. Most of these poor saps were from the Yoruba, Fon, and Congo peoples. One of the main differences between the African-American and Afro-Cuban experiences is that in Cuba, the slaves were allowed to hold on to their African traditions much more than their counterparts in the U.S. The Africans simply took the saints that their Spanish masters prayed to and infused them with the identity of one of their African gods or Orishas. Santa Barbara became Chango, San Lazaro became Babalu-aye, and a weird rock they glued a face to made out of shells becomes Ellegua.

The main ritual of Santeria is the toque de Santo. Drummers play the bata drums that their ancestors played in Africa. They play a distinct rhythm for whatever Orisha they are trying to invoke. The beats are repetitive and increase in intensity as the ritual progresses. The participants sing along in Yoruba, ñañigo, or Congolese. The goal is for someone to get possessed by an Orisha. Now, this isn’t the head spinning around, pea soup vomiting, doing naughty things with a crucifix type of possession. Where most of us in the West pray to God, through the toque de Santo the participants become god. This author once witnessed a toque de Santo, and it is something I’ll never forget. I was both fascinated and scared out of my mind. I’m Cuban, but I grew up in the suburbs. When someone turns into an African god in front of you, it makes an impression. That’s what’s unique about the toque de Santo. While a good mambo, son, or cha-cha-cha is good to dance to, only the toque de Santo makes you a god for a half hour.

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