Wemilere in Guanabacoa
By Kiro / Photos by Jorge Pérez
Founded more than four centuries ago, the Villa de la Asunción de Guanabacoa, a town on the outskirts of Havana, is revisited each spring by "Wemilere ", the Festival of African Roots.
In this eighth year of the 21 st Century, the voluptuous sound of the bata drums mixes in the wind with the fast and rhythmic beat of conga drums and cowbells in this cradle of Afro Cuban religions in Cuba. It is the same beat, both sacred and profane, that has established an indissoluble link between men and spirits.
The bata drum is the symbolic essence of this link on the island, and is the sound that reminds us of the anguish of captivity and segregationist cruelty of European colonization.
"Moforibale, Oloffi!" With this reverential salute to the supreme creator, the Wemilere, the Orishas' party, becomes an artistic representation of ancestral traditions that came from Africa with black slaves.
Today, and for the past almost twenty years of celebrations, the Guanabacoan celebrants, of course in very different condition than their ancestors, recall the African languages, chants and dances for a singular ritual encounter that also gathers historians, intellectuals and folklorists.
The Wemilere embodies the fusion of Spain and Africa in an authentic display of Cuban nationality. In the homes of Guanabacoa, we see the syncretism of Catholic saints - remnants of the former Spanish rule - worshiped as one with Yoruba deities.
Supplicants make offerings to Obbatala (the Roman Catholic Virgin of Mercy), to Shangó (Saint Barbara), Oshun (Virgin of Charity), Babalu Aye (Saint Lazarus) or Yemaya (Virgin of Regla).
Each edition of Wemilere presents a wide range of activities including theoretical debates, lessons on Afro Cuban culture, dance and band contests, art exhibits and other geographical boundary crossing activities.
Perhaps the highlight of the 2008 Wemilere was the presence of the Alexandria Folkloric Ballet from Egypt. The beauty of their colorful costumes, make up and millenary dances were reminiscent of civilization's matriarchal culture.
One cannot talk about Guanabacoa without mentioning the famous babalawo (Yoruba priest) nonagenarian Enrique Hernandez Armenteros, known as Enriquito by his more than three thousand godsons and followers of the Hijos de San Lázaro (the religious association Sons of Saint Lazarus) he founded in 1957.
Joyful and talkative, the Priest of Ifa, one of the highest religious authorities both within and out of the community that welcomed him as a young boy, presented a series of memoirs in The Magical Mystical World of Bantu Religion by Cuban journalist Marcos Alfonso.
Guanabacoa, a melting pot of legends and religions, is the cradle of many world figures, such as pianist and composer Ernesto Lecuona and singers Rita Montaner and Ignacio Villa (aka Bola de Nieve), and a magnet for ethnographers and anthropologists.