The Yoruba Orisha Tradition Comes to New York City

Article excerpt

The work of Katherine Dunham, Zora Neale Hurston, and Pearl Primus - building on the research of Melville Herskovits and W. E. B. Du Bois - introduced an intellectual perspective of the African Diaspora into the arts. These artists worked studiously to incorporate an international racial and cultural legacy into an African-based aesthetic which could serve as a unifying link for Africans in the Diaspora. Dunham, for example, insisted that the members of her dance company understand the cultural traditions of creative expression in their respective countries, and her school at 43rd and Broadway nurtured developing and accomplished artists who embraced the African Diaspora in their creative expression. "Our school," writes Dunham in an unpublished autobiography,

became the popular meeting place of Caribbean, Central and South American diplomats, painters, musicians, poets and the like. At our monthly "Boule Blanches" we usually presented new and untried Cuban orchestras such as Perez Prado, Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria and Bobby Capo. Cuban Julio Iglesias toured with us for a couple of seasons. Celia Cruz came to these affairs both as a guest and entertainer. Among our regular participants and followers were Helen Hayes and her daughter, Lena Home, Xavier Cougat and many others. (2)

Dunham's work with the Maroons of Jamaica and with traditional African communities in Haiti, along with research in Cuba, Martinique, and Senegal - among other locations - filled the productions she staged for international audiences with images, symbols, music, dance, instruments, and ritual practice of the African Diaspora. But Cuba held a special attraction for her.

On Dunham's first trip there, in 1938, she met the families of the drummers Julio and LaRosa, and performed rituals that they had been unable to accomplish in New York City. And to maintain an African Diaspora focus in her dance company, she incorporated the expertise of researchers like Fernando Ortiz and Lydia Cabrera; the writing of Afro-Cuban poet Nicolas Guillen; and the music of the composer Lecona in her productions. "Cuban music and ritual," she writes, "were inextricably interwoven into my life - both personal and professional."(1)

When Dunham could not find drummers for her company in 1952, she returned to Cuba and recruited Julito Collazo and Francisco Aguabella, renowned percussionists in the Latino, jazz, and popular music communities who had been trained in the Orisha tradition.(2) Julito Collazo would become one of the pioneer members of a small group of Yoruba traditional practitioners who were instrumental in establishing Orisha worship in New York City. He settled in New York in 1955 when Dunham's touring company ran out of engagements,(3) and along with Francisco Aguabella, he performed the songs, dances, and music of Afro-Cuban traditions and spread these traditions to international audiences.

In 1955, there were approximately twenty-five people in New York City who were believers in the Orisha tradition (Collazo interview). The founding member of the Orisha tradition in New York City was Babalawo Pancho Mora (Yoruba name, Ifa Morote), who arrived in New York in 1946 and, soon after, established the "first ile, or house of the orishas" there (Murphy 50). Mora had been initiated as a high priest of Ifa in Cuba on January 27, 1944, by Babalawo Quintin Lecon, a renowned Cuban Ifa priest, and was the first babalawo in New York to practice Ifa divination (Murphy 49-50).

Mora's belief in this ancient tradition and his desire to maintain his belief system motivated him to found the first Orisha community in the city. From his pioneering work, the tradition has grown to include thousands of initiates from all walks of life and ethnic groups. He has initiated several thousand godchildren from varied professions and international backgrounds, and has traveled extensively to Latin America and nationally to perform rituals and spread the practice of Santeria (Mora interview). …