African Oral Arts in Excilia Saldana's Kele Kele

Article excerpt

It is an accepted fact that African cultural practices have greatly influenced life in the Caribbean. As a prominent Caribbean scholar remarks, "African culture not only crossed the Atlantic, it crossed, survived and creatively adapted itself to its new environment" (Brathwaite 73).1 In the case of Cuba, the dominant ethnic group which came from Africa was the Yoruba of Nigeria, whose religious practices are still alive on the island. The Yoruba became known in Cuba as lucumi, their religion became known as santeria, their deities, or orishas, are active in the lucumi religious pantheon, and remnants of the Yoruba language are still heard on the island.2 As William Bascom notes, it is in Cuba that the Yoruba religion was retained in its purest form ("Shang(delta)" 13). The gods of the Yoruba-inspired Afro-Cuban religion santeria are the main characters in Excilia Saldana's Kele kele.

African people also brought to the Caribbean their oral literature, as evidenced by the African-inspired folktales, proverbs, and poetry that appear in the literature of the region. Since oral literature greatly informs this essay, we should keep in mind the implications of this concept as we examine Saldana's Kele kele. In their studies of African oral literature, Okpewho, Finnegan, Dorson, and Jablow all underscore the importance of the performance aspect in any critical reading of literature derived from the African oral tradition. This is because the African storyteller always needs to incorporate extra-linguistic features that would enhance his artistic performance and maintain the interest of a live audience. It should be noted then, that in analyzing Saldana's Kele kele, powerful dramatizing agents and performance-enhancing techniques such as gestures, movements, and tonal inflection are absent since there is no live audience. However, in shifting from the oral to the print medium, Saldana is aware of the presence of an implied audience, and she exercises a number of rhetorical tools aimed at enhancing the delivery of her narrative and maintaining the interest and participation of her audience.

Excilia Saldana (1946-1999) was born in Havana, where she worked as an editor with Editorial Gente Nueva, a publishing house that specializes in children's literature. She has published numerous books, including the following collections of poetry: Cantos para un mayito y una paloma (1979), Poesia de amor y combate (1981), and Mi nombre (1991). She has also published Compay Tito (1987), an illustrated children's book, Kele kele (1987), a collection of Afro-Cuban myths, and El refranero de la vibora (1989), a collection of proverbs. Several of her books have won literary prizes in Cuba. Saldana informs us: "I am a woman and my work carries that stamp implicitly. [...] And I don't want to only write as a woman, but as a Black woman (Randall 198). Her writings are thus strongly guided by her condition as a woman who expresses her feelings, desires, and aspirations, and by her condition as a person of African descent who seeks to reaffirm the central role of African heritage in the shaping of Cuban and Caribbean identity.

The focus of this essay is Kele kele, a book in which Saldana demonstrates strong mastery of the art of African oral literature. She draws heavily upon Yoruba mythology, giving the book philosophical underpinnings of an African nature. Kele kele is an exposition of the Afro-Cuban people's way of explaining human behavior as well as certain cosmic and natural phenomena. It is made up of five Afro-- Cuban myths called patakines, tales of the orishas, which often carry a moral lesson (Martinez Fure 213; Bolivar 186). What we have in Kele kele are poetic recreations of patakines, where the santeria gods are the dramatis personae. On these mythical scenes where reality is stretched far beyond our temporal and spatial consciousness, the reader receives lessons of moral, cultural, and existential importance. In the process, the reader also gains an understanding of the Afro-Cuban people's relationship with their environment and with the social, cultural, and historical forces that have shaped their thinking and molded their character. …


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