Deep in the Heart of Darkest Africa ...
by Little Shloma Rosenberg, the Bloo Eyed Joo
I had long been interested in witnessing a ritual conducted by Awo Falokun Fatunmbi. His books had always proclaimed how much deeper his tradition was than others practiced in the, as he puts it, “West.” I was dying to find out what all these elements of ritual and tradition were that had supposedly been lost in the “New World.” When I found out that there was going to be a bembé in Chicago in honor of some initiations conducted by Falokun, I was thrilled. It was with great excitement that I put on my dancing shoes and prepared to cross town to see what was up.
As I approached the back yard of the duplex in which the bembé was to take place, I heard what sounded like Orisha songs being played on a Fisher Price Close-and-Play. When I rounded the building, I realized why they had sounded so strange. There, facing a picnic table full of eager students, was a young man dressed entirely in white (complete with rakish do-rag), teaching what were perhaps the most incorrect versions of Orisha songs that I had ever heard.
He chanted without regard to tonality or pronunciation. I suspected that he had learned the songs from recordings, as so many do. This can be fine if you just want to respond at the odd bembé, but it can be a touch hazardous when you wish to don the mortarboard of the akpon and venture forth into the world to spread your newly acquired misinformation.
I stood bewildered as he taught an Elegba song to his enraptured admirers. If his version were translated from proper Yoruba, I think it would have been revealed to have been praising Elegba's ability to pass wind. His voice was thin and breathy, a style that is not conducive to the tones and nasalization of Orisha songs. It was sort of a “Sean Cassidy sings the best of Lazaro Ros” experience.
Between each song lesson, he gave his victims...uh, I mean, STUDENTS, a brief description of each Orisha. It was the typical “Yemoja is a big-titted mammy who makes everybody feel better” and “Shango is the divine pimp with the loud mouth” bullshit that you get every time you squeeze a Wiccan-turned-Santero's head. My mind reeled.
When the young man was finished infecting his students with the virus of inaccuracy, we were ushered inside. We arrived at the top of the stairs and were herded into a tiny room, at least a fourth of which was taken up by Awo Falokun Fatunmbi. At first I thought I was looking at God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel until he moved and spoke.
He was good natured and friendly, and besides his rhetoric about community (read “fascist mind control”) and his constant spewing of Yoruba proverbs like “When your life gets better, my life gets better” (read “My life gets better when you do what I want you to do”), I actually started to warm up to him...until he started giving dance lessons.
First up was Elegba. We were told to shuffle from side to side, throwing our arms out horizontally as we reached each extreme. This conga line, we were told, functioned to “bring the energy in from the outside and direct (read: “hurl”) it at the throne (“Poor Iyawos”, thought I).”
Next: Ogun. This dance was based, I believe, on the Cuban “machete” style of dancing for Ogun, but it bore a striking resemblance to a “time-out” at a Bulls game; either that or semaphore, take your pick.
We were also warned that during the Ogun songs, it was possible that we would be treated to an exhibition of a death-defying martial art, sacred to the Orisha himself. This would happen only if Falokun and his sidekick (a short, bitter looking character who seemed to be in costume for his role as Tevye in a WAY off-Broadway production of “Fiddler on the Roof”) “felt the spirit.” I thought to myself, “Gee, what are the chances of that?”
Oshosi's dance was straight out of “Robin Hood, Men in Tights.” We were to pantomime the drawing of imaginary arrows from our imaginary back-mounted quivers and their subsequent release from our imaginary bows.
Throughout our lessons, it became apparent to me that the movement of our feet was entirely unimportant in these dances. I don't know if this was based on their tradition, or if it possibly had something to do with the relative knowledge and ability of our instructor.
After the Oshosi/William Tell dance, Falokun turned to the drummers (who, being from outside this clique, looked as dumbfounded as I felt), and said, “Who do you sing to next...Obatala?” The response came back: “No, Erinle.” I saw a flash of panic on his face. “Uh....is there a dance for that one? Uh....uh....you're gonna hafta help me out here guys,” he said to the drummers. One of the drummers shuffled up and performed the step, quite well I may add. “Then Obatala, right?” Once again the answer was negative, “No, Orisha Oko .” By this time our hirsute instructor seemed quite comfortable admitting that he had no idea what the hell he was doing. He just gaped at the drummer, who once again demonstrated the step.
After Falokun's repeated inquiries, the drummers seemed to give up on the traditional Oru and just said they'd play the big 7 or 8. I guess they thought if they had told him they were going to play Oge, Oke and Korinkoto, the poor guy's head would have exploded, so they just jumped straight to Obatala. The basic dance for Obatala is pretty near impossible to fuck up, so this demonstration was uneventful.
Shango's dance appeared to pantomime the pulling of paper towels from a slightly-higher-than-usual wall mounted roll. “This is how Shango pulls down thunder”, said Falokun. “Aaah,” said the now sweating crowd, in low and reverent tones.
Oya was real easy. All you had to do was look angry and flail around with your hands whipping dangerously through the air.
The demonstration for the dance to Yemoja was the first point in the evening when I almost lost it. Falokun daintily picked up the front of his toga (yes, I said “toga”) and tiptoed back and forth, comparing his movements to that of the ocean's waves. In my mind I compared his movements to those of the tutu-wearing hippos in “Fantasia”, and thus began my first episode of church giggles.
I was interested to see what he would come up with for Oshun, since he so often rails against the “Western View” of Oshun as a coquettish seductress. When one hand went up in front of his face, mimicking a mirror, and the other started alternately combing through his hair or fanning his face, I stopped paying attention.
It was now drifting into the second hour past the time when the bembé was supposed to start. There were whispers that we were waiting for the Iyawos who were upstairs getting dressed. I had assumed that they were in the throne, which had been thus far obscured from my view by Falokun's girth, but I must have been wrong. I quietly wondered to myself if they had big gold stars on their dressing room doors.
Someone dashed in from upstairs and delivered the message that the Iyawos were ready. We were admonished to press up against the walls as tightly as possible, as there had to be room for the procession. We did so, and were therefore able to enjoy each others' rapidly putrefying body odor as we waited another fifteen minutes or so for the parade. A hush fell over the crowd as Luisah Teish entered the room with a Tupperware bowl full of water. She is a powerful woman with a regal air. You have to be to look grand with Tupperware.
She sprinkled the floor with water as the Iyawos came in, accompanied by their attending priests. The attending priests were wearing costumes in the primary colors of their Orisha. They looked like the Bené Gesserits from “Dune.” Their garb, however, was nothing compared to that of the Iyawos.
When they came into view, covered by a canopy which was supported by poles which were held up by the priests, I could think of nothing but the Super Friends (you remember...The Saturday morning cartoon). Decked out in the most primary of colors, each was a comic book version of their tutelary divinity incarnate. There were four in all, Ogun, Shango, Obatala and Yemoja. I'd hate to see the stretch marks on that godparent.
They were installed in the throne with all the pomp and circumstance and about half the organization and rehearsal of a high school graduation. I thought I caught Teish looking longingly after the canopy. Using my ESP, I bore into her mind and saw nightmare images of her being carried aloft in a sedan chair, much to the dismay of those holding the poles.
Falokun explained that the drummers were now going to play Oru for the Orishas, and that the dancing and singing would begin afterward. As the Oru began, some of the priests took to clapping along. This, however inappropriate, spread like wildfire among the spectators. They were hooting and clapping over their heads, stomping their feet and catcalling. Eventually I felt like I was at a baseball game or a Journey concert. I expected a wave at any moment, or at least a few lighters held high in the air.
Two of the officiating priests, one a Babalawo (an associate of that pillar of the Orisha community, Philip Neimark) and one a Shango priestess (of EXTREMELY dubious initiatory origin--she defected from her godmother, a woman who was never initiated in the first place) were particularly into it. The Babalawo (who bore a striking resemblance to Dack Rambo in Caligula garb) danced as if he were head rent-boy at a Bacchanal and the Shango priestess would occasionally jump and twitch, then look around furtively to see if anyone noticed. I think she was trying to figure out whether it was appropriate to get possessed at this particular point.
When the Oru ended, there was a remarkably long period of time in which all members of the clique sort of crushed themselves into the throne room and did some sort of ritual communal blessing on the Iyawos (barf). Each Iyawo would expose the top of their head to the people in the room, at which time each priest and relative of the Iyawos would pronounce their blessing on the Iyawo. After each sentence which was spoken, everyone would bellow “Ashe!.” Somebody asked for a glass of water and everybody said “Ashe!” It got to the point where you couldn't fart without someone yelling “Ashe!”
By the time everyone was done giving and receiving their compulsory blessings, the house had turned into quite a sauna. Indeed, if the rest of the house was a sauna then the tiny throne room was hell itself. At one point, Falokun's thugs tried to wrestle a visiting Iyawo from a Cuban house into the throne, but she was having no truck with that. Her godmother came to her rescue, looking at them as if they were insane and explaining that it was too damned hot in there.
Finally, the drums began to sound. This is when all hell broke loose. Within ten seconds (I shit you not--TEN SECONDS) of the beginning of the opening song to Eleggua, EVERYONE was possessed.
First and foremost was Falokun's sidekick (I call him this because he really appears to be cultivating a Falokun-esque look in miniature). He was apparently an initiate of Elegba. Almost immediately upon hearing the first rat-a-tat of the drums he was fully possessed. He jumped and spun and did clumsy acrobatics, doing his best (not always successfully) to maintain his footing. Falokun lumbered out onto the dance floor and linked arms with him, do-see-do-ing repeatedly in the middle of everything. “Elegba” attempted to perform all the standard Elegba possession characteristics, with the exception of speaking, performing any type of cleansings or offering any sort of advice. It seemed to be possession for the sake of possession. Not very convincing.
The Shango priestess was going through all sorts of changes. She looked like she was either having a seizure or going through a painful bowel movement. She blustered and shook, but her posturing never seemed to come to a head. She would stomp and snort, hiccup and bug her eyes out, then the whole thing would just kind of peter out.
An Obatala priestess (who I had heard was the head-honcho godmother of this branch of Falokunland) was gesturing madly, tears streaming down her face, hair wet and matted. She looked more like Sally Field in “Sybil” than Obatala. It was pathetic.
Mind you, this is all during the first song...
The behavior pretty much continued throughout the bembé in the same manner. Someone would get possessed; Falokun or his sidekick would do-se-do with them for a short time; they would seek an aleyo (one whom the “mount” knew) whom they figured would play along and pull them up on the floor. The “Orisha” would hold on to the aleyo and dance until the aleyo started performing. The performance would continue until one of the two either realized they did not know what to do next or got bored and they would come out of it. The pair would get applause (!), hugs from their peers (as if to say “Good job!”) and someone would rush dutifully in with a glass of water.
Things stayed pretty much constant with a few notable exceptions:
During the Ogun song, Falokun, as promised, became possessed of Ogun and wrestled with his sidekick, the phony Elegba mount. They would stomp like Sumo wrestlers, hug and spin around until the sidekick would fall down, having been thrown to the floor by Falokun/Ogun. We don't even need to approach the issue of a Babalawo getting possessed when we consider that we had been warned that this was going to happen, and when we consider that there was a couple in the kitchen talking about the fact that Falokun had REHEARSED the whole thing!!! That this was supposedly an ancient, sacred martial art was also pretty doubtful. It was so clumsy and pointless that I am hard pressed to imagine ANYONE considering it a useful ritual act. There are indeed African martial arts, I just doubt that this is one of them. Especially when compared to something as intricate and beautiful as, say for instance, Capoeira.
This sumo wrestling went on until Teish stuck a fistful of honey into Falokun's mouth, thus taming the wild and unpredictable Ogun. Did you catch that, boys and girls? They were ENACTING A POPULAR MYTH. Can you say “ENACTING A POPULAR MYTH”?
Also during the Ogun song, a man who, I take it, was initiated to Ogun became possessed and issued forth a cacophonous, tearful primal scream. The possession was over and he was given lots of hugs and an extra big glass of water. Whenever I see big hairy men crying and screaming I think I am at a men's movement meeting. I looked under the couch and behind the curtains, sure I would find Robert Bly hiding somewhere.
Things calmed down, back to the do-se-do routine until it came time for Oshun. The Elegba guy got possessed for, I think, the third time, and demanded rum (this he did by putting his thumb to his mouth with his pinky extended in a sort of “hang-ten” move and wiggling his hand to and fro). He spit rum in Teish's face and she was instantly possessed of Oshun. What was to follow will haunt me forever, right alongside the screaming Ogun guy.
Teish proceeded to hike up her skirt to a very dangerous level and rub her tits. This to hoots and hollers from the peanut gallery. She walked around shooting dirty looks at everyone and pressing young men's faces alternately into her armpits and cleavage.
Throughout the entire evening I could not figure out why none of these “Orishas” saluted anyone, gave anyone any advice, cleaned anyone up, or did ANYTHING of any value. Could these people possibly believe that the Orishas descend into the bodies of their priests just to look harried and frantic and, by virtue of their performance, win their mounts a glass of water?
The rest of the evening was more of the same, with the one exception being a woman who did not appear to believe herself possessed, but was very into her dancing (for Oya I believe) who was called on the carpet by one of the head honchos for “faking it.” Um … yeah.