- Yenye Labá, or How to Season an Afro-Caribbean Dish
Stephan Palmié, Hans de Waardt, The Cooking of History, Afro-Cuban religion, Africa, Cuba, Yoruba, Santéria
As a specialist in the cultural and religious history of sixteenth-century Europe, I feel forced to admit that I know far too little of the religious history of Latin America. Cuba is no exception in this. So, Palmié’s book really struck me as an eye-opener to a culture hitherto unknown to me, apart from the son and boleros of bands like Buena Vista Social Club. But then I realized that much of it had a familiar ring. The read was, in other words, both reconnaissance and recognition. That many themes that Palmié discusses here fall on common ground with subjects I touch upon in my teaching and research offered me a key. But this sounds a bit lighter than it actually was, for I’m afraid that this text is not always an easy read. It would have benefitted greatly from a final proofreading and a correction of the rather numerous spelling errors. Another complicating factor is the author’s preference for drawn out sentences. A sentence on page 241, for instance, spreads out over nine lines and counts eighty two words (with a reference to Hegel, a philosopher not known for verbal sobriety). The next sentence stretches out over seven lines and contains seventy-one words. Sentences of such excessive length force readers to read them at least twice. On that same page the author, by the way, shows that he is able to phrase short sentences, with his rather apodictic claim: “I think not.”
But this having been said, it should be underlined that this book is exciting in the sense that I did not just find it interesting but profoundly stimulating. At first sight it doesn’t appear to be a monograph but a volume of separate articles. The chapters do, however, form a cohesive argument and the initial impression of the book as a composite collection of texts is in full accord with the central theme of Palmié’s study. At issue is the versatility if not the manoeuvrability of culture, more specifically that of the regla de ocha or santería, a set of religious beliefs and rituals Palmié came across during his fieldwork in Cuba. In the first chapter “On Yoruba Origins, for Example . . .” [End Page 213] he analyzes how, in the nineteenth century, newly enslaved West-Africans brought a set of—initially not very precisely outlined—beliefs to Cuba. This was then detected round the turn of the century by Cubans with a European background. A number of them subsequently joined this religion and some even made it to the priesthood. In the next stage, prominent members, or individuals who presented themselves as such, endeavoured to give this still rather unarticulated persuasion a firmer structure. A few of them went to western Nigeria to retrieve the “Yoruba” origin without realizing, however, that the Yoruba identity was a creation of nineteenth-century Christian missionaries. By confronting inhabitants of western Nigeria with their Cuban beliefs, they induced these people to articulate their religious views in accordance with the Caribbean variant. As a result the Cubans could claim to have detected the basis of the regla, while in reality much of what they had encountered was indeed a transplanted form of their own religion. At about the same time santeros on Cuba realized that their faith had much in common with the Brazilian candomblé religion. So, the people who had established contact with the Yoruba fount, also went to Brazil and set up a steady contact with their fellow believers there. However, they also discovered differences. Some of the Brazilian deities were unknown in Cuba. And to complicate things even more, it was now also realized that the more than century long exposition of regla to Catholic imagery had left its traces. I noticed myself when viewing the documentary Buena Vista Social Club a few years ago that lead singer Ibrahim Ferrer had a shrine in his living room devoted to S. Lazarus, the Catholic saint syncretized with the santería deity...