The songs we sing in the most part are song sequences from the Liturgy of Orisha Songs that are sung in public ceremonies. They are not self contained songs per-se but are song sequences that are strung together determined by various conditions. There are differences between what may happen in ceremony and singing these songs in a cultural context, but it is important to always be aware that these songs belong to a spiritual path, a living and breathing aural tradition and to respect that fact.
In ceremony there are songs that belong to a series of salutations for the Orisha and for those initiated Olorishas. This part of the ceremony and the songs that belong to the ceremony is known as the Oru Cantado.
There are songs that Praise Orisha, that even insult Orisha and which placate Orisha. There are songs that are Prayers to Orisha. The aim during ceremony is to bring down the Orisha to “mount” their initiates and a skilled Akpwon or ceremonial singer will know how to do this. There are songs that tell stories, also.
Song sequences are strung together depending on various things including the toque ( or rhythm) of the drum. An Akpwon will also know which song comes where in a sequence and how to string songs together.
In a Cultural Context:
In a cultural context and choosing songs for the Choir I am looking for songs that are good to harmonise, and that are beautiful to sing in addition to pleasurable for the ears of the public. Obviously the stringing of songs together in sequences will be dictated somewhat by the toques of the drums; the distinct rhythms. In order to do this, I have to be quite knowledgeable regarding which toque needs to be played for which song and vice versa. Sometimes the sequences are not strung together as they may be in ceremony. This is artistic licence and has been done by various groups such as The Conjunto Folklorical Nacional amongst others. The danger is that people listening to recordings will begin to repeat what they have heard and will use them in ceremonies. If they learn correctly from experienced elders and don’t try and self teach, then this will not be an issue! I am also looking for diversity in a set that we may perform and so that we may maintain the interest of ourselves and the general public. There is a lot of thought that goes into selecting sequences and deciding which songs to sing. It is not random and it takes hours of study and knowledge to understand what songs are suitable and which songs work with which toques.
There are differences in interpretation and differences in how songs have been passed down. Songs that have been taught by one person, may have slightly different lyrics to another person’s interpretation. Different words, implies different meanings and there lies the problem! But that is the inevitable consequence of this tradition which is an aural tradition. The songs have been passed down in ceremony which sometimes has meant that there has been guess work at times. What often happens is that there is a mishearing of consonant more than vowels, and inevitable loss of understanding of the meaning. I get people messaging me for interpretations and translations of the lyrics. This is a complicated request. There are differences of opinions. Some phrases can be translated, but the meanings may differ depending on the version you are singing. The work of John Mason in “Songs for Selected Heads” is an interesting project, however many will point out, much guess work was done to try and grasp the Old Yoruba which was also influenced by other African dialects and also the influence of the Spanish language. To try and interpret it in a modern day contemporary Yoruba Context is not possible. As we all know, language changes continually and the Yoruba that was brought over is not the same language that is spoken now. Comparative studies in song is also a very useful tool when understanding lyrics. Comparing songs in Brazil and in Cuba which have the same root, helps in the understanding of what is being sung.
This is a tradition that requires years of study and respect. If you are being taught the songs in a cultural context then relish and honour your experience and the person who has taught you. These songs were not traditionally “taught” as such or written down. They were just sung and one would be expected to learn as you go when attending ceremonies.
I give thanks to teachers over the years and the Akpwons who have broken songs down during ceremonies!!!!
Thankyou to in particular to Alfredo Calvo, Israel Berriel, Maikel Guzmuri Rodriguez; Oscarito Rodriguez Pedroso, Marta Galarraga, Lazaro Pedroso, Javier Campos Martinez , Dreiser Durruthy Bombale and Marcos Yosvani Diaz Herrera.