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Cuban culture and its African heritage


Ambassador Enrique Orta González

Culture is a too broad concept to be defined in just a few lines, but the world consensus explains it as a set of values, traditions, symbols, beliefs, and behaviours that identify a social group, a country, or a region. It encompasses the way people live and interact with each other, as well as their understanding of the world and their place in it. In short, culture is identity, it´s heritage. 

According to Fernando Ortiz, an outstanding Cuban anthropologist, each culture brings together in itself other cultures, which come together and combine, forming a whole of spiritual, material, and affective behaviours, which is what we know as culture.

In the case of Cuba, this theory is completely fulfilled. Our culture is an ajiaco, a rich stew consisting of a large variety of ingredients cooked until a thick broth is formed. That is in synthesis the essence of Cuban culture, a result of the confluence of multiple cultures, in different stages of development, that interact with each other and are present from the very beginning of the settlement of the Island.

Ajiaco embraces and visualizes the very nature of the Cuban soul and reveals the depth of its expression. The art incorporates the tales of the Orishas of Africa, the calligraphy of the Tao Te Ching, and the rituals of indigenous peoples. The formats change, the materials vary, but the syncretism remains constant, and at all times the Cuban people have had, as the ajiaco, new and raw elements finished entering the pot to cook, an assorted conglomerate of diverse races and cultures.

Among the most significant influences is that of African culture. The African influence can be seen in all the manifestations of our culture: visual arts, music, dance, literature, musical instruments, the Spanish we speak, food, religiosity, and even the way we walk.

Music and dance are the heartbeat of Cuban culture, and the African influence is unmistakable in these art forms. The rhythmic syncopation, complex polyrhythms, and vibrant percussion are direct legacies of African musical traditions. Genres like rumba, son, mambo, and salsa bear the indelible mark of African rhythms, which were interwoven with European melodies.

The rumba, for instance, with its origins in Yoruba and Congolese rhythms, is a typical Cuban dance that embodies the fusion of African and Spanish cultures, which has become a symbol of the Cuban identity.

On the other hand, one of the most enduring legacies of the African influence on our culture is religion. Rooted in the Yoruba beliefs of West Africa, African spirituality was combined with Catholicism in a syncretic faith that worships orishas, deities with distinct personalities and powers, each of whom is associated with natural elements. This has become an integral part of Cuban life, with rituals, ceremonies, and festivals held to honor the orishas. It provides a powerful link with our African ancestors, fostering a sense of continuity and cultural pride.

Language is another realm where the African influence is intense. The Cuban Spanish, peppered with African idioms and expressions, reflects the linguistic fusion that has occurred over centuries. Words like bohio, cayman, voodoo, and hundreds of others are reliable testimony of the African influence in Cuban Spanish.

Cuban cuisine, too, bears the stamp of African influence. Dishes like moros y cristianos (black beans and rice), yam and plantain-based stews, and various fried preparations are reminiscent of traditional African fare. The use of bold spices and seasonings, characteristic of many African cuisines, adds a distinctive flavor profile to Cuban dishes.

The fusion of Cuban and African cultures has created a unique and vibrant tapestry that defines our nation’s identity. From music and dance to religion, language, and cuisine, the African influence is omnipresent, serving as a powerful reminder of Cuba’s history and the resilience of our people.

As time passes by, this deep connection we have with Africa remains a source of cultural pride. It is a celebration of unity in diversity, a living witness to the strength that comes from embracing one´s roots.

Next May 25, we will also be commemorating Africa Day, because that´s a date of celebration and joy in Cuba, like Fidel Castro once said: “Cubans are Latin African people” and without the African world, Cuba would not be what it is today.

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