If you listen to a lot of salsa music, especially Cuban salsa, then you may notice certain African words repeated throughout different songs such as “Chango”, “Obatala”, and “Babalu Aye”. These are the names of the Orishas, gods and spirits of the Yoruba religion. In this article I will give you a brief overview of the Orishas and hopefully give you a deeper appreciation for salsa music and dance.
The Yoruba Religion
The Yoruba spiritual system developed in the central Nigerian region known as Yorùbáland and was brought to the Americas via the slave trade. The religion spread to much of South American and the Caribbean, including Cuba. In Cuba, the womb of salsa music, the Yoruba religion was fused together with Catholicism to create a syncretized religion known as Santeria.
Santeria: Yoruba Meets Catholicism
In Santeria, many of the Orishas from the Yoruba religion were combined together with Catholic saints. For example, Chango was syncretized with Saint Barbara, Eleggua with Saint Anthony, Oggun with Saint Peter, and Obatala with Our Lady of Mercy. In this way the religious beliefs of the African slaves was mixed together with the beliefs of Spanish conquerors, a fusion of cultures which is so typical of Cuba and South America.
The Saneria religion is characterized by many rituals, including animal sacrifice, sacred drumming, and dance. The followers of Santeria believe that they can communicate with the Orishas through music and dance, and there are rhythms and specific dance movements that correspond to different Orishas. Dancers often enter a trances in which their body is “taken over” by an Orisha, and the spirit communicates through their dance.
The Santeria religion is still alive to this day, with tens of thousands of practitioners throughout West Africa, South America, and the United States. The religion has also made it’s way into popular culture through salsa music and dance. Many practitioners of Afro Cuban dancing incorporate dance movements that are inspried by traditional moves from the Yoruba and Santeria religions. Many salsa songs also use the Orishas as their subject matter or call out the names of Orishas during drum sequences, alluding to the Santeria tradition of summoning the spirits via drums.
List Of Orishas
The following are the names of some of the most commonly referenced Orishas:
- Chango/Shango – God of thunder, warrior deity
- Yemaya – Divine mother, goddess of water
- Obatala – God of peace
- Eshu – Divine messenger
- Oshun/Ochun – Goddess of rivers & waterfalls, love, femininity
- Babalu Aye – God of disease
Salsa Songs That Feature Orishas
Many salsa songs reference the Orishas, especially salsa music with a strong Cuban influence. Here are a few well-known salsa songs featuring the Orishas:
Chango Ta’ Veni – Machito
Biribo – Orquesta La Terrifica
Oh Mayi – Sonora Ponceña
The next time you are listening to salsa music, see if you can identify when the Orishas are mentioned or if you are up for a challenge, looks up some of the dance movements that are associated with the various Orishas and incorporate them into your dancing. Doing so will help you to increase your appreciation for salsa music and dance.
Let me know in the comments if you have any favorite songs that mention Orishas that I missed!
(Orisha images credit James C Lewis)