The narratives of the African Diaspora in Latin America are sadly underrepresented in both English and Spanish language media, and history curricula in schools. With projects like Negro: A Docu-Series about Latino Identity and now the documentary, Tambor, Dash Harris aims to educate us on how traditional African culture manifests in modern-day Latino society. I recently spoke to her about Yuco & Humberto, a film that follows two Yoruba tamboreros as they search for batá drumming gigs in Havana, Cuba.
Bani Amor: What is your stake in this story? Why did you co-launch this project?
Dash Harris: I have wanted to go to Cuba for a very long time. Since starting (and now wrapping up) my first docu-series on the African Diaspora, identity, and the color complex in Latin America in 2011, the desire grew even more. I finally got the opportunity to go in January 2015 with a very close friend of mine. We are both Afro-Panamanian and very interested in all manifestations of African-descended identity, so we both wanted to attend a Yoruba tambor. We asked two men on the street and they invited us to one in their home. That is where we met Yuco and Humberto.
I spent the rest of my trip with Yuco primarily. Marco Guarino [the film’s co-director] then went to Cuba in March. I linked him up with Yuco, he accompanied him to a tambor, and they have been inseparable since that day. A couple times I called Yuco and Marco answered the phone and I’m like “Ummm can I speak to my boyfriend? This call is 80 cents-a-minute, homie.” So when Marco returned to Panama from Cuba, we had a lengthy chat about our thoughts about the island and, coincidentally, we both said we would love to do a day-in-the-life type of project centering around both Yuco and Humberto.
Bani: Can you give us a brief introduction to the significance of the tambor in the Yoruba religion and Afro-Cuban culture?
Dash: The drum is very important, as it is believed that the Orishas [traditional deities in the Yoruba religion, known as Santería in Spanish-speaking countries] speak through them and we carry our messages to the Orishas through them as well. Two-way communication so to speak. Tamboreros as I understand (from my many talks with Yuco) are considered messengers of God and the Orishas. The drum has sustained for hundreds of years after Africans were kidnapped from the continent to the Western Hemisphere, so it is sacred.
The drum is very important, as it is believed that the Orishas speak through them and we carry our messages to the Orishas through them as well.
Women cannot touch the drums [used in religious ceremonies]. I cannot even walk near the drums. When Yuco is carrying them, I have to either walk in front or in back of him, not to the side and not too close to the drum either. The “toque tambor” and tambores are for a specific Orisha or Orishas, and the drum leads the tambores because like I said, the drums carry the messages. And the significance in Cuba is that this religion derived from enslaved and free Africans from the West African region where Yoruba was spoken. Cuba was the second to last country in the Americas to abolish slavery, so in my opinion, that’s what helped the religion remain so strong. Although, back in the day, it was persecuted and people had to practice in secret. It is a religion of syncretism.
Bani: They hid it by passing it off as Christian, right? Among other ways.
Dash: Yes, like Shango is Santa Barbara; each Orisha had their Catholic saint “mask,” but now it’s out in the open like whoa. Errybody and their mama literally is in the religion, or being initiated, or at the very, very least has the mano de orula for protection. It’s kind of en vogue now, which is a teensy bit disconcerting in some ways.
Bani: Hmm, why is it en vogue now?
Dash: You see a lot of foreigners coming to Cuba to “hecho santo” and for Yuco he says it’s good for the tamboreros because the “Yuma” pay more. “Yuma” means “foreigner.”
Bani: Right, it’s the same in Ecuador with the shaman tourism.
Dash: Aha! Yep, I can imagine.
Bani: I’m fascinated by narratives of artists and healers who depend on their work to sustain them financially. How do you think playing batá drums differs from any other job?
Dash: Wooo! You said a mouthful there. Okay, so Yuco is trained in gastronomy, but he does not do that work because he said he couldn’t survive off that wage. At all. So after his time in high school, Yuco turned to the tambor with Humberto’s help, and they’re now the tamboreros of Havana, so to speak, along with of course others, but there’s this circle of tamboreros that rely on the tambores for their livelihoods.
For example, our friend Pantalion is a tamborero, but is also a singer and a bailarine [dancer]. Humberto is a tamborero and a babalao [Yoruba priest]. For them, it is an economical opportunity that they otherwise would not have had. Ideally, they say they don’t want to charge for a tambor or if someone wants to see a babalao if they’re sick, but how else are they to eat? So it’s a necessity. Not just anyone can play batá drums, you have to be initiated, there’s ceremonies etc.
Bani: Interesting. What do you hope to achieve with this film? What do you hope people will get out of it?
Dash: We want people to see how contemporary life in Cuba is through the lens of black Cubans whose lives are centered on their African-descended identity. When Marco and I went, we were floored to see that anything we thought we knew of Cuba was wrong, wrong, wrong! From each side: pro-Cuba and con-Cuba. You simply do not get the whole picture unless you go. I feel 100% comfortable saying that. I’ve been there three times and I am still deconstructing Cuba.
We want people to see how contemporary life in Cuba is through the lens of black Cubans whose lives are centered on their African-descended identity.
Even with speaking ‘til I’m blue in the face with Yuco and other Cubans. Yuco has no ties to the U.S., that’s another aspect I personally haven’t seen, what life is like for the Cubans that were “left behind” literally and figuratively especially as it concerns race, color, and class. Yuco has been to Havana and Matanzas. Nowhere else. And in understanding Cuba, it is important that it comes from Cubans living there, first.
Bani: Yes. As an outsider, this is what I’m interested in finding out. I just visited Miami and that’s a whole different side of the story. The news and media would have you think that Afro-Cubans who don’t fit into a political binary and who still live in Cuba don’t have stories.
Bani: Do you have any final thoughts before we wrap up?
Dash: Only that there is no wi-fi in Cuba, Yuco sent his first email in March. And I am saying this to illustrate how misinformed we all have been. There was some article published talking about how Netflix launched in Cuba and this is “great for the Cuban people.”
And what this “new relationship” with the U.S. means. It is not that simple. This relationship (per usual) benefits U.S. citizens and the tourism dollars benefits the Cuban government before it benefits Cubans.
Dash: And that I was blown away and extremely proud to see how ingrained and integral Africa is in Cuba. It is not “othered” and it is not “strange” in Cuba. The men there use a word to greet one another, “asere” and they all say it every second. That is a word [from the eastern region of Nigeria] that basically means “brother.” For birthday parties they have drum circles to wish the birthday person well and eat a soup that is made with pig and root foods like yucca. That is powerful to me, that it has been sustained and it is not going away.
Bani: That’s the Cuba we don’t often see.
Dash and Marco are raising money to complete Tambor on Indiegogo through August 19, 2015.
¡CUBA VIVA! is a three-part series focusing on life in our sister country to the south, Cuba.