Feeling the Ancestral Spirit of Orisa in Trinidad & Tobago
PEACEFUL SURROUNDINGS This is the Ile Orunmila, an Orisa Yard (ie, temple) in Sangre Grande, Trinidad. Awaiting commencement of the ceremonies, I had ample time to absorb the overall energy of the palais, which is where all the ceremonies take place. While the palais is a modern structure, with immaculate decoration and neatly-designed furniture, the ground remains natural. That is, instead of tile, wood or cement flooring, it is packed soil that has been leveled and smoothed out.
On this particular night, we arrived at about 1100 pm. The ceremonies commenced at about 100 am and people continued to arrive until 330 or so. Every time another wave of devotees came in, dressed in sparkling African attire, I was first impressed by their regal presence. Immediately, however, I wondered, "Where did THEY come from dressed like that, at this hour?" Clearly, the feast is an important occasion that is given the utmost reverence and respect.
Inside the palais, the orisa are praised with the vigor and enthusiasm befitting of their stature as ubiquitous protectors, guides and teachers. And while the overall style of worship is similar to those of places like Brazil, Cuba and Nigeria, there are some practices that are unique to Trinidad & Tobago. For example, before the drumming starts, an altar is created before the drummers. It consists of a gourd, a carafe of water, olive oil, liquor and candles. All these items are placed directly onto the ground and then they are ritually circled with olive oil. At one point in the ceremony, the devotees take the various sacred ingredients from the altar and each ingredient is then taken to a specific place in the palais, where it is used to consecrate the space and make way for blessings. This process occurs numerous times. Ultimately, the drums, songs and offerings help to calibrate the entire affair with the highest spiritual vibrations. By end of night, we experienced manifestations of Sango and Yemoja, who are the presiding Orisa of the Yard. The palais was filled with the commingling of incense, camphor and rain. My heart brims with the ancestral spirit! This is what it means to live the medicine!
The bembe, omele and bo make up the Trinidadian bata drums. Devotional songs are delivered in Yoruba with a call and response format. Those familiar with litanies from Cuban and Brazilian traditions will quickly recognize the text of these songs, as well as some unique distinctions only to be found in places like Guyana, Antigua and Grenada.
TAKE CARE OF THE CULTURE AND THE CULTURE WILL TAKE CARE OF YOU In Trinidad, the people have taken great care of the culture. Consequently, the culture takes great care of the people. Like Haitian Vodun, the Center Pole is the axis mundi of the palais. The devotees channel energy by singing and stepping to the rhythm. As the songs change, the devotees reverse their direction. As devotees circle the Center Pole with songs and dances that open their minds and hearts to the ancestral spirits, everyone takes part in sharing the beauty and the power of Orisa, as it has been experienced since the beginning of time.
The ceremonies begin with an extensive litany of oriki for numerous Orisa, most of which are familiar to all Orisa devotees. There were a few, however, who are indigenous to the Trinidadian system, like Mama Leta [Mama LaTerre, Onile] and Gurum. The opening litany was followed by an ijuba, which was sung in chorus. More impactful than the format, however, is the reverence with which the ceremonies are carried out. Never have I experienced more sincerity and wholehearted praise of the Orisa. As I was caught up in the intensity of it all, I thought out loud, "THIS is the African church!"
The Trinidadian tradition is the ultimate intersection of African spirituality. Here, Black Power and OrisaLifestyle converge. Here, African liberation and identity are not after thoughts. Nobody has to be reminded of our determination to maintain our freedom. There is a mutual understanding that we serve the deities so that they might enable our total liberation.
The spirit is something you must feel in order to really understand. It is a presence that defies space and time. But when it flows freely, between one person and another, the moment becomes charged with meaning and great power. In the palais, EVERYTHING is about spirit! When you feel it, you know it. You sense it moving from one person to the next, creating one, irresistible frequency. The spirit rocks you. It pulls you one way, then another. You receive it and emanate it through your dance, your song and clapping your hands. Last night, under the full moon of Sangre Grande Trinidad, I was introduced to the spirit again. Today, I give thanks for the twinkling eyes and soulful voices who transmit so much love and light in the name of Orisa.
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