Drums, Rum and Sweets Hasten the Spirits

Washington Post/October 4, 2006
By Manuel Roig-Franzia

Regla, Cuba -- Drumbeats clapped off the facades of crumbling homes, persistently, seductively, calling to the faithful.

A woman dressed all in lacy white, stooped but graceful, stepped gingerly down the pitted street. Children stopped their street-ball games and backed away to clear a path. A little girl pointed and whispered. "Santera," she said, intoning the name for a priestess in the Santeria religion.

It was 3:30 p.m. in Regla, a city at the marrow center of Cuba's Afro-Cuban religious traditions, and it was time to summon the spirits.

The beat quickened. Hands slapping stretched goatskin.

Ten minutes later, after a man reverentially kissed the santera's forehead, the rhythm pulled her up a set of concrete stairs. She picked through the crowd in a cramped, six-foot-wide room turned steamy by the crush and heat of dancers. Three men pounded at drums pinched between their knees.

They had gathered for a "toque de santos" -- an elemental rite of Santeria that means "touching of the saints" and is seldom witnessed by non-practitioners. But this was no routine toque. This was something special. This was also the holy man's birthday party.

The holy man, a santero, or Santeria priest, walked into the throng of swaying dancers just before 4 p.m. He was dressed casually, in a white undershirt and tear-away athletic pants, and he was leaning heavily on a cane.

The santero, whom everyone calls "Virtud," the Spanish word for virtue, slashed a small, oval bamboo fan through the air. "Ooooh, yay," he called out. "Ooooh, yay," the crowd called back.

By 5 p.m., sweat drained in little rivers down the back of a squat man who had commandeered the center of the room with his lurching, plunging dance steps. He thrust his right arm into the air, collapsed to his knees, spun along the floor with his left hand as a pivot point, and did it all over again.

A thickly muscled man who had been leading the chant accompanying the drums loomed above the spinning dancer.

"Come on," he yelled, in the lyric Yoruba dialect.

"Come out," he said, beseeching a saint to enter the man's body. "I mean it. Nooooowwww."

The dancing man flung himself onto the concrete floor, convulsing his body, contorting his face. The santero pushed through the circle around the man. Eyes burning, he waved a purple handkerchief at him.

"Now," the santero said.

"It's happened," a woman said excitedly to a friend.

Everyone seemed to know what they were witnessing; everyone seemed to believe. The man's body, they said, had been inhabited by Eleggua (pronounced el-eh-gwa), a rambunctious, beloved child-god who tends the gateway between the human and spiritual worlds. The man had become Eleggua's medium, the believers said; the child-god would now speak through him.

Moments later, two men lifted the exhausted medium and pulled him into a side room. Waiting there was Virtud's son, a santero himself, known as Titi.

An altar spread out from the floor in the corner. Dedicated to Eleggua, it was thick with frosted cupcakes, foot-long sheet cakes ornately decorated, empanadas, chocolate pudding, pineapple, grapefruits and oranges. Toys, including plastic soldiers and trucks, were sprinkled among the food so that the child-god could play.

A quarter-hour passed. Women whispered into the medium's ears, and he whispered into theirs, transmitting clandestine messages from the spirit world. They rubbed his shoulders.

The medium shuddered and twitched. He rambled incoherently, jerking his head to the right over and over and spitting out the syllables "wee, wee." No one in the room could figure out what he meant.

Now shivering and bleary-eyed, the medium wiped sweat off his forehead and onto the foreheads of the father-and-son santeros. He took the rum from a halved coconut into his mouth and dropped to his knees, spraying the liquor onto the feet of the older santero, Virtud, in an act of spiritual cleansing.

Frenzied, the medium circled the small room, hugging each person he encountered. He kissed their foreheads, pushed his head into their abdomens and hugged them, then dashed away, hunched over, his fingertips grazing the floor.

He flung off his sweat-drenched shirt and kicked off his shoes. Titi rolled up the medium's pants legs, placed a straw hat on his head and slipped a grass skirt around his waist.

The medium burst back into the room where the drummers were whaling on goatskin. He crouched and slipped between the legs of a startled man, popping up and offering a guayaba, a syrupy-sweet fruit that thrives in tropical Cuba.

Minutes later, he returned with a halved coconut shell filled with rum. When a reed-thin man hesitated to drink it, the medium pushed it toward his lips, wordlessly imploring. There was no refusing. The shell was quickly drained.

By 6:30 p.m., the music was still pounding at eardrum-crushing levels. But the medium was not among the dancers. He was in the side room.

His drenched stomach lay flat against the floor. His eyes were closed. His feet were splayed, just inches from the altar to his child-god, Eleggua.

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