from Edo and Yoruba
(Nigerian) mythology

The image above is from the premiere of Arthur Hall's dance of Olokun in July 1996. The hoary Lord of the Undertow represents many things, among them peace and prosperity and the riches that come from the sea. Olokun resides at the ocean's bottom while his wife Yemaya represents the surface.

What follows is the proposal for a film dedicated to Olokun by the Cuban filmmaker Gloria Rolando. It tells the wondrous story of the relationship between Olokun and Obatala, an Orisha also associated with Arthur Hall.

The Secrets of the Sea
Proposal for a Documentary Dedicated to Olokun
by Gloria Rolando
Imagines del Caríbe

In the wide spectrum of Yoruba thought, the presence of the Sea is a constant source of reflection and explanation concerning the world that surrounds us. As in other cultures, the appearance of life on this Earth and its subsequent evolution is conceived through the existence of this precious element of Nature ~ water, the Sea.

Many are the stories in Yoruba mythology that tell of the World's Creation. "When Oludumare, All Powerful God, went through this earth, there was only fire and burning rocks ... Oludumare decided then that the Earth would exist, with its mountains, its valleys, its savannas. The hot vapors from the flames that accumulated in space, Oludumare converted them into clouds. In the parts of the rocks where the fire had been most violent, there remained, after it had gone out, some deep and enormous holes. In the deepest was born Olokun, the Ocean." * This legacy from Africa, specifically from Yorubaland in Nigeria, has survived to our day.

The ocean is a permanent question for humans. The depths especially are the subject of all kinds of fantasies and attractions. They are a source of life and at the same time make up a Universe of the Unknown. For the tradition in Cuba which is of Yoruba origin, the manifestation of this mystery is personified in the orisha Olokun. In some versions, this is interpreted as an aspect of Yemaya, the Queen of the sea. But both in the African tradition and in the versions that were developed by the descendants in Cuba, Olokun is the "impenetrable abyss, the infinite solitude" where light does not shine.

In Yoruba mythology, the attitudes of the gods, the control they establish on each force of Nature, decides the order and importance of the elements. Olokun therefore inspires respect and fear, as the powers of destruction unleashed by the ocean's depths are immeasurable.

"Resenting a Humanity which did not render him the homage he deserved, Olokun decided to punish it by burying it in the Ocean. At his orders, immense waves began to invade the land ... the ocean swelled up, darkened, infinite, and people who lived furthest from the coast saw, terrified, a horizon of water mountains running towards them. They implored Obatala to intercede in time ... as the deafening mass of water had almost reached them. Obatala put himself between Olokun and his creatures. Olokun came on a huge wave, carrying his abede, a silver fan. Obatala left his opade, his scepter, and ordered him to halt. Olokun respected Obatala, who made him promise to abandon his plan to annihilate humanity. But when the sea is choppy, when threatening waves rise up because Olokun is angry, it is thought that if Olokun were not chained up in the bottom of the ocean, he would swallow up the land.

A constant in this work on the traditions of African origin in Cuba is to offer information on the mythology which has been maintained through oral tradition. At the same time, we want to connect mythological time with History. This History begins in the forced crossing of Africans to the lands of America and the Caribbean.

In the depth of the Middle Passage are found the many remains of those men and women who became sick and did not survive the journey and of others who were thrown overboard as a result of arbitrary judgements in this despicable human trade. Who knows how many Africans encountered a special form of "Freedom," mutilating their lives, throwing themselves to the sea? In the depths of the Ocean is formed a Natural Temple to Our Ancestors. Because the sea also signifies the deep separation from Africa, Olokun acquired a gloomy and somber connotation in Cuba.

Olokun, therefore, like each Orisha, contains a duality ~ he is a constant source of fertility which emanates from the entrails of the earth and causes life to germinate, and yet he is also an expression of the world of the dead. As with the earth, many things come up from the sea and end in the sea. In this cycle there will always remain doubt, the unknown which obliges people into a dialog with Nature. Because of this, the drums of African origin in the New World must beat to give tribute to the secrets of the sea.

The Secrets of the Sea is the title which we propose for a documentary video. The material is conceived around the reconstruction of a set of drums dedicated to Olokun. This redemption of such an antique tradition will take place in the house of Estaban Vega Bacallao (67 years old), known as Chacha, in Matanzas, Cuba. Chacha is a founder of the Munyequitos de Matanzas, one of the most prestigious rumba groups on the island. He is also omo anya, a Yoruba percussion expert, and leads many religious parties in Matanzas. He is one of the rare percussionists who is esteemed for playing both Matanzas and Havana style bata. The style of quinto playing he pioneered is now universally used in Matanzas. Finally, he is perhaps the last person in Cuba with detailed knowledge of the four Olokun drums and their rhythms. It is his desire to revive the drums now as he is getting old and wants to ensure that their rhythms survive.

The possibility of making a documentary showing this event has an exceptional value from the religious point view and a special significance to popular music of african origin. As documentary, we hope to do a work that will be aesthetically pleasing, combining elements of fiction without abandoning the spontaneity of interviews, or the richness of the music and dance that are allowed to be filmed at the house of Chacha.

Music plays a very important role in this project. Chacha has asked his old friend Lazaro Ros to help his group with the Olokun songs he knows. One more time, we will need the presence of this famous Yoruba singer to whom we dedicated the documentary Oggun, An Eternal Present.

For the moment, we have a plan for consulting different temple houses of the Yoruba religion -- interviews with some babalawos (priests) and with other initiates to obtain a general consensus on the significance and importance of this deity in the Cuban tradition. We hope that, with the efforts of all, this project will become a reality at the same level as Oggun, another grain of sand in the preservation of the Cuban Cultural Heritage.

* All references are from Yemaya y Ochun, by the Cuban author Lydia Cabrera, Coleccion del Chicheruku, Eliseo Torres, Box 2, Eastchester, NY.
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Gloria Rolando
Afro Cubana page

See also Olokun in his own words from Stephanie Barto's OrishaList.

Obatala Index
Arthur Hall's Obatala
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