The next morning brought the sounds from the Cuban kitchen. I could hear the wife of the owner of the house preparing breakfast, setting plates, and organizing other things outside our room. My padrino was nowhere to be found; he must have had awoken earlier. Not wanting to be remembered as a lazy, late riser from that “lazy United States”, I woke up, got dressed, and greeted everyone. There were 2 or 3 Cubans in the living room and we exchanged a few conversations about my arrival and how I had slept (of course, I lied profusely….said it was a very pleasant sleep). My padrino had left earlier to go to the hotel area 15 minutes away to send some messages to his wife in the United States (I had typed out a message to my own wife the night before and he was to send it via email to her). While the island did have telephones, I did not want to burden the hosts with an expensive phone call. My padrino was to get phone cards that could be used at public telephone booths.
I could hear male laughter and gossip, so I excited the living room and stepped outside to get my first daylight view of Cuba. I was surprised at how much it reminded me of Puerto Rico. The construction of homes followed very similar Spanish and American “Miami-style” designs. It was definitely not an affluent neighborhood, but neither did it feel like Third-World hell. The men outside were Eyiogbe, a very large black man that had been playing the Iya at the tambor the previous evening (we will name him Meyu), and other friends of theirs. Meyu obviously grabbed my attention, both because of his size and his personality. He was a braggart…but a funny, good-natured one. They were having a discussion about who was who in the batalero world and he was adamant that if “he didn’t know you, you were not a batalero in Cuba”. It was hilarious how he would proceed to name dozens of bata masters (Pipo, Hector el Negro, Ramon, etc.) that no one except absolutely involved Santeros in Cuba would know. Beyond Cuba’s shores, these would be nobodies. But…it was hilarious to see the intensity of his showing off his experience and knowledge, all justified by his having performed in their ensembles. Cuba was a world all into its own.
Eyiogbe introduced me as a musician and from there, Meyu and I bonded as fellow musicians. I learned that he was also a trained trombonist and graduate from one of Cuba’s excellent music schools. His relationship to Santeria was his personal life, while his nightlife involved performing trombone with a mostly modern-music ensemble. Aside from his trombone chops, he was quite the amazing bata drummer. He talked big…but he could back it up. He was a mouthy Omo-Oggun with a kind soul. He spent the entire initiation making sure I was taken care of and spent several times with me while I trapped in the Cuarto de Santo.
I spent that first day walking around Marianao. There wasn’t much to do until that evening, when they’d take me to the river for a ceremony. When night approached, we packed an old 1950s car with about 7 people, 3 women and 4 men (the driver, my padrino, my Cuban madrina who was going to stand in as the Santera initiating me into Shango’s mysteries, my Cuban oyugbona, and a third Santera would be like a second oyugbona, and myself). The trip through Marianao’s darkened streets was more reminiscent of a pack of young friends joyriding than something with a ceremonial meaning to it, but I was enjoying every minute of it. We arrived at a section of Marianao behind various street neighborhoods where a lot of vegetation seemed to be growing. We got out of the car onto a totally unlit nature area. I was unaccustomed to such darkness, coming from a modern U.S. City. The Cubans had electric lamps and flashlights and we made our way through the darkness to the shore of a river. I knew what to expect but I couldn’t imagine undressing in this cold. The weather was 55-60 degrees. Unlike Puerto Rico, Cuba was located closer to the Florida longitude line. It’s weather was practically similar to Florida in January. Plus….there were three women there (and all three of them were pretty attractive). I had to muster up all the macho bravado I could to simply not think about it. I stepped into the ice cold water and my Madrina, and oyugbonas ripped my clothes apart. They proceeded to grab a jicara’s amount of water from the River and began the ceremony. Ice cold water drenched over me and I did my best not shout at the top of my lungs. 10 minutes later, we were done, I had new clothes (some leftover clothing Eyiogbe had in his house…a broken down pair of shorts and a stylish pink shirt….my favorite….ugh..). We headed back to the car and through Marianao’s streets to the ceremonial house. The night ended with that activity.
The next few days would be involved with the first days of my Santo ceremony. Without divulging details, everything was done in a very complete manner. Eyiogbe was a renowned Oluwo from Marianao. My $12,000 had paid for the activation of an army of about 15-20 Oluwos and Santeros for my ceremony. Apparently, they even hired the Melia Hotel’s head chef for the evening meals. Everything went smoothly the first 2 days and the day of my Santo ITA arrived. As was routine with most consultations, I sat on a chair and listened to the Oba’s instructions. He proceeded to begin with Ellegua’s messages and as I sat there, the slight stomach discomfort I had begun to feel in the morning became pronounced. I felt dizzy and disoriented and after speaking a while about Ellegua’s concerns, he allowed me to sit by the side of the mat and recover my senses. This little game of sit up and sit down occurred 3 or 4 times during my Ita. I daresay I probably endured the worst ITA that any Santero has ever had to endure. I really wanted to pay attention to the advice of the Orishas, but my brain and stomach would not allow me to focus. The ITA ended with finding out my new Santo name. After trying 3 names without success, I offered, “well, most of my life is involved in music…does that help?” “Music? Aha…I know…let me try this…Oba Anya”. The OTA presented itself. That was my name. “King of the Drum”. For a moment, I allowed myself to forget the physical pain and revel in the knowledge that I could proudly walk around with the name “King of the Drum”. When all was done with the Santo ceremony, for the first time, I was allowed to sleep for a while on the bed of the daughter of the owner of the house. It had been the first time I had been able to sleep on a mattress in days. 2 painstaking hours passed where I couldn’t sleep and then I was called down by my Padrino. Sick or not, I had to go with 5 Oluwos to various places in the area for pre-Ifa preparatory ceremonies. We had to visit the Sea for Olokun, the Palm Tree, the Iroko tree, the River, and the Cemetery. I barely could walk. I wasn’t sure if this newfound pain was the result of drinking the local water (I had made that mistake the second day at the home of Eyiogbe’s mother…she had offered me water from a gallon in her refrigerator…most likely tap water), or from the effects of another liquid that I was made to drink (which I will not reveal, due to its ceremonial secrecy). Either way, I had to walk as strong as possible, holding a white towel to my mouth to help hold in the nausea. At every location, I’d sit down, legs crossed (I could not kneel as they wanted me to do), while the Oluwos proceeded to offer adimu and ask for permission for my ceremony.
When we finally made it to the house at the end of the night, I was to do one more thing before entering the Ifa room. It involved a particularly nasty action and somehow, the thought of having to go through it recoiled my stomach and I headed for the bathroom. Finally, after a full day of pain, I was able to let go of whatever had caused me so much pain. Eyiogbe and various other Oluwos followed me to the bathroom and attended to me as I laid on the floor of the bathroom by the toilet. They asked, “are you ready to continue?” All I could think about was how happy I was that I didn’t have the stomach pain anymore. I got up, washed up, and headed to the Ifa room to do that previously nasty action. Without thinking much about it, I completed the task and then began the ceremony to enter.
I don’t think I will ever go through a ceremony with as much dread and anticipation mixed together. The 7 days of Ifa were incredibly memorable for all the ceremonies that I had to undertake….and the fact that I spent the next ceremonial and tourist days in Cuba with a strong case of the runs (never drink the tap water in Cuba…never). For me, while I was a believer and definitely knew what I was getting into, it was hard for me to give myself completely based on faith. The act of prostrating oneself in front of Orunmila did not come easy. I had spent an entire lifetime in the upbringing of a family that questioned organized religion. I myself had laughed and felt myself superior to people who “lacking rationality succumbed to the easy submission to a ‘God’ as a substitute for taking charge and solving one’s problems”. This was my previous belief and in those 2 long years from my previous spiritual, but non-religious outlook to being in a farm house room in Marianao Cuba, things had changed dramatically and spiritual thoughts crossed easily. Did the Orishas exist? Was I just joining because I liked the anthropological aspects of the Santeria culture? Was I joining just to be “part of a crowd”, albeit one that called to my musical and cultural sensibilities? Was I doing Ifa and Shango just to say I was a “Oluwo” and an omo-Shango? Had I blown $12,000 hard-earned dollars on something that was not necessary? I was well-aware of my hidden taste for attention from others and wondered if perhaps that had been the motivation. Was the motivation the ability to wear my babalawo Idde with pride? My padrino had warned me about “faranduleo” (being involved in the show-off environment of Santeria). He detested “Oluwos-in-name-only” who did not study and never changed their weakness, retaining all of their previous habits from before their ceremonies. Later, while attending tambores in my life, I’d understand what he’d mean.
The answers to my questions came through my ITA. My life sign came out Ogbe Ate (Ogbe Irete). Three aspects of this Oddun spoke directly to me. The powers of the brain were born in this sign, and I had always considered myself a highly intellectual, highly rational person. It was a major personality trait of mine to be cerebral. But, to my shock, two other aspects spoke much closer to me. It marked the great battle between the brain and the cerebellum…the brain controlling the body while conscious and the cerebellum while unconscious. The pataki told the story of how the cerebellum was dissatisfied with the brain not rendering moforibale to it. And in an act of demonstration, it shut off the body, to which the brain had no power to restart. The brain had to recognize the superior power of the cerebellum as the ultimate controller of the body and ultimately render moforibale to it. I had come Osogbo Arun Caferti Leri (negativity of sickness of the head or through the head). Perhaps undertaking my first interpretation of Oddun as an Awo, I spoke to the Oluwos present. “Senores, I know why I’m Ogbe Ate and what this osogbo speaks about. I’m an epileptic. I’ve been epileptic since 13 years of age. I have what’s called Juvenile Myoclonic Disorder, a form of epilepsy that makes its appearance in the teen years. It’s a mild case…I might have one attack a year or none if I take my medication…but…I do have it”. As I uttered those words, one of the Oluwos said, “aha! He has the Mal De San Vito.” The other Oluwos smiled and made reactions as if to say, “of course, now it makes sense”. Another pataki in Ogbe Ate speaks about the person suffering from the “Mal De San Vito (the Evil of San Vito, or Affliction of San Vito). What is that affliction? The person suffers from convulsions.
Of 256 signs I could have had, my life sign as a babalawo came down with osogbo arun caferti leri and Ogbe Ate? It was pretty clear what Orunmila was saying: that my major problem in life would be my epilepsy. It was at that point that I realized the eerie accuracy of my Awofaka sign: Osa Ogbe (the person has a talent with his hands, musical apparatuses are born in this sign) and Ogbe Ate (the person suffers convulsions and the cerebellum takes control…as it did happen when I went unconscious during a seizure). As I studied the sign, I also found out that there was one more personal connection: Eshu Aye was born under this sign. In other words, after 2 years of receiving Eshu Aye as part of my Guerreros in a different divination with Ekuele, I received with Ikines the divination of the sign that gives birth to this Eshu. I also remembered back to things in the United States and remembered the statue of St. Francis of Assisi that I had coincidentally found hidden in the bushes of my new home. St. Francis of Assisi was Orunmila in its Catholic syncretism. It’s as if Orunmila KNEW that this home was for me, had aligned things so that I would have found it, and assured that I would meet the right people at the right time to assure my passage into Ifa. Everything was coming full circle in a cosmic completeness and accuracy. Either it was amazingly coincidental randomness or Orunmila and the Orishas existed. I could no longer be incredulous. There was no way all of these very intimate aspects of my life could come out in supposedly “random” divinations. When the moment came, I did not hesitate to bend my body, grab my Irukere and Irofa, and salute Olodummare, Orunmila, and any other Orisha.
It is now roughly 7 months from the day of my initiations. As a sign of respect, I still wear all white though as an Awo it is unnecessary for me. The consecration of Ifa purifies me further, making unnecessary the spiritual process of the iyaworaje. However, I felt it was necessary to mark the symbolism of the life change I had begun. Back at home, I had revealed my life change to my family. As I expected, my brother was not surprised. Being a musician, he had met and shared stages with various Santeros and knew a little about batas. My mother, being the tolerant person that she is seemed happy for me, though very wary about my “wasting money” in a religious setting. Basically, she was worried that a Pastor of some sort would take my money ostensibly for religious needs and abuse of my gullibility. My father took me sometime to tell, but he found out anyway from my clothes and we’ve never discussed the matter. I suspect he accepts it but isn’t necessarily totally hot on the idea. His is more of a “live and let live” mentality, which is fine by me.
I have fully immersed myself in the study of my religion and have met excellent practicioners, such as Omimelli of the Mystic Cup. I thank her for giving me the opportunity to recount my particular tale of how I became an Awo, and I hope in the future to wade into religious discussions and offer my particular commentary; the commentary of the self-described “most irreverent babalawo you will ever meet”. Thank you for reading.
Awó Ogbe Ate