Santería Etiquette 101: Attending a Tambor de Fundamento or Wemilere

Courtesy and manners are two elements that will distinguish favorably any person wishing to be accepted and appreciated in any African Traditional Religion circle.
Oro of Igbodu by Orlando Puntilla Ríos

Batá Drummers in Cuba

When it comes to Santería, it is crucial to remember that the behavior of a godchild or a guest will reflect directly on the person who has extended the invitation to a public function. What best place to display impeccable civility than when attending public functions such as a Tambor de Fundamento or Wemilere?

The Wemilere is a ritual celebration to honor to a particular Orisha. The celebration will be lengthy and attendants are expected to remain at the event until the last part of the ritual. Here are some basic things any one attending a Wemilere must observe.

Dress code

If you are an aleyo or an aborishas, you will not go wrong by wearing your best whites. However, even if white is the preferred color, you may also wear any color as long as it is not a dark color or black. Ladies should wear long skirt; preferably they should wear a pair of shorts underneath the skirt, a modest sleeved white top that does not show cleavage and shoes should be comfortable. Wemileres are usually crowded, thus having a hand fan and a handkerchief is always a plus. The head should be covered as well with a cloth or handkerchief.

Males should wear long pants, a dress shirt or a Guayavera, a cap and comfortable shoes, all in white.
Those who are omó elekes (aleyos who have received the elekes) must wear them at the Wemilere, it is sufficient to wear the five basic elekes (Eleguá, Obatalá, Shangó, Oshún and Yemayá).

Order of Ceremonies

The beginning of the Wemilere is the Oro Seco or drumming played in front of the throne that has been erected for the orisha being honored. Here no one dances or sings, the music is solely for the orisha. This cycle is also known as Oro Igbodu.

A properly dressed attendee dances in front of the Batá


The second part of the ceremony involves the congregation at large. Here another complete cycle of songs are played but this time the Akpwón or lead singer will honor the orishas with lyrics. Here is the first opportunity to see the congregation of oloshas in motion coming one by one in order of seniority to salute the drums. The oloshas will go in front of the drums and bow their heads to the floor and then to the drums, touching with their forehead each of the instruments in the following order: Iyá (mother drum dedicated to Yemayá), Itotele (drum dedicated to Oshún) and Okonkolo (drum dedicated to Shangó). Once this cycle is finished, the lead singer is free to sing to any of the orishas for as long as he wants and in the order he chooses. The party has really gotten started here as it is the job of the Akpwón to use his knowledge of language, lyrics and rhythm to coax, tease and praise the Orisha to join the omo orisha and walk amongst them.

Once an orisha has arrived taking possession of an olosha, both the Iyá drummer as well as the Akpwón must pay close attention to the changes in rhythm that the orisha may request. As more orishas descend, more are the demands on the singer and the drummers to keep up with each of them.

The same way that the drummers follow a protocol, so must the attendees. The order in which the dance floor is organized denotes rank and age. There is nothing more embarrassing for a host than to see aleyos and aborishas pushing their way to be in front of the drums. That is simply a faux pass that shows complete lack of cultural knowledge and of preparation. Anyone inviting a person to a Wemilere must also explain the rules of the drumming.

The Order of Dancers

People who have Kariosha can dance front and center; they however, should yield the best spots to those who are elders. The children of the house where the Wemilere is being held who are oloshas also can be on the front row of dancers.

However, it is considered extremely rude to have aleyos and aborishas pushing their way to the front of the dance floor. People do not go to a Wemilere to dance just to get a workout. Their dance is a ritual, the mere act of dancing is an act of surrendering their bodies to the will of their tutelary orisha who may or not select to mount any of those oloshas dancing. The process of possession can be rough and those who are not trained to deal with it should simply stay out of the way. Likewise, I have seen lots of oloshas lined up in front of the drums to them fight off an impending possession.

The Orisha arrives!

Let’s say that the Wemilere is dedicated to Eleguá. A horse of Elegua will be invited to dance for the orisha and ceremonial clothes will be prepared for that person. There are rules the dancer must follow prior to the Wemilere, one of them is meditation and the other is sexual abstinence for a period of at least 24 hours. The idea is to prepare the vessel for the Orisha. The body must be cool and clean, the orí of the dancer must have been fed prior to the batá as well.

When the honored orisha arrives to a Wemilere, the process is one of ecstasy and joy, at least for me it is. Once the Orisha salutes the drums he or she will ask to be dressed in its ashó orisha (ceremonial garments). The orisha that is being honored will continue then to dance and help to entice other orishas to come and join the celebration. The orisha may also choose to speak to its children, cleanse them, dispense advice and in some occasions, public punishment.

It is a huge NO NO to be following the orisha around in hopes that the orisha will speak to you. If the orisha has a message, he will not return to heaven without delivering that message. It is quite annoying to see aborishas and aleyos crowding the orisha and creating complications for the person assigned to attend the orisha while on earth. I know it is like being in the presence of a rock star, but it is imperative to have self control.

What to do if an orisha addresses you? Make sure you have someone at hand to help you translate what the orisha is saying; most will speak in a mix of Lukumí, Spanish and even English. After all, the orisha will use whatever the brain of the horse has stored in its cells to communicate as best as possible. Sometimes the orisha may do interesting things such as asking for money and redistributing it to other people who may have more need of it than you do. Sometimes, an orisha may take a fancy to something you are wearing or have in your hands.

I remember one time I had this fancy hand fan, a pretty delicate custom made piece, but alas Oyá took note of it and extended her hand to me asking for my agbebe (hand fan). What did I do? I closed my fan, bowed my head to Oyá and placed it in her hands without hesitation. She went about the room cooling her horse fanning herself, chatting with folks and then came to me and cleaned the sweat off her horse’s forehead with my fan and placed it back in my hands with a blessing. Who would like to oppose a formidable orisha like Oyá?

Closing Ceremony

After all the orishas have dispensed their advice a daughter of Yemayá will get a bucket of water and dance it to the street. This is a very important ritual as she will lift all negativity taking it to the street where she pours out the bucket. Only then attendees are free to enjoy the rest of the party and to socialize.

There are more details and intricacies about the Wemilere, but most are left to initiates and observed behind closed doors, not because they are ‘secrets’ to be held away from non-initiates, but rather private moments between orisha and those who have made the ultimate commitment to honor them with their lives.

Omimelli
Oní Yemayá Achagbá

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20 Responses to “Santería Etiquette 101: Attending a Tambor de Fundamento or Wemilere”

  1. Jesus Suarez says:

    This is very wonderful and inciteful advice. Aché pa Tí!!

  2. Jesus Suarez says:

    *****Insightful******* {Sigh}…..

  3. Osunmilaya says:

    Great! Very helpful information! Some houses do not permit anyone who hasn’t been presented to the drum to be inside the room with the drums, and definitely cannot dance.
    Please write about the order in which people eat at a ceremony, and the protocol of who serves and who eats when.

    • Omimelli says:

      Osunmilaya,

      Thank you very much for your response. That is a great idea for an article, I will be glad to put it together.

      I have a few on the works, will put this one on the list.

      Ashé O

      Omimelli

  4. Lisi says:

    Yes, very insightful. Would like know the protocol of who serves and eats as well..

  5. gabby says:

    hi, i was wondering what are some appropriate ways to tie a headscarf on my head for these kinds of events?

  6. Raphael says:

    Hi!

    Found this topic right on time! Just got invited to attend a tambor for Chango this december and it will be my first one!

    Thank you for a fantastic article!
    Kindest blessings
    Ralph

    • Omimelli says:

      Hello Raphael,

      I am glad you found the article useful and I hope you have a great time at the batá.

      Thanks for the blessings,same for you.

      Omimelli

  7. Ochunmigua says:

    This was very helpful as we are getting ready for our first tambor done by us..What I need to know or clarified is the steps or order for presenting a new initiate to the tambor. And what exactly do we have to have as far as clothing for the tambor in case an orisha is present?Panels,skirts,etc…?

    Thank you

    • Omimelli says:

      Hello Ochunmigua,

      I am glad that you enjoyed the article. I will post to reply to your question in a longer post over he weekend.

      Alafia,

      Omimelli

  8. oni ocan says:

    read article, thanks, i will be celebrating my first year birthday April 26,2012,its been wonderful to prepare,i have made all my panuelas and fabrics for a very elaborate throne for ochun akuaro,i have embroidered hen and quail feathered capes and feathered cane ,everything is so rich and opulent, since my ocha ochun has been so gracious and rewarding,alafia,i love you too much ochun.

  9. Chleo says:

    Read the article and loved it!

  10. ScorpSpirit says:

    Question..as someone NOT in the religion but who has been invited to share/experience..what should they wear or what could they get away with without disrespecting

    • Omimelli says:

      Hello Scorp

      Well the rule for a tambor is if you are a woman wear skirt and not a short one. Blouses should be modest and not show bossom. Try to wear colors that are light. If a male, then wear slacks and a comfortable shirt, mid length sleeves are better. Do stay until the tambor closes and the bucket is danced.

      Omimelli

  11. Ekendra das says:

    Great article also important is the respect for the Drums and Drummers especially if Aña is being played , unless you are Olu Aña or Omo Aña give space to the Akpown and Omo Aña don’t crowd the drums, and unless you are a godparent bringing yor godchild during a presentation try not to stand in the area where the drums are. For drummers if you are Om Aña you should also salute the Aña and assist with Coro clap clave even if you are not asked to sit and play in Aña we all are brothers.

  12. Adefunmilayo says:

    Loved reading your article. Adúpue.

  13. Kalifa Thomas says:

    i really appreciate you taking the time to explain these things.it answered some questions that I had.

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