Published Tuesday, September
21, 1999, in the Miami Herald
A feast for the spirits
AfroCuban culture takes center stage at the first festival to celebrate the
traditions and lifestyles of blacks from the island
By FABIOLA SANTIAGO
Herald Staff Writer
When dancer-choreographer Neri Torres launched her Afro-Cuban dance troupe five years
ago, she searched the tongue of her ancestors, the Yorubas of Africa, for a meaningful
She found it in ife ile, a phrase that means house of love, expanding lands.
''Ife is a kingdom in Nigeria where, the Yorubas believe, God created man,'' Torres
said. ''It's the Olympus of the Yorubas.''
Torres is now taking the phrase and her love for her native culture another step in her
adopted Miami as the energetic mastermind of a week-long festival, which starts Saturday
and runs through Oct. 2, to celebrate the traditions and lifestyles of black Cubans.
The first AfroCuban Festival Ife-Ile promises to be anything but conventional.
Although the event features the traditional menu of music, dance, art, food, film and
panel discussions, most of the content spotlights matters of the occult shrouded in
mystery, and until now, seldom exhibited in such a public event.
A series of panel discussions, for example, features scholars of the AfroCuban santeria
religion and people who have been initiated as spiritists and babalaos, santeria priests.
Exhibitors at a street fair will include botanicas, the shops where people buy potions,
herbs and other materials for santeria rituals. Art installations include altars to the
goddesses Ochun and Chango, offerings and all.
Even ''tabaco para que la gente se despoje'' -- cigars to be used in cleansing
ceremonies -- will be available, Torres said.
Waving for thunder, lightning
And prepare to join a procession to celebrate Chango and to dance a spirited conga
along the streets of downtown Miami waving a red handkerchief in salute to the goddess of
thunder and lightning. (You can buy the hankie at the fair or bring your own).
''I want to bring the joy and spontaneity of this culture to everyone,'' Torres said.
''The black class has always been mistreated and poor and seen as second-class. But
despite all that, it has contributed a lot to universal culture, and this is the moment to
come out and say that.''
The event comes at a time when AfroCuban culture is in vogue.
A staple of the new Cuban literature making its way around the world, AfroCuban
culture, and especially the practice of santeria, has been recently the subject of art and
photography shows in South Florida and nationwide. The religion also has found a worldwide
audience on the Internet, where many santeros have set up several Web sites to promote the
santeria and sell its wares.
''It has become popular because it is a very spiritual culture,'' Torres said.
Most significantly, Torres' idea to stage a large-scale festival that would open up the
culture to others in South Florida has found support from mainstream institutions.
Among those who contributed some $25,000 in funds are the Florida Humanities Council,
the Miami Beach Cultural Arts Council, the Miami-Dade Cultural Affairs Council and the
State of Florida Division of Cultural Affairs.
Held at college downtown
The project is a collaborative effort of Miami-Dade Community College, where most
activities are being held in its downtown Wolfson campus, the Artemis Performance Network,
a service organization specializing in grant-writing, fund-raising and project management,
and Torres' dance troupe, Ife-Ile AfroCuban Dance and Music Ensemble.
''Neri approached the college to see if we were interested, and we jumped on the
idea,'' said MDCC professor Mercy Quiroga, interim director of cultural affairs. ''We
thought it was something that had not been done, a unique event. Given the interest
manifested in this one, we will probably work on making this an annual event.''
The response from the arts community also has been generous, organizers said. Most of
the professionals involved in the festival -- storytellers, musicians, dancers, scholars,
artists -- are donating their services.
''The AfroCuban culture is very under-represented in Miami,'' said Susan Caraballo,
executive director of Artemis. ''Elements of racism come into play but within the last few
years, there has been a keen interest in developing the African traditions. The focus [of
the festival] is to keep the authenticity of it.''
A panel on Yoruba cooking, for instance, will explore the relationship of food to
''In the Yoruba culture, food has a dual role -- as sustenance and as offerings to the
gods,'' said Natividad Torres, Neri's sister and a Yoruba specialist, writer and poet.
''People cook both to eat and to make an offering.''
Among the tidbits to be learned: Chango's favorite dish is quimbombo con harina, okra
with cornmeal. Ochun, the goddess of love, prefers arroz con pollo, chicken with yellow
'Arroz con pollo' feast
On the last day of the festival, a giant pot of arroz con pollo will be cooked and
served to the street fairgoers.
Another highlight will be the premiere of the dance Guaguanco Oyelo Bien (Guaguanco,
Hear It Well), directed and choreographed by Torres, a former dancer with the National
Cuban Ballet, and performed by her multicultural dance troupe.
Torres, who came to Miami in 1991 after a spectacular defection in Italy that included
press reports of attempts to kidnap her and take her back to Cuba, is dedicating the
performance to her late mother, ''who taught me my first rumba steps.''
In the opening scene of Oyelo Bien, ''a futuristic'' Yemaya, goddess of the sea,
appears on stage as if in a silver dream.
''I wanted to present her in a modern form that would be accessible to people here,
different from the way she has been seen up to now,'' Torres said.
The choreography spotlights Cuban cultural idiosyncrasies.
A dancer, for example, will appear on stage carrying on his head a glass of water, the
traditional offering to deities, which is often kept in Cuban homes as a way to ward off
And every rhythmic movement, every drumbeat weaves a story.
''This work presents the history of rumba from the time of slavery to the present,''
Torres said. ''I want to take out of anonymity the people who have shaped this dance. The
rumba was a way for black Cubans to deal with adversity. The rumbas told the stories of
what was happening in the barrios, the solares -- everything from love stories, to
neighborhood chronicles, to odes to saints. The way of coping was to drink rum and
Here's a schedule of events for the AfroCuban Festival Ife-Ile. Unless otherwise noted,
all events are free, open to the public and at the Miami-Dade Community College (MDCC)
Wolfson Campus, 300 NE Second Ave. in downtown Miami:
Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m. -- Premiere of the dance Guaguanco Oyelo Bien,
choreographed and directed by Neri Torres with the Ife-Ile AfroCuban Dance and Music
Ensemble. The Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Rd. in Miami Beach. Tickets available at the
box office, 305-674-1026, and through Ticketmaster, 305-358-5885 in Miami-Dade and
954-523-3309 in Broward. Admission is $20, $16 for MDCC students and seniors over 65, $10
for groups larger than 10.
Monday, Sept. 27, at 8 p.m. -- Showing of the 1974 film De cierta manera (A Certain
Way), directed by the late black filmmaker Sara Gomez. Through the love story between a
teacher and an uneducated laborer, the film deals with the new social order imposed by the
Cuban Revolution. MDCC Auditorium.
Tuesday, Sept. 28, at 6 p.m. -- Panel discussion: Yoruba como forma de vida (Yoruba as
a way of life). MDCC's Breezeway Room. In Spanish.
At 8 p.m., the docudrama Tropicola, directed by Steve Fagin, will be shown. In Spanish
with English subtitles. A look at the lives of various characters in today's Cuba,
including santeros. MDCC Auditorium.
Wednesday, Sept. 29, at 6 p.m. -- Panel discussion: Oraculo y Adivinacion (Oracle and
Divination). Breezeway Room. In Spanish.
At 8 p.m., the docudrama Oggun (the name of the god of war), about the AfroCuban
religion, directed by Gloria Rolando, will be shown. MDCC Auditorium.
Thursday, Sept. 30, at 6 p.m. -- Panel discussion: Cocina Yoruba (Yoruba Cooking).
Breezeway Room. In Spanish.
At 8 p.m., the film Si me comprendieras (If You Understood Me), about the lives of a
group of black Cuban women, directed by Rolando Diaz, will be shown. In Spanish with
English subtitles. MDCC auditorium.
Friday, Oct. 1, at 7:30 p.m. -- An evening of music and poetry under the stars at the
Ponce de Leon Circle in Coral Gables with poets Adrian Castro and Lourdes Simon and music
by Ife-Ile AfroCuban Dance and Music Ensemble and The Bafoons, in collaboration with Words
Saturday, Oct. 2, noon to 6 p.m. -- The festival ends with an outdoor fair on the
grounds of MDCC featuring AfroCuban music, dance, foods and display booths with activities
for adults and children.
For more information, call 305-237-3659.