Jícara que nos ve nacer; jícara que nos ve morir; para aquellos que nacieron y murieron en una jícara nos den su bendición.
This is a song that progresses and changes as the leader sings, and the participants listen carefully to sing back his words. In its most common usage, the words, “Aumbá wá orí, aumbá wá orí, awa osún, awa omá, lerí omá, leyawo, ará orún kawé,” change slightly as we invoke all our ancestors, the blood-kin of those in participation and the ancestors of our stones. We ask for all the ancestors to come join us: ará orún (citizens of heaven), gbogbo egun (all our ancestors), babá egun (ancestors of our fathers), iyá egun (ancestors of our mothers), mókékeré egun (ancestors who are babies/children), and egun ilé (the ancestors of our ocha house). Once done, some akpuon continue with the lyrics, replacing initial “ará orún” with the name of a deceased elder, making sure that spirit’s ashé is with us in ceremony. When properly sung, these words bring down the ancestors.
CALL/RESPONSE: ORO/EGUN/ORO/EGUN [Oro: Ceremony and egun: ancestors.]
CALL/RESPONSE ONE: Aumbá wá orí, aumbá wá orí, awa osún, awa omá, lerí omá, leyawo, Ará Orún kawé.
CALL/RESPONSE TWO: Aumbá wá orí, aumbá wá orí, awa osún, awa omá, lerí omá, leyawo, gbogbo egun kawé.
CALL/RESPONSE THREE: Aumbá wá Orí, aumbá wá orí, awa osún, awa omá, lerí omá, leyawo, babá egun kawé.
CALL/RESPONSE FOUR: Aumbá wá Orí, aumbá wá orí, awa osún, awa omá, lerí omá, leyawo, iyá egun kawé.
CALL/RESPONSE FIVE: Aumbá wá Orí, aumbá wá orí, awa osún, awa omá, lerí omá, leyawo, mókékeré egún kawé.
CALL/RESPONSE SIX: Aumbá wá Orí, aumbá wá orí, awa osún, awa omá, lerí omá, leyawo, egun ilé kawé.
CALL RESPONSE UNTIL THE END: Aumbá wá Orí, aumbá wá orí, awa osún, awa omá, lerí omá, leyawo, [name the individual ancestor of stone or blood] kawé.
Invocation of individual ancestors: ará orún is replaced by individual names. This ensures the memory, ashé, and shade of that ancestor is present with us. Other variations include the names Olódumare, Olorún, Olófin, and egun inserted at the beginning of the first sentence; these variations are not repeated by the chorus.
For many years, I’ve sung these short pieces in honor of the dead, and I’ve always accepted what people told me they meant. A young man who fancied himself an oriaté (ibaé) claimed to be quoting his own godfather when he told me that this song translated as, “we salute those who are in the highest, the elders and our brothers departed from the past give us their blessing.” I never questioned that translation until I realized this: the repetitive phrasing of just three words made it nearly impossible for the song to mean exactly this. And that’s when I bought my first Lucumí grammar and started dissecting the songs for myself. Time again I discovered that the songs rarely meant what others said they did.
Unravelling this song was difficult. I questioned elders about the lyrics, and each time was disappointed in their responses. Earlier in my career I lacked real fluency in Lucumí, making it impossible for me to anchor onto any word that would catapult me into its translation. Until recently. I read George Brandon’s ‘Santería from Africa to the New World’ and he offered what might be the original lyric, along with a translation. He published the following words written in the modern Yoruba tongue, with the accompanying translation. [This is the phrasing borrowed for the title “The Dead Sell Memories.”]
A nwa wa orí. A nwa wa ori. Awa o sun, awa o ma. Awa o ma ye ya o. Ará orún ta iye.
In English, the new phrasing means, “We are searching for him, we can’t see him. We are searching for him, we can’t see him. We do not sleep, we do not know. We do not know where he went to, we are only left with a shadow. The people of heaven sell memories.” Indeed, when the dead leave us all we have are memories: of their lives, their loves, their successes, their losses, and their deaths. If we are lucky, we have memories of their work and their teachings; and if we aren’t so lucky, we are left with sorrow, mourning that a deep well of knowledge has run dry and we’ll never know the secrets it once held.
Knowledge is currency in this faith, and knowledge is power. Yet we are all mortal, organic and carbon based, and when Ikú enters a house hungry, she always leaves full. Her appetite for wise, well-seasoned heads is our spiritual decimation.
On October 19, 2015, I was up late; the sun rose before I realized how exhausted I was. That night I was pouring over my notes about the odu Osá Irosun (9-4) and I wrote the following journal entry inspired by the death of a friend and my own loneliness at having lost her. “Death may not be our enemy, but she’s not our friend. Every time she takes one of us, she takes a piece of all of us,” I wrote while skimming Ifá: A Complete Divination . In it, the babalawo Ayo Salami discusses how verses of Ifá are lost over time, giving five categories or reasons for the disappearance. They are: through death, through lack of documentation , through exposure and appearance of odu, through self-aggrandizement, and through incursion of foreign religions. Of these five causes there are four significant to a study of Osá Irosun: death, documentation, exposure, and self-aggrandizement. The incursion of foreign religions is a cultural and historical issue, one repeated in colonial and post-colonial Cuba (Salami, xiii).
Of death, he writes, “Many of the great priests we have around die before being able to teach their subjects the totality of what they know in terms of the verses and their application” (Salami, xiii). And this is true in our branch of orisha worship, Lucumí. This is also an issue that this odu, Osá Irosun, touches upon. Death is the only force in nature that can wipe out a folkloric library; and each olorisha is, indeed, a library of religious and folkloric knowledge. When death comes for an olorisha, it takes everything stored in their orí with it as well. It no longer exists on the earth.” Like the song “wá orí” suggests, we cannot sleep because we are searching for our elders, our folkloric libraries, but we don’t know where they are. We don’t know where they went. There is emptiness; there is a shadow; and suddenly, we realize there is a gap in our religions and spiritual knowledge. Every passing seems to chip away at our foundations, our collective ashé.
Lack of documentation is an issue best dealt with in the odu Osá Ogundá; however, it is because documentation of an elder’s knowledge does not exist that death takes so much with it. Salami wrote, “As said before, all verses of Ifá have to be memorized and the chanting is only on inspiration and reflex. However, it would seem almost impossible for an ordinary being to memorize all these verses without having any document to fall on to as to refresh the memory. This would be found to be a major factor which contribute to the variance in the number and fullness of the names of olúwos that are found in poems even if it is under the same Odù” (Salami, xiii). The solution to this, again, is found in Osá Ogundá where the physical library is born. With it are the books stored in the library born. Knowledge converted to paper can withstand the ages if preserved properly; knowledge in an elder’s head dies with him. Please note that this ties in with the concept of self-aggrandizement (discussed later).
Exposure and appearance of odu has to do with the traditional learning process. There was a time when learning odu came not from books (of which we have a limited amount today) or formal classes (which I teach online). Instead, one had to apprentice with an expert diviner (both olorishas and babalawos), listening intently to the recitation of odu after it appeared on the mat during divination. Some odu appear frequently while some odu appear rarely, and the rarer the appearance, the less a novice learned about those signs. Of this Salami writes, “Because of the fact that the appearance of any Odù is based on divine intervention, a learner babaláwo may have to wait for a particular Odù to appear for him to know the full details of its verses, sacrificial order, constituents and many more (most especially under group divination). In some cases, some Odù are elusive and a learner Babalàwo might not witness its chanting, he therefore may have to rely on those taught him by chance or if he himself is inquisitive. One can rightly say that it is what he himself knows that he would teach another learner priest under him” (Salami xiii).
When it comes to the cause known as self-aggrandizement, there are italeros (the word I use for a skilled diviner who is not a babalawo) and oriaté who guard knowledge, refusing to teach an odu’s deeper secrets to those with whom he works and trains. Many quote the odu Obara Oché when reasoning this course of action. In that odu (6-5) we have the proverb,” The apprentice wants to surpass the teacher, yet is stupid and knows nothing.” Buried in that odu is the admonishment that once the student thinks he has learned all there is to know, he runs off with that knowledge and tries to set himself up as a better diviner than his teacher. And for this reason those who teach keep the deeper secrets, meanings, ebós, and chants of that odu in diloggún to themselves; and it is the same for babalawos.
But does not that odu (6-5) also admonish the student that, “All I know is that I know nothing.” This applies to both the teacher and the student. In his commentary to this odu and its proverb, oriaté Miguel “Willie” Ramos wrote, “According to this odu, learning never ends. Every day that passes we learn something that we did not know before. As such, we grow on a daily basis and our knowledge base expands. The only thing that we need to learn to do is listen and abandon our arrogance and our preconceptions. Even a child may teach us something of value. If we listen to him no matter how insignificant his teachings appear, we will surely learn something. If, on the other hand, we close ourselves off and consider that ours is the only truth, we shall never truly know or learn anything and our knowledge base will suffer, remaining stagnated and extremely limited. The true wise person is the one that listens and remains quiet, and later analyzes, concludes and applies the lessons if necessary.”
These are the reasons well-seasoned and well-trained diviners keep their material to themselves; and when death comes, they take these secrets to their grave. Ayo Salami wrote, “Due to the spiritual nature and the intonation of some verses, Babaláwos would rather keep those verses to themselves and refuse to teach others so that they alone could explore the efficacy of its power maximally. Some people who possess such gifts at times would prefer to die with them than to share them for everyone to use [italics mine]. At best, they may decide to teach just one of their children” (Salami xiv). And this in itself is the greatest cause of our sacred materials’ loss.
A year later, I again pulled an all-nighter for my writing and studies. This topic was one I choose to study again. As the hours rolled by, I wrote. I thought about my own rabbinical desire to think not only in my head, but on paper, leaving a record of where I’d been, where I was, and where I was going. Every thought, every word, every feeling: All of it finds its way to paper, and these I file away for no one but me to read, knowing that someday when I am but a shadow in this world, someone will find them and read them.
November 2014: “What is written is not forgotten,” from the odu Osá Irosun (9-4) in the diloggún.
Why do you write? One of my readers asked me in a recent letter. We are a mystery tradition, and we’ve been existing secretly in Cuba for hundreds of years now. Why do you write?
It’s a question I get asked many times from both avid fans and rabid critics. The easiest answer is this: I write because I have no choice; if I’m not writing, I’m not happy. But I also write because it is how I think; it is how I empty out the contents of my mind, on paper, and then I discover not only what I know but also what I believe. Finally, I write because after I see what I know, I realize how much I don’t know; and then, I go off seeking more knowledge.
Still, those aren’t the only reasons I write.
Many years ago I was reading the works of an elder priest named John Mason, and in one of his books (I can’t remember which), he compared the mind of each olorisha to that of a folkloric library. The past, the present, and even an idea of the future is contained in each head; and the longer that olorisha lives, the more life-experience he gains, the more valuable that library becomes. But just as a fire can wipe out an entire collection of books, so can death wipe out the olorisha’s entire life-experience unless . . . there are more copies of that “book” in existence. In other words, unless the olorisha has taught his knowledge to his godchildren or peers, there are no other copies of his knowledge in existence. Death wipes it out.
I’ve learned a lot over the years. I don’t want to risk death destroying it all. My entire life has been dedicated to one thing and one thing only: the accumulation of Lucumí lore and wisdom. Should that belong only to me, and be destroyed once I’m no longer in this world?
I don’t think so.
This is a problem that olorishas and oriatés have been addressing since we first came to Cuba. In my most recent book, Sacrificial Ceremonies of Santería, I quoted from one oriaté who was also a writer, Nicolas Angarica. Of course, his writings were in Spanish, but when translated into English, this is what he had to say about the transmission of religious knowledge:
Present day priests and priestesses cannot have forgotten the persecutions and absurd accusations that we have been made to suffer in a fully free Cuba. Even recent events such as occurred in the year 1944, when there was the case of Juan Jimaguas in the Perico; the author of this book himself has been the victim of ignominious accusation. There were the trampling . . . of those little old people, their ochas [orisha shrines or altars] hurled out into the street, many so embarrassed, so shamed that they sickened and died. These outrages and buses that the Africans and their closest descendants suffered infused such fear and heaviness into their souls that they chose not to teach the religion to their own sons. (Angarica qtd. in Brandon, Santería, 94-95.)
He continued to write about elders in the faith, olorishas with as many as 30, 40, and 50 years in ocha who had very little knowledge of our ritual practices. In the same essay, translated into English, Angarica wrote:
For these reasons brother Iguoros, we find that, as a rule, the majority of contemporary elders suffer from a defensive superiority complex about their years of consecration and yet are ignorant of many of the basic points of our consecration. I will enumerate here a case of ignorance or bad faith on the part of an elder that was encountered at a ceremony where the officiating Orihate was as a disciple of mine. This was a Nangare and there was the singing, as is natural, mentioning all of the dead elders of the family. Calling, getting his attention was a woman, an elder, with forty or forty-five years of consecration saying to him, ‘In the Nangare it is not necessary to invoke the dead.’ My disciple informed me, with great sadness on his part, that he had affirmed, and I had to agree to this damning affirmation with as much pain, that this woman, in spite of having forty or fifty years of consecration, did not know or was not acquainted with the origin of the Nangare. The Nangare, in distinct tribes of Yoruba territory as in Arataco, Egguado, Takua, Chango, etc. had a particular application: in these places it is employed uniquely and exclusively to refresh the Egun [the ancestors] . . . All this was made in those territories or tribes because of the constant warfare the Yoruba sustained with other regions and with the purpose of pacifying the ancestral dead. It is for this purpose that they are mentioned in the song: to all the ancestral dead, relatives, acquaintances and the rest. (Angarica qtd. in Brandon, Santería, 94-95.)
Finally, Angarica summed up his essay with the words:
We are turned back in a dizzying way in our religion in Cuba. One of the basic points on which it rests or assents is to listen to, obey and respect the elders, it being understood that the eldest in consecration [to the orisha] by his condition as such, has seen, labored, and learned the most; therefore he must have more experience in the matter than younger people. In reality this is the logic, but unfortunately in our religion in Cuba . . . here there is not one Lucumí who teaches anyone, not even his own son. They set aside the things of the religion because they fear what might happen: the continuous mistreatment aimed at them on the part of the Spanish authorities (and to which they submitted). With the advent of the Republic they were equally mistreated by their own countrymen who, forgetting that these Africans and their descendants poured out their blood for the liberty of this bit of earth, made false accusations against them and in many cases imprisoned them unjustly so that some influential personage could be pulled out of jail only afterwards to hold him against his will at the favor of politicians. (Angarica qtd. in Brandon, Santería, 94-95).
And here we have the reason for so much secrecy, even about the basic tenets of our faith: fear. At the other end of it, at least in today’s manifestation of the religion, there is this: power. Olorishas are afraid to either write or teach because they are afraid to give up their secrets, afraid because these very secrets give them power. And once they give up their secrets to a younger generation, they feel their power is gone. But what happens when they die, taking their folkloric library with them to the grave? Are not all those secrets gone? And where does that leave the religion.
So this is what we are left with: This is what we’ve been left with since Nicolas Angarica (a student of Lorenzo Octavio Sama, trained by Timotea Albear) first wrote about his problem in the 1940s: If the elder teaches, his teachings last into the next generation, if the student has absorbed his knowledge well. If the elder does not teach, or if the student does not learn, the entire library is destroyed with the death of that one priest.
And now they are shadows selling memories. We look for them. They’re no longer here.
Adding in the various permutations, changes, and extensions of this song, this is one version of what we sing:
“A nwa wa orí. A nwa wa orí. Awa o sun, awa o ma. Awa o ma ye ya o. Ara orún ta iye.” Translated, these words mean, “We are searching for him, we can’t see him. We are searching for him, we can’t see him. We do not sleep, we do not know. We do not know where he went to, we are only left with a shadow. The people of heaven sell memories.”
This is what the song becomes.
CALL/RESPONSE ONE: A nwa wa ori. A nwa wa ori. Awa o sun, awa o ma. Awa o ma ye ya o. Ará Orún ta iye.
We are searching for him, we can’t see him. We are searching for him, we can’t see him. We do not sleep, we do not know. We do not know where he went to, we are only left with a shadow. The people of heaven sell memories.
CALL/RESPONSE TWO: A nwa wa ori. A nwa wa ori. Awa o sun, awa oma. Awa o ma ye ya o. Gbogbo egun ta iye.
We are searching for him, we can’t see him. We are searching for him, we can’t see him. We do not sleep, we do not know. We do not know where he went to, we are only left with a shadow. All the ancestors sell memories.
CALL/RESPONSE THREE: A nwa wa ori. A nwa wa ori. Awa o sun, awa o ma. Awa oma ye ya o. Baba egun ta iye.
We are searching for him, we can’t see him. We are searching for him, we can’t see him. We do not sleep, we do not know. We do not know where he went to, we are only left with a shadow. My father’s ancestors sell memories.
CALL/RESPONSE FOUR: A nwa wa ori. A nwa wa ori. Awa o sun, awa o ma. Awa oma ye ya o. Iyá egún ta iye.
We are searching for him, we can’t see him. We are searching for him, we can’t see him. We do not sleep, we do not know. We do not know where he went to, we are only left with a shadow. My mother’s ancestors sell memories.
CALL/RESPONSE FIVE: A nwa wa ori. A nwa wa ori. Awa o sun, awa o ma. Awa oma ye ya o. Mókékeré egún ta iye.
We are searching for him, we can’t see him. We are searching for him, we can’t see him. We do not sleep, we do not know. We do not know where he went to, we are only left with a shadow. The children who are ancestors sell memories.
CALL/RESPONSE SIX: A nwa wa ori. A nwa wa ori. Awa o sun, awa o ma. Awa oma ye ya o. Egún ilé ta iye.
TRANSLATION CALL/RESPONSE SIX: We are searching for him, we can’t see him. We are searching for him, we can’t see him. We do not sleep, we do not know. We do not know where he went to, we are only left with a shadow. The ancestors of our house sell memories.
CALL RESPONSE UNTIL THE END: A nwa wa ori. A nwa wa ori. Awa o sun, awa ma. Awa o ma ye ya o. [Name of ancestor, blood or Stone] ta iye.
TRANSLATION CALL/RESPONSE UNTIL THE END: We are searching for him, we can’t see him. We are searching for him, we can’t see him. We do not sleep, we do not know. We do not know where he went to, we are only left with a shadow. [The name of the ancestor, blood or stone] sell memories.
For example, we might sing, “A nwa wa ori. A nwa wa ori. Awa o sun, awa o ma. Awa o ma ye ya o. [Maria Minor, Omitoki] ta iye.”
We are searching for him, we can’t see him. We are searching for him, we can’t see him. We do not sleep, we do not know. We do not know where he went to, we are only left with a shadow. Maria Minor, Omitoki, sells memories.
With that translation, I thought my work was done; however, on January 1, 2017, Ọ̀ṣunfẹmi Ifáfunmilayọ̀ (Jair Oshún) wrote a response to my public blog about this song, “I always feel a little awkward singing this song; to me it is funeral rite song when the osun is removed in itutú.”. He then gave the following version of the lyrics with the Lucumí translation: “A mba (a)wà orí – we put our heads (we have heads); A mba (a)wà orí – we put our heads (we have heads); A wà òsùn – we have òsùn; A wà ọmọ – we have children; Lerí ọmọ – of the head of this child Lẹ̀ awo – we are gathering back the secret; [name of deceased] kawúre –[ name of deceased] we wrap you with prayers.” I didn’t agree with the use of “omo” in place of “omá,” so I have documented his version with what I feel is appropriate, and then I rewrote it so the lyrics still include the word “omá.” The result is beautiful, and very appropriate to the work we are doing with this suyere. The result of combining his work with mine is . . . exquisite. Lucumí is a mystical language using the concept of punning and the mechanics of elision. Together, one word flows and becomes another, and deeper meanings are brought to the surface.
Before I posted this translation on my blog, however, Jair offered another suggested translation for some of the lyrics’ words. He wrote, “. . . when you spell awo like àwọ it means colors. lẹ̀ àwọ – we are gathering all the colors.” And if you use that with the word òsùn, truly, you have something deep. For we, the living olorishas, have the colors of òsùn, but the first step to becoming egun is that you must lose those four colors. Now, this song reveals greater mysteries. And just when I thought I was done, Jair brings this up, “talking about the colors of òsùn, the main two colors were white and red. White equaled life and red equaled death. the color of death”. àwọ o ma – color is no more . . . [also] . . . talking about the colors of òsùn, once the main colors were white and read. White meant life and red meant death. If we continue with that word, ‘òsùn, and translate it, it then means, “the color of death.”
Thanks to Jair, I have a third and, for now, final transation of “aumbá wa ori” to consider.
CALL/RESPONSE ONE: A mba (a)wà orí. A mba (a)wà orí. A wà òsùn. àwọ o ma. Lerí omá. Lẹ̀ awo. Ará orún kawúre.
TRANSLATION: We have heads. We have heads. We have òsùn. We have children. On the head of this child, we are gathering back the secret. All the ancestors in heaven, we wrap you with prayers.
Those who came before us have died, are dying, and will die out. We’re in the middle, watching the flesh and blood walls that stand between us and death crumble quickly. Still, before us there is a child; before us are our children. We know the secret. We have the foundation. The elders are leaving, and while we paint the four colors on the heads of our next generation, we, who get older with every passing moment, smile defiantly, wrapping the ancestors in our prayer. No colorful patterns for their heads, only the color of death as we offer them our songs, our prayers, wrapping them in cloth made from words and tears.
A mba (a)wa orí. A mba (a)wa orí. A wá ósú. Awo omá. Leri omá. Lẹ̀ awo ká wẹ̀.
Ibaé bayen tonú.