Culture: A hard sell in the 21st Century

by Francisco G. Gómez

Fifty two years is a long time by any measure. I still remember when my grandfather would demand that I sit down and listen to what he had to say before playing a song on his tres. The tres is a guitar like instrument from the island of Cuba. Initially, I found it rather tedious and boring at the very young age of five. It was weeks before he would even let me touch the instrument. I have to say that it was my grandfather’s demanding and hard nosed demeanor that instilled in me a love of the tres, but more so, a passion for cuban music and caribbean culture.

I’ve been co-teaching Afro Cuban and Afro Puerto Rican folkloric dance and drumming for the last eleven months at a city facility in New Brunswick, N.J.; in that time I’ve seen many children and adults come through the dance studio. What my partner and I do has a niche appeal to a select few individuals interested in the culture of the Caribbean. To learn Orisha (forces of nature) dances, rumba, bomba, plena or any of these other art forms from the Caribbean requires study, dedication, perseverance and tenacity! Qualities that have been lost due to a lack of traditional maintenance and the modern get everything quick, then seal it with a diploma that says you are now certified to some level of proficiency.

A few months ago our folkloric ensemble did a workshop up in North Jersey at a yoga studio. There were about six or seven participants who took part in the workshop, including a Zumba instructor. After we taught the intro steps and structures of a dance system I devised, called Orishaerobics, the studio was pumped and the dancing was so intense and heated that students periodically had to go off to the side of the dance floor for a breather. The drums, chanting, peripheral instruments and African based dances are what call out to students; it presents a challenge physically, emotionally and spiritually,  so unlike the canned and piped in music followed by steps and motions devised for cardio well being, a good thing in and of itself, but devoid of the essences of nature.

Even I am guilty of wanting to spruce up with a new name, Orishaerobics, a timeless practice based in nature and belonging to anyone who would have it. Yes, we attracted more students with the suffix; however, it didn’t last for long when these individuals realized, like most other people do, that there simply was more to this unknown thing called Orisha cultural tradition. As student attrition once again occurred, we decided on another wordy catch phrase, “cultural fusion dance”. It attracted more students, and I might add, some that have actually stayed and are regulars in our classes.

My partner and I sat back, took a long deep breath, and began to question the possible reasons for such disinterest in our art and craft on a long term basis . We began to ponder on the realization that taboos and a bad rap follows Ochá, Santería in Cuba and the diaspora. These thoughts became more concrete as some would be students inquired about the dance classes, and as soon as we mentioned the Orishas, the barriers were raised and we never saw them again. Ignorance is bliss when it’s attached to misunderstood concepts, but more so to religious bias based on supposed evil and the devil.

Getting back to the certification thing, we reflected on all the comments made about method and conferring a credential on people to make them bona fide. Little do most people know what is required by the United States Patent office in order to make an invention yours, much less a system of dance based in nature.

We finally came to the conclusion that most people aren’t artistically endowed with the gift of dance. By and large, the common individual must work through and practice in order to achieve an acceptable level of proficiency in Orisha artistic performance. More importantly is the sense of well being derived after a dance session and increased understanding of movement created by Ashé (the power to make things happen.)  Ashé doesn’t happen overnight, nor does it happen with a few dance classes; it takes time and development! It’s tapping into that inner sacred place we all possess and harnessing the power that awaits.

My grandfather always said that it wasn’t difficult to play the tres, but he did say it was difficult to play it well if you didn’t understand the essence of the history and culture of the instrument. What he was really saying was, teaching that truth to me was a way of maintaining and perpetuating it. Fifty two years is a long time, but I’ve known for many years now, exactly what he was trying to say.

Herbal Healing Seminar: Herbal Healing from the Island of Puerto Rico

Herbal Healing from the Island of Puerto Rico

On August 29, 2010, Angela Lugo , a native of Puerto Rico and an herbal healing practitioner presented the first in a series of workshops on Herbal Healing.  Participants learned about the history of herbal healing practices in Puerto Rico and about specific plants commonly used by herbal healing practitioners on and off the island of Puerto Rico.

Herbal Healing from the Island of Puerto Rico: Presentation and Discussion led by Angela Lugo

Lugo comes from a line of herbal healers and spoke of her own family background to illustrate a variety of healing traditions and the relationship of herbal healing and spirituality.  The practice of herbal healing was placed in historical context where many healers were afraid to admit that they were practitioners and many who descended from herbal healing practitioners veered away from the knowledge carried by their predecessors.  With a growth and acceptance of New Age practices, herbal healing has become more widely accepted, practiced and sought out.

Herbal Healing from the Island of Puerto Rico: Presenter Angela Lugo answering questions from attendees.

Herbal knowledge comes from wisdom and intuition and is closely related to energy.  Herbal healers believe that each plant has it’s own type of energy.  Different plants affect each individual differently, as the energies of the plants, healers and the person seeking herbal healing interact.

Herbal Healing from the Island of Puerto Rico: Herbal Remedies and Healing Foods

Lugo discussed a list of plants and their uses that are commonly utilized in Puerto Rican healing practices, but can also be grown or easily obtained off the island and away from the Caribbean.  Participants got to taste the juices of several tropical fruits while learning about the healing properties of these juices.  They also had the opportunity to touch and examine leaf and full plant samples of many of the herbs discussed in the workshop.

Hands on, touching and tasting, at the Herbal Healing from the Island of Puerto Rico workshop.

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The Spirit of the Drum has travelled from Africa to the Caribbean to the US and is now alive in Middlesex County.  Raíces Cultural Center, A NJ Nonprofit Corporation has received a MINI grant from the Middlesex County Cultural and Heritage Commission to produce the series “The Spirit of the Hispano-Afro-Caribbean Dance, Song and Drum.” The production will trace the history of Hispano-Afro-Caribbean music from Africa to the Caribbean to the modern day New York metropolitan area through a fusion of traditional folkloric Caribbean dance, song, drum and music with the contemporary genres of salsa, spoken word poetry and hip-hop.
Raíces Cultural Center is a New Brunswick based nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving cultural roots through music, dance, song, visual arts and history. The 2010 MINI grant will provide the members of the Raíces Cultural Center Ensemble with performance opportunities and the local community with an educational, culturally and artistically enriching experience.

In the face of possible funding freezes which would have directly affected this production, Raíces is thankful to the state for recognizing the importance of providing support for its artistic, historical and cultural organizations, allowing them a means to deliver educational and culturally enriching programs, events and experiences to their communities.

Raíces Cultural Center EnsembleIn addition, MCCHC has teamed up with the Crossroads Theater in downtown New Brunswick to provide a professional theater venue for performance based grantees, where the Raíces Cultural Center Performance Ensemble will present “The Spirit of the Hispano-Afro-Caribbean Dance, Song and Drum” on October 30, 2010 at 7 PM.  Additional performances will take place November 13, 2010, 7 PM at IM Studios in Highland Park, NJ and December 18, 2010 at the YMCA Theater in Perth Amboy, NJ.

This program has been made possible in part by funds from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts/Department of State, a Partner Agency of the National Endowment for the Arts; through a grant provided by the Middlesex County Cultural and Heritage Commission/Board of Chosen Freeholders.

A Call to Art

by Nicole Wines

Bomba DrumArt is not just something to hang on a wall or sit down to passively watch. Art is not perfection. Art is a natural creative process that was and is an integral aspect of daily life, throughout human history. Art is alive, it moves and flows. Music, dance, drawing and singing all evolved as means of communication and expression, not solely as forms to perfect or observe in awe while thinking “I wish I could do that”.

A masterpiece painting can stir up emotions in a viewer. The grace of a ballerina can move an audience to tears. Plays, concerts and films entertain and inspire. But art has a history that goes beyond the classics and deeper than the mastery of a skill, technique or genre. The use of the creative force goes back farther than recorded history, back to a time when a distinction between performers and audience did not yet exist. Art, in all its forms, was a natural part of the heartbeat of every day life.

Do not be afraid to embrace your natural past, your cultural history. Music, dance, song and visual arts are a part of everyone’s heritage no matter who they are, what part of the world they come from, or what they believe. Art is for everyone, it is participatory and it is community. It runs through our veins to the pulse of our own drums-our hearts-the organ that keeps the beat of our lives steady and strong. It tells the stories of our past and carries our own stories into the future.

Raíces means “roots”. We encourage you to tap into the primal creative roots of humanity. Singing, dancing, drawing in the sand, recording your thoughts with colors and lines, placing your hand on the skin of a drum-these are all natural activities, innate to all of humanity. These have been a large part of the means by which people have passed on cultures, stories, histories and insight into the human experience, long before any written history.

Viewing an exhibit or watching a well planned production can be exhilarating. But there is more to art than being an audience member or a performer. We urge anyone who has thought “I wish I could do that” to stop wishing and start doing it. Participate in the creative process. Move your body to the sound of the music, belt out your favorite song, draw and color and paint, even if it’s by number. Use your senses to feel the movement, colors and flow. Once you stop thinking and start feeling, you will be surprised at your natural capacity for art in all its forms. Art is for everyone. It is a natural expression. A distinctly human form of communication. Tap into your natural roots of creativity and live the art you feel.

Raíces Means Roots!

Raíces Cultural Center, a N.J. Nonprofit is interested in the preservation of cultural roots and history through the arts. We believe that the arts are for everyone. Our art is participatory and it is community. It comes from a time when there was no distinction between audience and artist. All who participate in and support Raíces Cultural Center programming are directly preserving art forms, histories and heritages in Central NJ which would otherwise be lost.