Oral tradition can be like playing telephone, the kids’ game when you pass along a message from one person to the next, and at the end of a long line of ear-to-mouth communications, the original message normally is pretty different than what you had at the start.
To a great extent that has happened to the liturgical dialect used in Santería known as Lukumí (some say this word means ‘my friend’). What we have today and what is used in many ceremonies is broken down, mixed with Spanish, and in some cases with English and it is a huge goulash that makes no proper sense in many cases to people who speak Yoruba.
I am going to illustrate my point with some travesties I have heard over and over during batá drumming and orisha initiations, where even the akpwón or the oriaté, depending on the occasion is singing something that does not make sense.
Let me make clear that my intention here is transparent; there is simply no need to continue on repeating things like a parrot without understanding what we are saying when we have now more contact with Yoruba speaking people and there are many good quality books and recordings that can help us fill in the knowledge gap where needed.
Song to Babalú Aiyé
Here is what I have heard over and over:
“Aberikutu agua lerizo, aberikuto agua erizo la ayé babá Babalú Ayé agua erizo ayé babá
Babá eee babá soroso, babá eee babá soroso aine komo de babá sire sire seremoba babá sire sire”
Now, this makes absolutely no sense. The first error is the word “aberikutu”, nicely followed by the addition of the word ‘water’ or ‘agua’ in this song, nor are there any sea urchins “erizo” or at least that is what it sounds to me like.
Here is what this song should say as per John Mason’s book “Orin Orisa: Songs for Selected Heads” ( I am not using the Yoruba accent and intonations marks on purpose).
Agadagodo awa eri so. Ore baba.
(The padlock ties our heads. Father favor me)
Babaluaye awa eri so. Ore baba.
(Father, Lord of the world we are tied down. Father favor me)
It is quite enlightening to see what the lyrics are meant to say and not what we think we hear and repeat without questioning. You may be puzzled about the word padlock in reference to Babalú Aiyé but that is a subject for another post. There are many more examples I can point out; let’s see one that is a song to Yemayá which I am sick of hearing it mangled. This is what I hear often at batás:
“Cae cae cae Yemaya Olokun, cae cae cae Yemaya Olokun”
People Yemayá is not falling! Se cae is the reflexive verb in Spanish that means to fall, nor there is Olokun hanging around here on this song, even if they get along well and share the ocean as home.
This is what it really should say:
Kai! Kai! Kai! Yemayá olodo
(Imagine that, imagine that, imagine that, Yemayá is the owner of the rivers)
Kai! Kai! Kai! Iyá mi olodo
(Imagine that, imagine that, imagine that, the mother of waters is the owner of the rivers).
By the way, Yemayá is indeed a river orisha if you remember your patakís well. There is an apatakí where she turns into a river while trying to escape from the wrath of her husband. She wants to escape him so badly that she transforms herself into a river to flow back to the sea.
If we want to preserve traditions, we better become a bit more inquisitive about what is that we are repeating. Listen to various versions of songs, particularly those left behind by megastar akpwón Lázaro Ros, Osha Niwé Igbaé bayén n’tonú. It is healthy to research; listen to different elders sing and compare.
If possible, ask them if they know the meaning of what they are singing, some may surprise you with their openness and be glad you gave them the opportunity to share what they have learned along the way, while others could react with hostility if they are unsure of what they know. Either way, be forgiving of the later; understand that fear of ridicule is a powerful force indeed.
There is absolutely no reason to have your tongue tied up in knots when it comes to Lukumí or to sound like a rag tongue. Knowledge is power when it comes to words because it is through them that we convey, invoke, and transform osogbo into iré, and through the power of words that we call upon the orishas to protect us every day of our lives.
If you have some examples of rag tongue situations share them below, I am sure together we all can learn from them.
Oní Yemayá Achagbá