“We simply must start with the Universe first.” —R. Buckminster Fuller
Eco, from the Greek oikos, or “house/dwelling”, and -logia, meaning “the study of.”
Franklin Street, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, fall 1995:
I’ve taken a half hit of ecstasy with my friend Maria and we’ve been rolling, adrift, through our college campus. We’re seniors, honors graduates, wandering in the night, searching for something we can’t find. My mind needs something in the place my high seeks. My heart leads, but there’s no satisfaction in the streets and the old familiar buildings. I say I need a diet Mountain Dew, and when we come out of the convenient store we take a left on Franklin Street, the main drag full of Saturday night people and bars and traffic. Way down the street we hear drums, a deep bumping and slapping of hands and skins, that unmistakeable dropped down thump of the djembe pumping through the air, and when it finally makes its connection to the ear in my heart, I am as bound to it as a root.
We follow; two dirty hippie boys, about the same age as Maria and me, emerge at the source of the sound, sitting on the ledge of the old used bookstore, the drums between their thighs. They don’t say anything to us, they keep playing, and I make eye contact with the boy on the djembe. His head is back, his smile as wide as it can go, his eyes sparkle at me because drummers know when the dancers arrive; after all, they have been calling to us. My own smile feels as if it splits my face in half, and I close my eyes and drop into time with these two strange boys. I know my hips move first but then something changes. The drum is already inside me; I’m not dancing to the rhythm. I’m not keeping step. Something else is occurring, and I can feel the beats of the drum clamoring up through my feet and legs and torso and into my mind like the drum is clawing its way out of my body. The impulse of the tone, the relentless boomboom pop pop boomboom pop pop fills my brain until I’m forced to stop fighting the rhythm to think about what is happening. When I surrender, I have this enormous sense of falling upwards, like a balloon let go, and I don’t feel like I have a body at all. I’m a beating beating mass of breath. My blood is made of djembe and my corpuscles hold all the information of the universe which they are willing to divulge in the deluge of these pounding sounds like waves like radio static like honeybees like river rapids on a rock face like the sound of my lips on the skin of my beloved. The secrets of my corpuscles gather me up into the great gulf stream of the Mystery.
I can’t hear anymore. I only feel, and I can’t distinguish between the frequency of the drum rhythms and the sensation of the march of living blood. Everything becomes one giant pulse, one silent surge that I am riding but also a part of, like one molecule of water in an ocean wave. My body dances to these drums on Franklin Street, but I am being carried into the Source, and I leave my body in the care of the drums, safely attached to earth by two hippie boys and one fresh, cold diet Mountain Dew. I am the molecule. I am also the wave.
I arrive in the Tower of Babel. I see the honeycombs of rooms, I hear the one true language, and I see us all when we were one people. Then I see us fall apart, I am told why, and I watch the generations spill into the desert like fire ants from an upturned mound. I am held. I am told things. I experience, for the first time in my life, pure, unadulterated, unfiltered, untainted joy. When the drums stop, the wave crashes to shore. I am absorbed by sand, returned to the earth.
I open my eyes and find myself back in front of the used bookstore. I did not know such an experience was possible for me, much less on the sidewalk of busy street in a college town during prime time Saturday night. We hug the drummers, we give them all the money in our pockets. I have the distinct never-the-same-again sensation of someone walking away from a conversion experience. Maria and I walk back to our house with our arms around each other, giddy.
“I talked to God,” I say.
She nods. She smiles at me, a wild, wise, conspiratorial smile shared between women who dance to the old, sacred language. Maria already knew about drums.
II. The Study In Context: Florida and Cuba–This Part Isn’t About Miami
The Spanish took Cuba from indigenous people, mostly Taino and Ciboney, in the identical unethical, disturbing, nonsensical but well-rationalized theory of superiority employed by all the other European imperial colonialists who were rampaging through the Caribbean and the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries. The Spanish ripped 600,000 people from Africa and displaced them to Cuba as slave labor for tobacco, coffee, and sugarcane fields, thus an incredible collision of cultures began in the early 1500s that would–despite revolutions, despite political ideologies, despite the Cold War, despite The Embargo, despite racial stereotypes–create a rich and powerful culture fueled by a distinctive, otherworldly connection to music and dance.
I was headed to Cuba to study the otherworldly connection, but I could not ignore the deep bell in me clanging on about the relationship between Tampa and Cuba, which is mainly recognized as a socio-economic-political one, if–under the brighter and more recent historical lights of Miami–it is recognized at all.
The truth is that there was a Little Havana in Tampa first. In the 1800s. I’m serious. And purists–rightly so–will already have their hackles raised that I said “Tampa” and not “Ybor City,” but I did so only because I desperately, yet with poor motivations, want the glory of some of this history for my own address, even at the expense of being historically and ethically inaccurate.
But I owned up to it, so let’s continue.
I can no more ignore the importance of the Cuban people in making Tampa what it is today than I can ignore the influence of Spain in Cuba. Long–way long–before Fidel and Che would make their indelible marks on American history books, unrest and revolution were afoot on the tiny island to unhook the bothersome tick of Spanish imperialism on the Cuban people. We’re talking the late 1700s and early-mid 1800s.
The United States had just plucked out its bothersome tick of English colonial rule, and we really loved Cuba then and got lots of sugar as an import–a relationship that would have ironic consequences on the Everglades in the 20th century, and I may or may not get to that in this blog; after all, I’m not writing a book here, people, (and I claimed this part wasn’t about Miami)–so America wasn’t crazy about Spanish control of Cuba, either. We thought we could do a much better job of controlling Cuba, so much so that we made a decent offer to buy the island off the over-extended superpower of Spain, but they refused, and later we ended up in what is erroneously referred to as the Spanish-American War but is actually the War for Cuban Independence, or, at the least, the Spanish-Cuban-American War, as is explained by the placard at the memorial battleground at San Juan Hill, Santiago, Cuba, the last conflict of the war:
At this point, global demand for Cuban cigars was in an expanding, insatiable bubble, and the patrones de tabaqueros, mostly Spanish-born elite, had built the cigar business in Cuba into a lucrative, multi-million dollar a year industry. Not bad money for 1869, only four years after the end of our Civil War and the year Wyoming shocked the world by giving women the right to vote.
There were a few head honchos of the cigar industry, but none as important to our tale as Vincente Martinez Ybor. Suspected (correctly) of being a Cuban sympathizer, he fled to Key West, which, only 90 miles north of Havana, was more or less “in the neighborhood.” The location was wonderful for re-creating his cigar dynasty, but not so wonderful because laborers could go home whenever they wanted to, and one never knew if they would return.
At the suggestion of some fellow patrones de tabaqueros, Martinez Ybor and his business partner checked out a Florida outpost called Tampa–access to rail and water and not such easy access back to Cuba. They liked what they saw, bought a tract of land two miles north, and, in 1885, began to build what would become a magical, multi-cultural hotbed of anarchists, proletariats, turn-of-the-century One Percenters, and the community equivalent of a family-sized canister of mixed fruits and nuts featuring Anglos, Cubans, Spaniards, Italians, Germans, and Afro-Cubans.
Delicious, unpredictable, and a satisfying mix of flavors, Ybor City grew into a thriving cultural and economic center, all of it–and I mean ALL OF IT–supported by the cigar-making industry founded by Martinez Ybor. Cubans flocked to Ybor City to work in the factories, as did Afro-Cubans, who comprised 13% of the Cuban population.* “Native” Tampans (white folk) enjoyed an unprecedented economic boom and the entrenched old-blood families saw the rapid evolution of two-horse Tampa into a legitimate 20th century city.
Okay, so all that started in 1885. We have Ybor City, which, truly, I can get on my bike right now and ride to the last remaining shells of the brick cigar factories of the era I’m telling you about. Tampa/Ybor City and Cuba are blood sisters, inextricably linked. So much so that in the 19th century, Cubans considered Ybor City part of their own country*.
Fast forward ten years: 1895. The War for Cuban Independence is about to start. It’s led by a charismatic artist, philosopher, revolutionary, and political visionary named Jose Marti. Four years earlier, in 1891, he needed to rally Cuban support on this side, so where does he go? Yes, Tampa. Yes, Ybor City. Our Cuban community here supported that revolution, Marti’s Revolution (forgive me, Antonio Maceo, I know not what I do), financially, with media, and with the kind of focused commitment to la patria the Cubans can especially, and impressively, muster.
Given Cuba’s history, and the significance of Jose Marti in their national identity, and in honor of the better will that used to sing between America and Cuba and poured with great gusto from Ybor City, I can’t overstate the importance of Jose Marti’s presence and influence in Ybor City as a tangible link that still exists for me, as a Tampan who journeyed to Cuba.
In Santiago, I made a special pilgrimage to Marti’s grave, a memorial paid for by the Cuban people, but it wasn’t until I came back to Tampa that I found out he stayed here, that he came to his people here for help in liberating Cuba from Spanish control.
I feel, very strongly, the roots of family, still, that exist between Cuba and Tampa and Ybor City.
This is what I will tell you after spending time at Marti’s grave in Santiago and after sitting on the Malecon in Havana on the morning of July 13, 2014, and sitting on the balustrade at Bayshore Boulevard, modeled after it, in Tampa that same night: the places haven’t forgotten they belong to each other.
III. I Get to Cuba by Way of Ritmo and a Research Visa; It Does Not Go as Expected.
In Cuba, there is no escape from the ritmo. Music starts as soon as people awaken: radios, televisions, car stereos, all playing salsa and son and rumba and reggaeton. Polyrhythms punctuated by horns and held together by the clip-clop of claves while multiple voices weave textures of harmonies about “Coo-ba!”, sometimes in lugubrious waves of sorrow, sometimes in workout-levels of shouting.
The persistence of the music calls the spirit into the streets, into the plazas, and folks’s energy is rubbing up against me constantly and men, Jesus, the men with their engorged energy of machismo and music and rum are always trying to penetrate my protective barrier, my polite force-field, and run their energy throughout me. The men here love to dance, they are decisively good at it, and they know it. I am not good enough to dance salsa, rumba. I am willful and have a natural disinclination to follow, and I gave up being charmed by men with booze on their breath a long time ago. I do not fit in well in Cuba, at least in these situations, and I am usually asked to dance only once.
“Feel it,” my dance partner says to me, giving my hand a shake, like he’s trying to wake me up or discipline a lap dog. “Feel it.”
Ritmo is everything in Cuba. No one hides inside a facebook app on a smart phone because they don’t have apps or facebook or smart phones. People interact, they exchange vibes in a constant barter of conversation and feeling. There is a traffic of energy. I feel the come-and-go of human electricity here the way I feel the come-and-go of subway trains standing on the platform of the Metro. I don’t see throngs of people insulated by earbuds because it’s almost impossible to get mp3 players and ipods.
In Santiago and later, in Havana, the absence of the noise of signage and billboards and sales pieces and screen culture makes it so the acoustics of Cuban life, the ritmo of the people, of the place, is so immediate and un-tune-out-able that I find myself buzzing with consciousness awareness. It’s exhausting. It’s exhilarating. It’s a ride not like the contrived danger of a roller coaster, but like a bareback canter on a horse I just met. I have the sensation of trying to hold on to what is happening in that moment. I am focused and aware, sharply so. Some of this sensation is, of course, traveling as a woman in a third world country, but most of it is being a dancer in a country re-built on its own music and dance of the people.
My mind is in hyperdrive, and I can feel it starting to fall apart, being rearranged by beats. I recall the same phenomenon happening in Brazil: the drums breaking me down and rebuilding me in their image. As the days go by, I will notice deficiencies in my ability to concentrate, down to the point where I can’t remember any Spanish words in the phrase, “and you?”.
I find HBO in English with Spanish subtitles and watch the end of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I watch part of an episode of True Blood not because I’m interested in the show but because they have Southern accents, and I need a little rhythm that is familiar before I wake up to salsa music blasting from the radio in the hotel kitchen and jump on the horse for another day.
I can’t explain why–because this didn’t happen in Brazil–but in Cuba, I keep finding myself outside the drums. This is a sad, frustrating place to be as a dancer, much like having to visit the love of your life in prison and talk on the plastic phone while looking at each other through plexiglass. I am a dancer who likes to have the drums in my body. I like the rhythm inside of me, and there is a noticeable difference between dancing to drums and dancing with them. There is another level of noticeable difference between dancing with them and dancing in them.
I can’t get in the drums because I’m too worried about what I look like. I care too much about being a beginner, a new student. I want to make a sensation here because I have been dancing a long time; I need The Cubans and The Californians to validate me, and these desires of my will do nothing more than force me to practice acceptance, surrender, humility. And sometimes, I really don’t like that.
What I’m learning through this infernal internal dialogue is that life is between El Ritmo and me now. In the final analysis, so it says on the wall of Mother Teresa’s house, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them, anyway. Ugh. I keep dancing. I keep surrendering my will for perfection and compliments. I keep haranguing myself for being off-rhythm, out of step, stumbling. I surrender again, I laugh at myself. Finally, on Thursday, during a Shango class where the drums knit riddles beyond my comprehension, I quit, walk to the bench upon which sit three bata players, and I squeeze between two of them, my back to the drums. I close my eyes, shut up, and listen.
I experience no transport to the Mystery. I do not arrive at the Tower of Babel. I sit on a bench in Cuba, in a dance space the size of a warehouse between two drummers. Their beats bounce off me like hail, there’s no connection between these Cuban men and me, the line is dead. But whatever barriers in me exist are absorbing the shock of impact, and I know enough about rhythm and willingness and the body to know that on my cellular level, the drums alter my mind in a quiet quantum download that will, eventually, express in my body as a new language of movement.
There is no shock-and-awe moment. There is only the tedious business of training. I am still. I am letting the rhythm do its thing inside of me.
IV: Spiritual Ecology, the Role of the Dancer in Community, and GODS OF FLORIDA
Right before I left for Cuba, I encountered the field of study and inquiry called spiritual ecology, which “acknowledges the critical need to recognize and address the spiritual dynamics at the root of environmental degradation.” Relying on critical work in the disciplines of science and academia, religion and spirituality, and ecological sustainability, the people working within this field hope to create a more meaningful dialogue about the spiritual roots of our constant need to destroy our own house and what we can do to begin to understand our simple and sacred cause-and-effect relationship to the air, water, light, land and living connection to this place where we spend our earthly toil.
In the early days of human society, in our ancestral background, the dancer’s responsibility was to be the intermediary between the spirit world and the people, carrying messages back and forth in ceremony. I see no difference in the role of the dancer today, though the look of our ceremonies and the bonds of our social relationships are quite different, at least in the United States. Dance has the power to restore the lost connections (if you will, the weak signals) of our community with our living environment.
And I will tell you this: it is no joke to call down the gods in drums and then begin to dance.
No joke at all.
This excites me.
So, I traveled to Cuba to study the sacred Afro-Cuban orisha dances of Lucumi. Like the Afro-Brazilian devotees of candomble, Afro-Cubans had to syncretize their African deities with Catholic saints. I did not know I needed this Afro-Cuban movement to complete GODS OF FLORIDA until my friend Cynthia emailed me to ask if I was interested in traveling with them for a Cuban dance immersion. Oh, I thought, this is the next piece. Divine timing. So, I threw in my lot with a group of dancers from California and tagged along to Cuba as a researcher. Unlike with the Brazil trip, where I went because of a deep, intuitive nudging but was without any intention other than to discover what the nudging was all about (and did I ever), this trip to Cuba signified a conscious effort on my part to study and work with Afro-Cuban orisha dance and rhythm because I am, in no small effort, choreographing one giant love poem to the holy wilds of Florida.
As I’ve written about many times before, my temple is the wild. When I traveled to Brazil in 2012 and Linda Yudin and Co. exposed me to the Orixas for the first time, dance and nature met the drums, coalescing these previous separate parts of me into one language. Finally, through the study of orixa (in Cuba: orisha) dance and song, I was able to start to speak of the sacred things that came to me when I was in the ocean, woods, swamps, and, now, on the blackwater rivers and especially when I enter our springs. If I can show you in dance what I feel and make you feel it, too, then I have honored God. I have honored you.
There is no separation between nature, humankind, and The Spirit. None.
I can not be any clearer on this point.
How we treat nature, the other creations who live with us on Earth, and each other is our treatment of God. If we disregard water flow, if we exploit our resources, if we tear up our wetlands and our forests and each other’s bodies, if we pollute our air and our water, if we house animals in cages to make money, if we factory farm them, all we do, over and over, is akin to destroying our own house–but not before ensuring all our loved ones are inside it.
But, habits are hard to break. Andy and I still eat meat from the grocery store, even though I know the animal suffered ill treatment before I ate it, and now I’m eating that animal’s suffering. I remain entrenched with most everyone else at the But Bacon Tastes Good phase, though I’m reconsidering how I obtain my food. Most of the time I prefer not to dwell on what I know about the meat industry in our country and our profligate holocaust therein. I go with what is convenient, and I willingly put growth hormones and traumatized meat in my body, like most Americans. However, there isn’t a meal anymore where I don’t connect to the flesh on my plate. That used to be alive, and it’s life now supports mine. There is a sacred honor in that relationship. There is no honor in waste. There is no honor in killing for killing or killing for property, or killing for possession of resources. There is no honor in bragging over the taking of a life, whether that life belonged to a fish or a convict, a lion. A spider. A cypress tree.
There is no separation.
There is nothing outside of El Ritmo, the great rhythm, that creates and contains us all. In dance, in music, in drums: all connect in this material plane, the scientific here, the spiritual Here, and we can all talk to each other.
We reunite in the one language.
This is what I learned in Cuba.
night, night beloveds. You know it is my intention to share these dances with you, to make more in the community where you live and in the wild places where you feel what I’m talking about here. Send me a message if you’re interested. I’ll also write more stories of the Cuba travels later, and introduce you to many of the intriguing personalities I encountered along the way.
*Many thanks to Gary R. Mormino and George E. Pozzetta’s book The Immigrant World of Ybor City for helping me understand the immigrant context and history of Cuba and Ybor/Tampa. And thanks to Andy for recommending it to me. BTW, Gary Mormino is to Florida what the Oracle of Delphi was to ancient Greece. Please read his historical works.
*Thank you also to my mother-in-law Linda, who went to Cuba the year before I did, and loaned me her copy of Julia E. Sweig’s Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know, which I also referenced for this blog.