Cajon a los muertos is a religious ceremony in the Santeria tradition (also known as Regla de Ocha.) I talked briefly about the emotional implications of the event, but what follows is a more factual description of what a Cajon is and what actually happened there. Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take pictures, but a professional photographer, friend of Profe’s and Santeria practitioner did and will give them to us at some point.
A quick and dirty explanation of Santeria: it is a syncretic religion based on Catholicism and various West African religions/traditions, specifically Yoruba. Religions like Santeria are very representative of Cuban culture at large, which is a mezcla between European and African influences that have been mixed into a new, unique experience.
A Cajon is a ceremony to bring down the spirits of the dead to communicate with us. In this instance, the Cajon was for Profe, so we were hoping to hear from his father or grandmother. Profe has been an initiate of Santeria since 2007, but more on that later. He was dressed in all white, ate a ritual meal before the Cajon, and had his head cleansed and blessed before we began.
In a tiny humble house in a tiny humble barrio near Habana Vieja, 30-50 people crammed into a small open living room. There was an altar in one corner and some cloth hanging from the walls, but other than that it was pretty barren. The altar had a crucifix, some empty glasses, a few rosaries and some flowers and candles. The walls had angels, a crucifix and a banner that said “Felicidades” (congratulations).
Not everyone stayed the whole time, and people took time going outside to get fresh air. There was no shower in this house, no air conditioning. We left rum at the end for the house, as a thank you for hosting and feeding us. This is not a tourist attraction, and it appears that for the uninitiated it is by invitation only. Basically, if we didn’t know Profe we would never witness any of this, or meet a lot of the religious figures on the island.
The actual ceremony involved drumming, call and response, singing and tons of dancing. When a spirit came down, the music would stop and we would wait or interact with the spirit. There were also breaks to go outside, grab some water or to let the santeros (practitioners of Santeria) who the spirits possessed rest and recuperate. My understanding is that if a spirit or oricha (a deity, more on that later) comes down to you, the person has no recollection of what happens during that time. Profe told us that during one of his first Tambores (I’m attending one Thursday, explanation to follow) the oricha drank copious amounts of alcohol but the person who was possessed later came to entirely sober, and with no scent of alcohol on them at all.
Because this is Cuba, smoking cigars actually helped bring down the spirits, as did all the dancing. And of course, there was rum. Santeria (and other related religions) are ecstatic, which is to say that positive energy expended by the participants is used to enrich the religious experience. In this case, it means that blessed drums were played while everyone present danced to their hearts’ content. At one point I was informed not to cross my arms—apparently it’s uninviting to the spirits, and beyond that, if you are present you should be participating.
For many of us, it was strange trying to find the correct way to act. We weren’t told very much going into the Cajon, and I was one of the few who actually had researched Regla and other similar religions before. I was pretty thrown, so I can only imagine people who were even more thoroughly new to this were pretty freaked out. It took us a while to get over the class, racial, social and religious differences between us and the santeros and just dance. The whole thing became a lot more enjoyable once we realized that participation was encouraged and there was almost no way we could mess that up.
The first hurdle was the cleansing. We each had to go up and dip our hands in some water, and then some cologne was put in our hands. There was some elaborate hand motions that the santeros did around their heads, forearms, and the alter. Of course, the Cuban hand snappy thing came into play. It turns out, like most things in Santeria, it’s important that you do it, but not really how. If you want to run your wet hands through your hair, go for it. If you want to pat the crucified Jesus on the head, have at it.
So we danced for a while, and then someone would start to move erratically, usually someone who had been smoking a lot. In total, there were at least ten cigars smoked by probably only 4 people in that afternoon. Early on, after talking to Profe and some others, a clairvoyant man who was later possessed called Justin to the front to offer him some counsel.
Once Justin was called up to the front, it was clear: at any point in time, absolutely anything could happen. That was frightening at first, that total helplessness. When the second guy started dancing wildly I was right next to him, and he kept bumping into me. Often, an experienced santero would accompany the person who was possessed to make sure they didn’t bump into anything or do anything inappropriate. They stopped the first guy because he kept barking at Ruth (U Michigan professor) and her stomach.
Three people were…possessed? Spirits came down three separate times. They offered advice, one spit rum in Brittan’s face, and one cried uncontrollably and had to be brought to another room to calm down. The second one (the rum-spitter) was quite lively. He laughed and danced, touched us all on the forehead and cleansed everyone again with water, which at that point was quite refreshing.
We were brought a sort of grain rum whose name literally translates to the sparks that fly when a train cracks over the rails. Yeah. At the end we were given the most delicious lemonade ever, as well as a delicious chicken soup that looked like sludge but tasted like home and comfort and magic.
The entire thing was about four hours, and we danced almost the entire time. It was great to feel so welcome. Once we figured out the deal, I think we felt much better. You’re supposed to express yourself physically, however you want, whatever moves you. People came in off the street to join in, always heading to the basin at the front to cleanse themselves before jumping right in. Some clearly knew each other, but others didn’t appear to. On many occasions we’ve witnessed the instant community and camaraderie amongst santeros, especially strangers.
The whole thing was just this kind of bizarre, energetic, celebratory, unsettling, effusive experience. Some hated it, some loved it, some were comforted, some were unsure, some kept changing their minds. But there’s no doubt about it: we were all shook up, each in our own way.
Once I let go and just started dancing, it was great. A little rum, some cigar smoke, good music, friendly people and a lot of dancing can’t help but put you in a good mood. It makes sense, I could see the energy just building and building with the singing and chanting and smiling. If anything could make a dead person come back, I think that much positive energy unleashed in one small, hot room would do it. It certainly makes more sense than candles and a Ouija board.
I know this is really foreign in so many ways for a lot of you, so please, leave your questions in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll find out from one of the many santeros I know.