In the newly-crowded world of Afro-Caribbean music, where instrumentalists have always reigned supreme, the singularity of the composer is suddenly in the limelight. We are not talking short works here, but long ones; suites and other long-form – especially narrative – pieces from artists who have found an enduring way of telling epic stories that more often than not revisit historic episodes and slices of life which have come to define the vibrant tradition. There are, however, other, infinitely darker stories that have begged to be told. The Cuban pianist (now based in the USA) Elio Villafranca has now told two of them.
The first of these was Cinque. This five-movement work is inspired by the life of Joseph Cinque, a slave born in Sierra Leone who, while on the way to being illegally sold in Cuba, revolted aboard the ship La Amistad and gained his freedom. Interestingly, Mr Villafranca used a wider lens to tell this story of colonial subjugation by uniting Cinque’s story into the wider Afro-Caribbean tradition that flowered secretly under the European colonists. In Cinque Mr Villafranca focused on the influences of the Congolese traditions of rhythms, melodies, and dances–through the music of Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo, Haiti, Jamaica, and Cuba. Mr Villafranca brilliantly showcased the unifying elements of the islands, which share similar cultures despite their diverse histories.
In 2019 Mr Villafranca presented another epic story. Don’t Change My Name is that work. Its English title comes from Fon language one, which is Man Dio Nukocheo. It is the compelling story of a girl named Florentina Zulueta, who was born in Dahomey (now Benin) in West Africa, during the 17th century. At just 15, she was one of many who were captured and transported to Cuba to be sold as a slave. Her original name was Tolo-Ño, which was given to her while she lived in a Lucumí region (now Nigeria) as a young girl. However, at the time of her capture in Dahomey, her name was later changed to Na-Tegué. She was sold to Julián de Zulueta y Amondo, a notorious slave owner in the Perico region of Matanzas, Cuba. After branding her flesh with a hot metal iron, Julián then claimed her as his property and forever changed the name of the young Na-Tegué to Florentina Zulueta.
Florentina Zulueta became a legendary figure in the Afro-Cuban society in which she lived. Her story also became inspirational as African worship became syncretized into the Catholic faith of the colonists. Yet she and the religion into which she was drawn remained unique among her Arará people. The African Society of Perico was organised toward the end of the nineteenth century by Florentina Zulueta, who was said to be a Dahomean princess. It had a great reputation throughout central Cuba. The society held some social events, with music very similar to that which can still be heard in tumba francesa (French tumba) societies in the eastern part of the country, in cities such as Santiago de Cuba and Guantánamo. But these were not part of the Arará rites that were zealously kept within the family.
“When Florentina dies, an adoptive daughter, the venerable Victoria Zulueta replaced her. I knew her closely in the last decade of her life. Thanks to her, an Arará musical and dance group was formed in Perico called Conjunto Arará Dahomey de Perico. Another family member, Emiliano Zulueta, was also well versed in the ceremonies and music of the house temple. More than 1200 Arará songs and rhythms have been rescued thanks to him.” (pp 71 and 72, The Encyclopedia of Caribbean Religions: Volume 1, A – L; Volume 2: M-Z, University of Illinois Press, 2013 Patrick Taylor & Frederick L. Case* Eds; Jean Heighoo, Assoc. Ed; Joyce Leung, Ed. Co-ordinator)