Q&A With Cultural Historian Ivor Miller

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Q&A with Ivor Miller, Cultural Historian, Author And Senior Lecturer at the Department of History and International Studies at the University of Calabar, Cross River State, Nigeria.

Prior to meeting Ivor Miller I’d heard about the book, Voice of the Leopard – African Secret Societies in Cuba, which has been described as, “an unprecedented tracing of an African title-society to its Caribbean incarnation, which has deeply influenced Cuba’s creative energy and popular consciousness.” I met Ivor at Minton’s, between sets, when he came over to exchange greetings with pianist, composer Michele Rosewoman. As the evening came to a close Ivor and I spoke briefly and he agreed to participate in a Q&A. Here, Ivor speaks about his remarkable life and his life’s work with candor, humility and passion. — Tomas Peña

Ivor MillerTP: You and I met, totally by chance, at Minton’s (formerly Minton’s Playhouse) Jazz at the Crossroads series, where Roman Diaz and his group, El Gallo Mistico held court. Coincidentally, I recently purchased your book, Voice of the Leopard – African Secret Societies in Cuba. Suffice it to say, your reputation precedes you. Thank you for speaking with me before you hit the road.

Ivor Miller: Yes, I’m going to Cuba and then to Calabar, Nigeria, where I’m based at the University of Calabar, in Cross River State.

You are also the author of Aerosol Kingdom: Subway Painters of New York City which has been hailed as, “the seminal study of spray can art of the 1970s and 1980s” and the aforementioned Voice of the Leopard, which led to the first ever encounter between the Efik of Nigeria and the related Abakuá of Cuba.

Actually, my first book was, Ifa Will Mend Our Broken World – Thoughts on Yorùbá Culture and Religion and Culture in Africa and the Diaspora (1997), which I co-authored with Professor ‘Wande Abimbola, who ran the University of Ife for seven years and was majority leader of the Nigerian Senate in 1993. He also led the research to make the IFA oracle system recognized by UNESCO as part of our World Intangible Heritage. Since I had been in Cuba learning about Yorùbá-derived culture, and he was temporarily working at Boston University, we recorded and transcribed a series of interviews about the Yorùbá Diaspora and its constitutive oral tradition. It’s an easy to read, conversational book that’s been popular among practitioners. Because it was translated into Spanish, the book has been my passport within many Yorùbá-derived Ifá, Ochá, and Batá drum communities in Cuba, and it’s been useful to those interested in reorienting the Ifá oracle practice from an isolated Cuban thing to a Diaspora practice with a base in Yorùbáland, West Africa. The work on Aerosol ‘writing’ or New York subway painting began in 1988. It was my first work but it took a long time to get it published. The project has interestingly tied into later research into African heritage, because several of the pioneering painters creatively used a vocabulary of symbols of African origin that clearly had come through migration into the Caribbean, and then later on through Caribbean migration to New York. The idea of symbolic communication is deeply imbedded in the culture of the great graph painters of NYC, and that is also part of the Abakuá initiation society in Cuba, as well as the related Ékpè ‘leopard’ society of Nigeria and Cameroun.

What kind of symbols?

Some of the painters — especially those with family from the Caribbean who had knowledge of their grandparent’s culture —knowingly used symbols as triggers for esoteric philosophy, specifically as embodied in initiation systems like the Lukumí (Yorùbá) and Palo Monte (Kongo) from the Caribbean. Certainly, that’s the innovative elite; not all painters were aware of this, but the use of ciphers, arrows, and geometric designs was definitely part of the culture in the New York City barrios. Painters like Rammellzee called their communication codes ‘Mapamatics’, while also equating Roman letters with numbers and writing in codes.

That was in 2002, correct?

Ivor Miller 7Yes, but Aerosol Kingdom was reprinted in 2010 and still remains in circulation. To tell the story, I did interviews with several artists in New York City to document their oral history. Later on, for the Abakuá book (Voice of the Leopard), I did oral interviews in Havana with the descendants of Africans who had important narratives about the migration of their ancestors and how they founded this institution in Cuba, and what it means for the history of the Cuban people. So far, my lifetime’s work is Voice of the Leopard. I’m planning to do a trilogy – the first book told the story of the Calabar context and how the Leopard Society functioned as an institution for community policing and justice; later the trans-Atlantic trade brought many Calabar people into the Caribbean, who established the Abakuá society in Cuba as a means of self-defense. They also named each of the original lodges after villages in the Calabar region, places which still exist in Nigeria and Cameroun. Abakuá is organized by lodges, parallel to Freemasonry. The founders named early lodge names after communities in Nigeria and Cameroun, so they were recording their history and many of these lodges became important cells in the wars of independence of Cuba, something which has not been well documented in the history books, even though we know that seventy percent of Mambí warriors were Africans and their direct descendants. Another volume of this trilogy will be purely based on recorded music in Cuba, and discussions of their contexts. Cuba is unique in the Americas because RCA Victor was recording there from the 1910s, and black music was recorded in Cuba before it was recorded in New Orleans. One of the foundational examples is singer Maria Teresa Vera’s work with Ignacio Piñeiro, who was known as the “poet of the son,” who had more than two hundred compositions and was an Abakuá member. Africans in Cuba used sound recordings as a way to document their social history. This is very important because for centuries the Spanish authorities were censoring books and newspapers in fear of rebellion. If writing was censored, coded music was not. African descendants used recording sessions as an opportunity to document community history. In 1923, the great troubadour Maria Teresa Vera recorded one of Ignacio Piñero’s songs, “Los cantares del abakuá,” and I believe it is the first example of a non-western language recorded in the Americas, and it happened to be Abakuá language derived from Calabar. That’s just one great example of many others. The book I want to write is a social history of Western Cuba (Havana, Matanzas) in the 20th century, looking at the discography and all the references to Abakuá, Kongo and Lukumí systems that have been recorded, and insights into why they recorded in response to the social events of the day.

Putting together a discography of that magnitude sounds like a painstaking, labor of love. So much history is told through recorded music. I look forward to reading it.

Ivor Miller 5Very much so. I’ve been doing this for twenty years, and much of the text is written, but to understand the greater context, I’ve had to go to Africa. I was advised early on about this by Prof. Abimbola, and I’ve been trained, coached and otherwise supported by theoretical linguist Dr. Victor Manfredi of Boston University, who’s helped me understand the larger issues in understanding the larger picture of African and African Diaspora studies, as it’s currently called. A persistent problem with African-derived traditions is that they are perceived as marginal, as bizarre and non-functional because they civilizations existing out of their past context. They are living within the context of European-derived systems, some of them sustain white supremacist values that continue to insist that the only relevant history of Africans is related to slavery, the slave condition, resulting in their life-ways as being perceived as inferior, incorrect, and even criminal. But, if one is able to actually work in Africa with the leaders of traditional African communities, one can begin to understand some of the core values of the communities and how they have persisted until day in various forms. That brings us to the music of Roman Díaz and his colleagues, who include Pedrito Martínez, Clemente, the late Félix ‘Pupy’ Insua, Onel Mulet and many others.

Yes. Of course, we appreciate what Roman is doing but I sense that there is more to the “dance” than meets the eye. Perhaps you could explain the performance, from your point-of-view.

On stage we saw the four Abakuá drums: three timekeepers and the bonkó ‘talking drum’ of Carabalí heritage. We saw three batá drums of Lukumí heritage, as well as cajones (boxes) and tumbador (conga drum). Of course Africans have been playing boxes for thousands of years, but in Cuba ‘cajones’ were part of the early evolution of rumba percussion because the Spanish authorities banned drums, so the percussionists began to use fish crates from their work on the docks. Early rumba was played on cajones. In the set, Roman started out playing Kongo music, the music of Palo Monte, which is the initiation system from Central Africa; his chanting evoked the Gods and the spirits who are present to protect the initiates on their life journey. Then he moved on to the Carabalí, as represented by Abakuá music, which starts with a call and response for initiates: Heyey baribá benkamá! Then finally he went to Lukumí music by playing for the Orishas, starting with Elegwá, the deity who ‘opens the way’ for the others. He did this not as a ceremonial rite, but more in line with the idea of ‘correct protocol’ as stated in many rumba performances, for example in a recording of the Muñequitos of Matanzas, where the lead singer starts by saying, Siempre tengo por costumbre, Cuando llego a una morada Saludar la muchedumbre, Como persona educada . . . El Gallo Mistico“I always have the habit, when I arrive to a gathering, of greeting the people, like a well-raised person.” In this way, I see Román’s performance as a way of respectfully greeting the lineages of Kongo, Carabalí and Lukumí in Cuba, as a way of identifying himself as part of these communities. But why did he do it in this order? Because traditionally in Cuba there is a protocol for joining these initiation systems: one should first be initiated into Kongo or Carabalí and then only later then should one become a member of the Lukumí. Those who were initiated into Lukumí first, were prohibited from later joining the Kongo or Carabalí. There are many views on why this is, but one reason is that Cubans are remembering the historical migrations of the Africans, wherein the Kongos by and large arrived first, the Carabalis came after them, and the Lukumís came last. Then you have pianist David Virelles playing very interesting avant-garde sounds, sometimes referring to the Cuban piano tradition of Roldan and Caturla, and sometimes referring to US jazz piano, but basically exploring the integration of avant-garde jazz and these initiation systems, which is kind of wonderful. I think it’s in line with artists like Charles Mingus, who composed and performed Haitian Flight Song and Mexican Dance, that is, thinking about the social origins of the music. But I think that the Román’s larger goal, since he’s living in the USA, is to communicate to North Americans, whose language might be jazz, about the contemporary reality of African-derived initiation systems. In other words, he’s not reproducing ‘folklore’ as seen in tourist shows, but using traditions creatively as living systems. Caribbean African cultures still shape our cosmopolitan modernity.

To get a sense of what David is doing I highly recommend Continuum, his most recent recording. It’s the result of a trip to Cuba where Virelles explored his country’s culture and art and composed a series of vignettes inspired by visual art, Cuban folklore and Afro Cuban languages and practices that include music, poetry, storytelling, divination, magic, improvised storytelling and chants.

Yes, in this amazing recording, Roman asks, “Quien es, Maria de la O?” (Who is María de la O?)

I’ve been hearing the question for years. I did some independent research on Maria de La O and it was inconclusive. Maria de la O is an intriguing and elusive figure in the history of Cuban music.

Maria la OThis is wonderful because David is from Santiago and Roman is from Havana, and there are about 700 miles between these cities. Throughout the island of Cuba there are variations of Carabali, Kongo and Lukumí influence. Whereas Abakuá is only in Havana, Matanzas and Cárdenas, in Santiago there is Carabali influence in the carnival comparsas. What they are doing in this song is looking at the relationship of Carabali influence throughout the island, because Maria de La O was known famous mulata from the 19th century. She’s a mythic figure, because for African-descendants —whose history is largely undocumented — the question of verifying her authenticity is not vital. What’s important is that her memory has been passed on because she was important to the community. I believe that Alejo Carpentier mentioned her in his book, La música en Cuba. In Roman’s performance, I think that this phrase is a challenge, a puya: quien es? Do you know? He’s challenging people to learn about their history. According to Carpentier, Maria de La O was a famous mulata in Santiago, most likely a priestess, a community leader . . . that’s my assumption. The standard phrase in rumba performances is: “María de la O kuenda,” ‘kuenda’ being a Kongo term for ‘to arrive’. María is ‘arriving’ in a Kongo ritual context, which could mean she was a priestess who was a vehicle for the gods to materialize (‘a horse’ in the Haiti usage), or that she herself was a spirit. Instead of being a stereotypical ‘mulata del fuego’ (the pretty mulata), the song praises her power in as a community leader. In his performance, Roman seems to be drawing parallels between Maria de La O of Santiago and the mythical Sikan, the founder of Abakuá in Africa. He’s doing this using Abakuá ritual language. He’s drawing a parallel between this African descended woman in Santiago and the African woman who was the mythic founder of Abakuá in Africa. Abakuá rites are complex procedures that praise the life and death of Sikan; she is their mother and their founder. Roman is suggesting that both sides of the island revere powerful women who are community leaders. In this performance, Roman is challenging stereo-types of Abakuá as being anti-female, anti-feminist, because he is saying ‘We Praise Our Women’, ‘We Revere our Mothers’, because whoever doesn’t treat his biological mother with respect can’t be a member of the Abakuá.

Fascinating. Who knew? Obviously, initiates, people in the “religion” have the benefit of understanding the meaning and the nuances better than most. You did a series of broadcasts on Cuba Calabar Radio (cubacalabarradio.podbean.com) with radios show host, Ene Ita. In one particular broadcast you deciphered the meaning of tunes that I’ve been listening and dancing to, for years. Case in point, the tune Yambeque by Papo Lucca and La Sonora Ponceña.

This is one of my favorite groups, because Papo Lucca and La Sonora Ponceña somehow captured the energy and feeling of Abakuá in ‘salsa dura’ and made several original recordings with its ideas and language. In “Yamba Yambeke” they praise the relationship between Abakuá culture and the playing of rumba music, which is a profound theme in the social history of Havana and Matanzas. Here’s a sampling of the lyrics. Elegbe, elegbe, elegbe, le alala, Elegbe, elegbe, elegbe, le abakuá En una rumba todos los rumberos decian asi (in a rumba, all the rumba players say) enkrukoro enyéne abakua (this is the full name of the Abakuá institution) But this track is especially intriguing because it’s the only I’ve heard that refers to an Iyamba, or Abakuá lodge leader, that is called Iyamba Yambeke, and there’s a lot of history behind this. Abakuá histories speak of an Iyamba in Africa called Yambeke, and in Havana this title was created in the Nyegueyé Efó lodge in the early 20th century. Who this person was and how it all happened is a long story that should be treated in a book! How Papo Lucca learned about this I’d like to know, and I’d like to meet him one day to ask. My guess is that he learned from knowing Abakuá members who were musicians. Incidentally, I have found maps of southeastern Nigeria that show Yambeke as an island or a river in the Bakassi peninsula area on the border with Cameroon, close to Calabar. This is another sign of how popular music has been used in the Caribbean to record the people’s history, and specifically those of African descendants.

There is no shortage of information about your professional life but your personal life is somewhat of a mystery.

Ivor Miller 4I come from a family of educators. My dad is a college professor, my mother taught in elementary schools, and I grew up hearing about the teaching process at the dinner table. Most of my cousins and uncles are also involved in education. With this background, and thanks to many great teachers, I came to understand that the themes we are discussing are worthy of research and publications, and should become part of the educational curriculum, because they are very important for our own history: African leaders played vital roles throughout the history of our continent. My father’s first job was teaching in Beirut, so as a young child I was raised in international communities and hearing many languages. In college, I was able to study African ‘classic’ dance, thanks to a wonderful teacher named Donald ‘Eno’ Washington. Eno happens to be a name from Calabar meaning “gift,” and he certainly was for me. Eno is an American of African descent who was part of the African-Centered movement of the 60s; he was also one of the greatest dancers I’ve ever seen. His training inspired me to go to West Africa, and I did so as a volunteer worker with Operation Crossroads Africa, in Ghana in 1985, and then again in The Gambia in 1987, where I knew many of the Djola and Wolof dances of the villages, so there was a lot of fun. But as a young person, I found being in rural Africa very hard, because I was far from my family, digging pit latrines for a toilet, being without electricity and running water, it was tough. But later on while dancing professionally in New York City, I met some Afro-Cubans who were painters and drummers, and became aware of the possibility of learning about African arts through their communities in NYC, and later on the island.

What company did you dance with?

I studied African dance in college, but being a male with blue eyes and light skin, I was not allowed by my black nationalist brothers to do this professionally. So, I started training in ballet and modern dance, and became a member of the South Street Dance Company in Philadelphia; soon afterwards I came to New York and was lucky to dance with Ken Rinker, who was Tywla Tharpe’s principal dancer for many years. Rinker and Tharpe’s style was very technical modern dance and I enjoyed it, but I soon became bored, because I missed African dance; being part of an African dance community gave me a window into civilizations where dance was more functional, that is, related to community defense, to agriculture, to the land, and I missed that. We had read Robert Farris Thompson’s African Art in Motion in Eno’s classes, and because of this I applied to study with Thompson at Yale. I was accepted with the aim of learning about West African art, but I ended up doing my master’s thesis on so-called ‘graffiti’ in New York, which some of the painters call ‘calligraffiti’! I think the Art History Department faculty were not pleased about my choice! I learned about this painting form because around 1987 I was a bike messenger in Manhattan, and became intrigued by the brilliant paintings along the city walls and subway cars. I began to photograph them, and eventually met and interviewed scores of painters. This resulted in “Aerosol Kingdom: Subway Painters of New York”; through this work I learned how to record oral histories and use them to tell a story. In New Haven, I was lucky to know Jill Cutler, a poet and writing tutor at Yale, who taught me how to write and edit, as well as Jeremy Brecher, a labor historian who taught me the basics on conducting oral and community history. I’ve been honing these skills ever since. During the ‘caligraffiti’ research in New York, I went to the Blanco, Negro y en Colores gallery in the South Bronx for an exhibit of the great subway painters like Phase 2. But a painting there by Cuban artist Juan Boza caught my eye; it turned out to be his rendition of an Abakuá ritual signature. This was surprising but made sense, because many of the New York subway painters were of Caribbean descent, and understood the visual codes of ritual signs. Juan Boza and I became good friends, and he eventually became my padrino (godfather) in the Lukumí Ocha tradition. He was initiated as a son of Yemayá, the sea goddess, and led me to Palo Monte and Lukumí ceremonies in the Bronx, where I met the late Orlando “Puntilla” Rios playing batá and bembé music. Juan was a great painter and installation artist. He was also a black and gay. I learned over the years that these conditions brought him problems in Cuba. In 1972 he had won a national award for his art, but he was not allowed to leave the island to represent Cuba internationally. In 1980 he arrived in the USA during the Mariel Boatlift and began to create art in New York. During my first trip to Cuba in 1990, while I visiting Juan’s mother in Camagüey – in the center of the island — we learned that Radio Martí announced Juan Boza’s death! (Radio Martí is the US sponsored radio program broadcast from Miami).

Boza’s artwork is striking, amazing. How did he die?

Apparently from blood-poisoning from using metallic paints. Since I was a photographer, I had early on created his portfolio in 35mm slides, but I’ve since refused to publish a catalog of his amazing work, because when he died his paintings were scattered and lost. Many are now in private collections, and I have not yet published because I don’t want his paintings to be elevated in price, and become totally out of reach to Boza’s family. As my teacher in the Lukumí Orisha system, Juan Boza created and delivered to me a shrine ensemble known as ‘los guerreros’ (the warriors): Eleguá the messenger, Ogún the warrior and Ochosi the hunter. This was my first step in the Lukumí system and it has served me well. A Yale Fellowship brought me to Cuba for nine months, where I studied dance with the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional (National Folklore Ensemble). This was in 1991, the period when the official ban on religion had begun to be lifted, and I remember the Conjunto dance and drumming teachers being hush-hush about discussing ceremonial activities. Some of them later guided me to ceremonies in the barrios of Havana where I began to meet babalorishas, iyalorishas, babalowos, and other diviners. I eventually became fully initiated in 1993, when I was ‘crowned’ with Shangó by ‘Abébe Osún’ Ruben Hernández and ‘Ogun Deí’ Milagros Miranda, and I’ve been privileged to work in Cuba ever since. Since my Lukumí ‘oyubona’ (the guide of the neophyte) ‘Ogún Deí’ had been initiated by the great teacher and batá player Jesús Pérez ‘Obá-Ilu’, my Lukumí godfather ‘Abébe Osún’ suggested that I work on a book about this master. Jesus Perez had helped co-found Conjunto Folklórico Nacional de Cuba in 1962, and he traveled the globe to promote batá and other Afro-Cuban arts. After nearly 20 years of interviews with colleagues, family, and students of ‘Obá-Ilu’, I’ve nearly finished this project, an oral history in praise of ‘Obá-Ilu’. What I love about Cuba is the intensity of cultural life, where the African, Iberian, French, British, Chinese and Amerindian influences are intertwined, most famously in the music, but also in the initiation systems of Arará, Carabalí, Kongo and Lukumí. This makes it important to be informed about many aspects of social life to understand even a single theme, because it’s all connected. When beginning a study of batá music and lineages, it soon became clear that many batá players were also members of Abakuá and Kongo lineages, that batá playing had been part of highbrow concert music in Havana since the 1930s, and that many themes of these traditions were reflected in Cuban painting. It was during my study of batá drums that I met Roman Díaz at home in Havana in 1995, and also his teacher, Pancho Quinto. A lot of my movements in this period were thanks a mutual friend of Roman and mine: Frank Oropesa ‘el bongocero’ of the Septeto Nacional de Ignacio Piñeiro.

Your story is fascinating. How did you end up lecturing at the University of Calabar, in Nigeria?

After more than a decade of study in Havana and Matanzas, especially with Abakuá elders, I received a grant to study the Abakuá cultural links with Calabar, the port region of southeastern Nigeria that gave name to the so-called ‘Carabalí’ people of Cuba. The people of Calabar received me with enthusiasm when they learned about the deep impact of their ancestors in Cuba. For ten years now in Calabar, I’ve had the great privilege of learning about this incredible trans-African legacy. What I’ve done as a scholar is to essentially follow up on one of the chapters of Thompson’s “Flash of the Spirit,” the one on Ékpè and Abakuá. I have merely taken that idea and expanded it . . . Since coming to New York in 1999, Román’s become an important teacher for me, because he’s helped me understand the profound emotional codes at work in performances and ceremonies of African heritage in Cuban communities wherever they are. Roman is an amazing cat, and I’m glad to see him working so deftly with musicians from around the world. I’m also thankful to Dita for recognizing his genius and promoting him at venues like Minton’s.

I’m reminded of the impact that Orlando “Puntilla” Rios had on the music scene when he arrived in New York (1980 or thereabouts). I feel privileged to have witnessed the passing of the baton. Also, The Midnight Rumba series at the Zinc Bar, which takes place every Thursday at midnight (led by Roman) has become a phenomenon, a hot-ticket. Once again, thanks to curator, Dita Sullivan, who is also is responsible for the New Dimensions in Latin Jazz Series (at the Jazz Standard) and Jazz at the Crossroads at Minton’s.

One of the truly impressive things about Román is that he refuses to allow himself to be characterized as a ‘star’, or an exceptional ‘individual’. Instead, he act very skillfully as a member of a community, and most of his recordings speak to this community or communities in codes that only they can fully know. In other words, he doesn’t have an ego; he’s humble and that’s why he’s learned so much.

Well, I think we can both agree that this has been much more than just a conversation. For me, it has been an education. I look forward to speaking with you the next time you visit New York and continuing the conversation.

Thank You, Tomas!

RECOMMENDED LISTENING AND READING

LISTENING

  • Efí Embemoró Septeto Nacional de Ignacio Piñeiro, 1936 (con Bienvenido Granda y con Cheo Marquetti, cantante)
  • Abakwa song. Recorded in Guanabacoa by Harold Courlander, 1940
  • Afro-Cuban Drum Suite Dizzy and Chano Pozo, 1947
  • Abasi-Abacua Conjunto Niágara (1945).
  • Ñáñigo Katherine Dunham Ensemble (1956)
  • Habanecue Tito Rodríguez. (1950)
  • Mambo Abacua Mambo Arsenio Rodriguez
  • Cuba Calabar Radio http://cubacalabarradio.podbean.com/

READING

  • Voice of the Leopard: African Secret Societies and Cuba University Press of Mississippi, 2009
  • Aerosol Kingdom: Subway Painters of New York City University Press of Mississippi, 2002; Reprint 2010
  • Ifá Will Mend Our Broken World: Wande Abimbola & Ivor Miller AIM Books, 1997