|Overt expressions of African religions were suppressed in the United States. Cultural markers such as language, African names and drumming were prohibited, under penalty of death. In spite of this, Yoruba culture and influence is seen and preserved in the African American churches. The spiritual and musical influence of the Yoruba heritage is seen in the call and response style of singing, the congregate style of worship, the institution of “The Mothers” as moderators of social behavior and the honoring of ancestors in ceremonial context.
Many Yoruba people were also taken to the island of Cuba. Here, African religious practices syncreticized with the catholic religion, as a means of self-preservation. The ritual languages, songs, and ceremonial practices were allowed to persist under cover, and Yoruba traditions were able to survive, though slightly altered, through the 400 year period of African enslavement.
Much of the Orisha music heard today comes to us from the Matanzas region of Cuba, a mountainous and isolated state in north western Cuba. The isolated environment provided the perfect environment for conducting ceremonies, singing and dancing without discovery. Many African Americans studied the Yoruba religion with Lukumi masters from Cuba and began spreading the religion in the United States. In addition, many African Americans, traveled to Nigeria to study and learn the original traditions from the priests and elders in Yoruba land.
The Yoruba believe in one creative force called Olodumare, and recognizes deities called Orishas as aspects of that creative force. The force, also called power or ashe of the Orishas manifest in nature. They are sometimes called spirits of nature. Many acknowledge Orisha as the ultimate ancestors, the Heads of Families of the clans of people who became the Yoruba people.
Orisha music is music which honors the Orisha, and helps to connect the people to their Spiritual Heads. The music is repetitious, making it easy to learn even though the words are in Old Yoruba, and is accompanied by detailed and precise drumming, either on congas or the sacred Bata’ drums. The music is becoming popular in the United States as more and more people embrace the Yoruba religion. Orisha Music is very beautiful and harmonic and it is gaining a following among people who are not Yoruba practitioners.