Music, Religion and Uprising: An Interview with Ricardo Bacallao

Ricardo Bacallao is a Cuban is an expatriate Cuban film director now based in Berlin, and founder of the Black Cuba series. While he studied directing for film, radio, and television at the Universidad de las Artes in Cuba, he obtained his Master of Fine Art from the University of NY. He has gone on to direct a notable series of documentaries looking at the influence of Cuban music in Berlin, one of the most truly multicultural cities in the world, as well as how this ties into the practice of African Diasporic religions in the city., such as Candomblé from Brazil, and Santería in Cuba.

Speaking with Bacallao ahead of his visit to the festival, he immediately took issue with my use of the term ‘expatriate’. “‘Expatriate’ is not the exact word for most Cubans living in Germany. Many of them maintain their residence in Cuba, so they can return at any time. But for others, the better word, in this case, is exiled, for political reasons. In general, all of them have very little participation in the daily, political, cultural, or social life of German society. Their mind is in Cuba. It is difficult to call them expatriates.”

Cubans had, in fact, started migrating to Eastern Europe under the aegis of Communism, but this also proves to have interesting roots in the international struggle against colonialism, according to Bacallao. “Cuba and East Germany started collaborating in the early ’60s; however, in the ’70s Cuba started sending troops to the wars in Congo, Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Cape Verde. After returning to Cuba, they could apply for jobs in factories in countries belonging to the Soviet bloc: 9 countries, among them East Germany. Many Cubans also came to study. In the case of workers or ‘cooperantes’ (as they were called), they had to return to Cuba after the end of a 4 years contract. The result was catastrophic for the new families that the mostly young Cubans had just started. That’s the reason why many Germans still do not know their Cuban father.”

Warriors in the Maji-Maji War against Germany, 1905 -07

However, as explored in his film The Maji-Maji Readings, an exploration of the history of German colonialism via a theatrical work devised by African Diasporic actors and artists, Black people had been present in Germany long before. “On one hand, it must be remembered that Germany came late as an imperial country, with colonies in Africa and Asia. Spain, England, and France, for example, were there centuries earlier, doing the nasty job of slavery and colonisation. Germany showed its imperial strength during the Congo Conference in Berlin 1884-85. That was the moment when the Europeans capriciously decided the fate of the African people, and we can still see the result of this greed-filled caprice. Germany lost its colonies after the First World War. Compared to England, for example, they held colonies only for a very short time. However, the bloody damages were as disproportionate, the Herero Genocide” (most famously explored in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow) “is an infamous case.”

Graffiti by the former Mohrenstrasse U-Bahn

“On the other hand: Germany is still constructing the meaning of being German. Ever since Julius Caesar stamped the word Germania on the people living on the other side of the Rhine River, the different peoples on this side have had a contradictory approach to being German for centuries. The clearest example is the South German and the North German: Catholic and Protestant and not forget the East German, who claims his own identity, with the nostalgia of the communist past. Having said all this, the presence of the African people in the past (16th, 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries) has been limited to the roles of servants or objects of gawking in shameful human zoos. These days, the Berlin Parliament approved the renaming of Mohrenstraße (a street in Mitte – literally central Berlin – whose name translates as Moor’s Street) Anton-Wilhelm-Amo-Strasse after the 18th-century African philosopher. In the 1920s, I have the impression that was the time of a very large presence of Black people in Germany, but as I have tried to say, the German people have been discussing who they really are. I think after concluding this discussion they will begin to discuss with a broader awareness of the presence of non-native people making a historical mark in the country.”

Certainly, last year Berlin extended its commemoration of victims of Nazi violence by the addition of two stolpersteine, or ‘stumbling blocks’, signifying Martha Ndumbe and Ferdinand James Allen, to literally (guilt) trip Berliners out of their cultural amnesia. When I ask Bacallao why the colonial heritage of Germany isn’t so well known, his answer is direct, and to the point. “The impact of the – only – 12 years of Nazis in power, overshadowed the look at other issues.”

Stolpersteine in Berlin

Berlin today is, of course, renowned as one of the most culturally diverse, open and socially liberal places on the planet, proud of it’s multiculti heritage, which he explores in Orishas Devotion in Berlin, based around two syncretic religions. fusions of African and Christian belief systems created by enslaved peoples to smuggle in their heritages under the noses of slavers and missionaries, which are practised in the city. “The Brazilian Candomble religion and Cuban Santeria share the same base, the Rule of Ocha. Both have the same African gods and the same Catholic saints.” He explores this through a mixture of rituals and animation exploring the different Gods and Goddesses (Orisha) who populate their cosmogonies. When I ask him who his favourite Orisha is, he answers:

“Your question reminds me of the anecdote of the famous physicist Niels Bohr who had a horseshoe for luck above the entrance of his house. A friend asked him if he really believed in it. The 1922 Nobel laureate in physics replied, ‘Of course not, but I have been told that it works even with non-believers.’

“Well, the Orishas seem to work the same way. According to believers, the divine essence is in all of us. In that sense, everyone belongs to an Orisha as a son or daughter. Normally. what is asked is. ‘Whose son are you?’ I am the son of Oshosi, the Hunter, a close friend of Elegua and Ogun.”

An Orisha pantheon

This syncretic beliefs would form the basis for keeping memories of traditional African cultures alive, if often misunderstood and maligned by the colonisers – most famously in the case of Haiti and Vodou. “The cruelty of the British slavery system was different from the equally horrendous slavery system in Spain or Portugal. In Cuba or Brazil, it was possible to keep the belief of the African gods, to keep their instruments of connection with these entities – it was necessary to keep ‘batá drums’. Traditional percussion was banned in the United States, but that never happened in Cuba or Brazil. Africa went to Cuba and stayed there forever.”

Of course, in the 1960s, in the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution, religious belief of any kind was discouraged, as the population were encouraged to place their faith in Castro and Che Guevara’s philosophy of the New Man. The very gendering of the term implies that they weren’t thinking too deeply about gender, and the same applies here to race, as Black Caribbean populations regarded these religions as vital in preserving their traditions.

“It used to be like that in Cuba, but not today anymore. It was a time when being any kind of religious person was a real problem for you to get a college degree or a better job. You could be sent to UMAP in the 60’s, (Unidad Militar de ayuda a la producción – a kind of labour camp) with hippies and homosexuals.

“When it came to answering if you were religious in the questionnaire given to you before applying to any college, you knew you had to say ‘No’. For that reason, many people hid their true beliefs. I remember that my mother ran to hide the portrait of Jesus contemplating Jerusalem from the living room of the house because we received a surprise visit from two people to verify how my brother was living. At that time my brother wanted to belong to the UJC (The Communist Youth Association) and to be a communist. It was necessary to be a ‘New Man’ and this construction of the ‘New Man’ wanted nothing to do with religion, in fact, they were totally against it: ‘Religion is the opium of the people’, that was the slogan until 1993. After a meeting of Fidel Castro with religious people in Havana that year, the dogmatic look on religion began to change. Now, Santeria became a big business, unfortunately in many cases.”

A Short Radiography of Hip Hop in Cuba

A major aspect of Santeria is the ecstatic use of music during rituals, and one way to sneak this heritage past the censors was via the medium of Cuban jazz. Bacallao regards the best example as “the famous Cuban band Irakere. A band that played Afro-Cuban Jazz or Jazz with African religious rhythms, made a tremendous revolution in Cuban music in the 70s.” This is, of course, an ongoing process, and these rhythms can still be heard in contemporary hip hop, another subject he’s made films about. “Hip Hop was ‘Cubanised’, so the African legacy is there.”

Mondongo Cubano

At the heart of all these stories, naturally, lies exile, displacement, and Bacallao deals directly with his own experience of Cuba in his narrative short Mondongo Cubano, screening as part of our contemporary Black Cuban shorts programme. “I was at University in Cuba, in the ’90s” (a period after the fall of the Soviet Union when Cuba suffered massive privations) “when a classmate told me about the situation of the national circus, of a couple of lions, a crocodile, and a chimpanzee. From that reality, I tried to make several short films. The result was Mondongo Cubano, based solely on the story of the lions. Based on my experiences during the Special Period, I can only say that daily life was a different challenge every day. I wrote a novel, based on that which I never published but it was my way of healing that traumatic experience for all of us as Cubans.”

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