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Notes by Thomas Altmann

Echun Okiry — Güíro for Eleggua

This is a live recording of an authentic Afro-Cuban Santería ceremony that is accompanied by an ensemble of shekeres (Span.: chekeres). A shekere is a percussion instrument made from a dried and hollowed calabash gourd – hence the popular Cuban name güíro, which equally and more commonly refers to the well-known gourd scraper used in charanga bands. To construct a shekere, the calabash is cut at its narrow end and covered by a net that has beads or pods and even cowry shells inserted in its meshes. Thus equipped, the shekere may be shaken or even thrown to produce a sharp shaker sound, in addition to being hit on its bottom which renders a deep resonating tone from the inside of the gourd.

While the popular gourd scraper which had found its way to the orquestas tipicas and charanga dance bands, is of ancient Indian origin, the shekere type of gourd shaker came to Cuba from Nigeria, West Africa, where it is also known as agbe. It has probably been re-constructed by slaves from the Yoruba tribes en el tiempo de colonia (in the colonial times).

In Cuba as well as in Africa, several shekeres may be played in an ensemble. In Afro-Cuban Santería music, the güíro ensemble traditionally comprises of three shekeres of different sizes, often supplemented by one or even two conga drums and a bell part that is traditionally covered by an instrument called guataca, literally a hoe blade struck with an iron rod. The guataca supplies a more or less steady time-line as a point of reference for the entire group which is, by definition, referred to as clave. The conga player plays an improvised solo part, which in his absence may be taken over by the largest shekere (caja). Of course, as in all other musical forms with strong African roots, the solo is no "jazz", but follows the respective manners of the particular style of music, generally in close connection with the dance. As a matter of fact, the dance, un-captured by the audio system, is as central to the musical performance as the music is to the ceremony, and as ceremonies are to the religion known as Santería. Yet another essential part of the per-formance is the responding chorus of the visitors and participants of the ceremony.

Each shekere and each drum is played by an individual player. The guataca is sometimes played by the akpwón (lead singer), who heads the musical performance. The songs come from a partly centuries-old repertory of Yoruba origin. They are sung in ancient Yoruba language, with specific Creole modifications that gradually took place during the course of their continual usage, while the religion was separated from its African homeland.


Yoruba religion as practiced in Cuba is commonly referred to as Santería, although the term Regla de Ocha is more accurate. Practitioners of this Cuban line of Yoruba religion are known as Lukumí. The Lukumí branch of Yoruba religion (i.e. the Santería) is characterized by features of acculturation and influences of Catholicism. As a rule, African religions in Latin-American countries have undergone a compulsory marriage of convenience with Catholicism as a reaction to the decree for Christianization of the African slaves, thus resulting in a formal syncretism.

Yoruba religion is backed up by the oracular wisdom handed down in the oral "scripture" of Ifá. The final goal of the faithful is the alignment with the laws of nature and ones own destiny, which is sealed in ones personal Orí, literally the head, which is also an object of worship. In its evidently practical trait, Yoruba religion implies the use of herbalism for medicinal and magical purposes.

Yoruba religion centers around trading and balancing the universal energy called aché. The aché is the creative vital force that animates everything on earth. The exchange of aché is particularly cultivated with spiritual entities (ara orun) that dwell in a transcendent but ever-present reality of our world (orun, lit.: "heaven"). The ara orun incorporate the Egun (souls of the deceased ancestors) as well as certain divine spirits, referred to as Orisha(s).

Although Yoruba religion is definitely monotheistic, God (Olodumare, Olorun) is not addressed nearly as much in liturgy, prayer, divination and sacrifice as His/Her agents, the Orishas. The Orishas are deities that can be looked upon as emanations of Olodumare. As such they personify separate aspects of divine power, or portions of aché, and represent individual energy patterns. One of the most important Orishas is Eleggua.


Eleggua (Elegba), alternatively called Echú (Echún, Eshú; Exu in Brazil) is the Orisha of roads and paths, and – in extension – the owner of the crossroads, as well as the doorkeeper, standing at each entrance and each exit. Each one of these attributes may be understood both in their objective and their figurative, symbolic meaning. Consequently, Eleggua is also in charge of incidents and accidents, communication and encounters, decisions, failure or success. He embodies the unpredictable, the un-linear or chaotic element in each evolutionary or creative process, thus corresponding to C.G. Jung’s "trickster" character.

Viewed from inside the religion, Eleggua is the carrier and distributor of aché, the universal vital energy. He carries the offerings from the humans to the Orishas. He is an interpreter, a translator. He reports to Olodumare and executes His divine sanctions on earth. He spies for his close friend Orunmila, the Orisha of the Ifá oracle and patron of the babalawos (Ifá priests). As a matter of fact, Eleggua himself speaks through the oracle of the Diloggún (caracoles, cowry shells) which the oríate (ceremonial specialist) throws for the itá (reading of the life oracle) of an iyawó (new Orisha initiate).

To sum everything up, Eleggua performs the function of a divine messenger, comparable perhaps to Hermes of the ancient Greeks.

Eleggua incorporates an abundant number of aspects, roads (caminos), or avatars. Each one of these aspects stands for a specific character of the complex whole of Echú. For instance, Alaguana (one aspect of Echú) describes the sorcerer who causes deadly accidents and bloody injuries. Echú-‘Lona rules the roads and opens or closes paths; Alaroye is the trickster, the communicator who connects or separates people in arguments. Alayiki is the unpredictable, chaotic element – the Echú of deception and betrayal. Elegbara or Bara is another name for Eleggua, actually describing the messenger of aché; etc. Two popular misconceptions consist in 1. viewing Eleggua and Echú as a duality of distinct Orishas, and 2. identifying Echú with the devil.

The colors of Eleggua are red and black for most of his caminos. His numbers are 1, 3 and 21. Eleggua is conferred to the aborisha (believer in the Orisha) in his representation of a roughly modelled concrete head with cowry shells for his eyes and mouth in conjunction with the so-called tres guerreros ("three warriors"). Beside Eleggua, these warriors are Ogún and Ochosi, embodied in an iron cauldron with various tools and implements, including an iron model of a crossbow and arrow, plus Osun, a covered metal chalice containing herbs and seeds, equipped with sleigh bells and topped by a metal rooster. Eleggua serves as a powerful consultant and guardian (as long as he is fed and treated well).

Santería Music

At the core of Orisha worship in the New World is the evocation of trance possession in the initiated devotees of particular Orishas, who are referred to as santeros/as, olocha or olorisha. This state of possession is spiritually understood as trans-personalization, i.e. the medium is no longer seen as the possessed person, but as the Orisha itself which is temporarily manifested in a human body. This "distillation" process of trans-personalization is usually brought about in ceremonies called tambor or toque de santo, or bembé.

A "tambor" usually implies the use of batá drums – double-headed, hourglass-shaped drums that represent the main instruments of Lukumí liturgy. When properly consecrated, they have (or "are") fundamento, meaning that they are loaded with spiritual power (the aché of the Orisha Añá) and are called for to perform on such important ceremonies as the initiation of a neophyte.

The term "toque de santo", or simply "toque", refers to any kind of religious feast that has music (mostly percussion and singing) and dance. Although the word "bembé" is often used in the same way, it indicates more specifically the absence of batá-añá. In substitution of the consecrated batá drums, either profane batá drums ("aberíkula"), Bembé drums, conga drums, and/or shekeres would be played. Even cajones (sound boxes) come in handy. None of these have Añá. For this reason they are commonly used at ceremonies that permit a less rigid religious code. It must also be considered that it is generally less expensive to have a bembé than to hire a group of fundamento drums (and drummers).

In Nigeria, Africa, Bembé music is played in honor of Oshún (Ochún), the female Orisha of rivers and creeks, of love, beauty, sweetness, seduction and luxury. Bembé music includes the use of Bembé drums and Bembé rhythms which pertain to this deity. The shekere belongs to Oshún, too, since it is made from the calabash gourd which is sacred to her; but it is equally played for other purposes. (Correspondingly, batá drums were originally played for Shangó, Oyá and the Egun, but may be used for other Orishas as well).

Compared to Africa, the repertory and the rhythmical diversity of Cuban Bembé rhythms has melted down considerably, and, as it is the case with the batá, all of the Orishas are addressed with Bembé. The toque de güíro or "güíro" is a religious feast where shekeres (güíros) are played. In Cuba, a güíro ceremony is regarded as a particular style of bembé. Consequently, a güíro can also be played for any Orisha.

On this recording, the ceremony is held for Eleggua; but during the feast, several Orishas are invoked. This is even obligatory in the first liturgical section, which is a cycle referred to as orú. In the orú, the entirety of Orishas is addressed, before the main part of the toque actually begins.

The significant difference between the orú with batá drums and the orú with shekeres consists in the fact that batá drums play two distinct orú cycles in the beginning of a ceremony. The batá have what is called the orú igbodú ("orú of the sacred grove") or orú seco ("dry orú"). The first term expresses that this orú is played in the altar room of the house; the second term indicates that it is played with the batá only, which means: without singing. At a güíro or bembé ritual, the orú seco cannot be played, most evidently because in Cuban Bembé, there are no discernible toques or rhythms for particular Orishas (as they well exist for the batá); with Bembé, it is only the songs that make this difference. Another reason could be seen in the fact that in the igbodú (altar room), the drums communicate exclusively with the Orishas, which obviously calls for Añá. Neither Bembé drums nor shekeres can host this spirit; in other words, they lack fundamento.

For these two reasons the bembé and güíro start with the second orú of the batá, the orú cantado ("sung orú").

Güíro for Eleggua

What all the ceremonies have in common is that they inevitably start with an invocation of Eleggua and end with an invocation of Eleggua, because Eleggua marks the entrance and the exit of everything. Also, subsequent to the first canto (song) or toque, Ogún (the Orisha of war, iron and the smithy) and Ochosi (the hunter Orisha) are musically honored. These three Orishas always stand at the beginning of the orú. The complete order of the Orishas that are addressed in the orú cantado of the event caught on this CD is as follows.

Eleggua – Ogún – Ochosi – Inle – Orisha Oko – Babalú Ayé – Osain – Korikoto /Oggué – Dada – Ibeyi – Aggayú – Changó – Obatala – Obba – Yegua – Oyá – Yemayá – Ochún (actually Iroko) – Orunmila.

After the orú, the group continues with a sequence of songs for Eleggua (Aché moyuba ‘lorisa – Ibaragó moyuba – I chón-chón abé – Agó tori omá le kawa o – Agó agó /Agó ilé agó (ya) – Agó ibara – Ochimini e a – Elegguara nkio) and then proceeds to address various Orishas.

Both track #13 and #14 start with songs to Eleggua, the Orisha that this feast is dedicated to. To be more specific, these are songs that originate in another ethnic group than the Lukumí: the Arará, named after the African city Allada in the former kingdom of Dahomey (today Benin), inhabited by the Eastern Ewe or Fon tribes, which is where the Arará stem from. The Arará religion is based on the belief in the Vodún (in Cuba: Foddún), the counterpart of the Yoruban Orishas. Vodún is the root word of Vaudou, or Voodoo (in Cuba: Vodú). In the religion of Vaudou, Eleggua (Elegba) is known as Legba or "Papa Legba". Borrowing from other ethnicities is not uncommon in Afro-American religions, due to the constant mutual influences that took place not only during the times of slavery. Even before in Africa, where the neighboring tribes had frequently found themselves in a friendly or not-so-friendly contact with each other, a constant cultural exchange took its inception.

However, half of the block of songs on track #13 is for Ogún, while half of track #14 is for Oyá, the (female) Orisha of the marketplace, the cemetery door, and the wind. By choosing to take that turn, the ensemble may have reacted on certain occurrences in the audience, like beginning states of trance possession, the "coming down" of these Orishas.

The bembé ends with what is called, in Spanish, cierre (closing) or salida (exit), invoking Eleggua and Olokun. The last instrumental miniature toque that can be heard is an exact emulation of the final, the final signal of the batá drums, which marks the definite end of the ceremony.

Remark: The percussion section on this record features only two shekeres instead of three, in addition to the conga and guataca. Usually the third, or largest, shekere (caja) contributes an improvising part. If a conga drum is used, it is the conga player who improvises, thereby leaving little musical value to a third chekere, which is consequently omitted in this case.

The recording on this ceremony was made by Lawrence Millard in December 2001 in La Habana, Cuba. The full recording of the entire event is also available as a double CD from earthcds, as is a recording of a real tambor for Obatala featuring the sacred batá drums.

Thomas Altmann is a professional percussionist in Hamburg, Germany, and author of the book Cantos LucumÌ a los Orichas. You can visit him at

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