Sunday, August 23, 2015

Professionalism and the Lack Thereof in the Afro-Latino Community

I am posing with a true professional in El Carmen, Perú;
the owner of Mamainé—Peruvian soul food restaurant 

I don't know if it's a spoiled American attitude or what, but anytime, I'm parting with my hard-earned cash, I “expect” to be treated with some warmth and respect just as I would equally treat others who are putting money into my own pockets. I don't think that is an unfair trade-off.

When traveling through Latin America, I make it my business to connect with Afro-Latinos as much as possible because I want to learn more about the black experience in those countries. And if a black is running a business, or at least trying to, I want to patronize that business.

In the predominately black Region of Barlovento, Venezuela. I had an empenada that was so tasty I wanted to scream. The problem was that the vendor who served me had no personality, and none of the customer service etiquette that you would expect from someone taking your money. There was no  greeting, no “thank you,” nada! 

Putting myself in her place, I imagined how much money I could make with her superior product, and how I would accompany such a product with a smile, a greeting, small talk, and a “thank you” to each person giving me business.  There is an old saying in the sales profession: “people buy 'you!'” In other words, if you want to make the money, make an effort to connect with people, and that will motivate them to want to patronize you.

Truthfully, I was hoping to establish some kind of rapport in our little business transaction letting her know that I'm visiting from the U.S. and would like to learn more about her community. I thought that such a rapport and small talk would result in my getting some leads on where I could go and who I might meet to help me with my cultural exploration. Tipping her nicely would have been my greatest pleasure had she even attempted to show a little professionalism.

The late Afro-Peruvian singer, Pepe Vazquez, was highly 
engaging when I attended his event in San Francisco, CA

In El Carmen, Perú, labeled the hub of Afro-Peruvian culture, I approached a black woman inquiring about her food service. She had tables set up inside and outside of her house serving chicken dinners. Again, no personality. You would think she'd appreciate and welcome a potential customer ready to put money into her pocketbook. 

Intending to still patronize her business, I stopped by my goddaughter's house and offered to treat her and members of her family to a meal. But my goddaughter's uncle suggested another spot owned by mestizos where the food tastes much better, and the customer service is much more pleasant and welcoming; it certainly was.

I am with Maribel of Guyabo, Perú who demonstrated a nice personality and good service. Of course, I tipped handsomely. That is the way it supposed to be!

Of course, this is not unique to Afro-Latinos. Many black-American owned businesses, especially hole-in-the-wall, mom and pop stores, historically have terrible customer service. However, over the years, I've found many black-American businesses improved their customer service skills exponentially.

In Cartagena, Colombia, a black street vendor seemed so nice that, even though I didn't purchase anything, I paid her something just to be supportive, and she thanked me humbly. I approached some other black vendors with the purpose of patronizing them, and with the exception of a couple who were very warm, their attitudes appeared to be what we black Americans call “ghetto.” However, just to be fair, it's not always the black ones. I've seen some mestizos, indigenous, and whites take their customers for granted as well.

A common argument I hear, which I find bogus, is that you have to consider the culture. Such an argument would make sense in countries like Cuba or North Korea, where the profit you make is not necessarily yours, but in a capitalist society, regardless of the culture, money is money. Showing some class and customer-service skills without kissing ass, I might add, goes a long way in attracting and retaining customers, which inadvertently leads to more money.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Black Cubans Relive Alex Haley's “Roots”

One day, I was talking to a girlfriend on the phone who happened to be of the Edo tribe in Nigeria. I played some Afro-Cuban music (rumba) over the phone, and asked her to guess which type of music it is. She responded, Yoruba! Nope, but she was close because many Afro Cubans still have connections with the Yoruba culture, including the religion, the music, and the language. Another Nigerian I spoke to who has been to Cuba told me that the Yoruba tongue spoken by Afro Cubans is the ancient version, and not the Yoruba spoken in Nigeria today.

When I arrived in Cuba, I felt like a long, lost member of the community who had finally come home. I had direct exposure to rumba music and dancing, not to mention salsa, son-montuno, charanga, and timba music, all with West African roots. Many words used among the common people of Cuba mix their Spanish with West African derived words such as wanikiki or fula (money), qué bolá, asere (what's up, bruh), chacumbele (personality). 

During more than three centuries of transatlantic trade, just short of a million slaves were shipped to Cuba. The vast majority were trafficked in the 19th Century as forced labor for the island's vast sugar plantations. 

Like Alex Haley, four black Cubans found their ancestral homeland in Sierra Leone, West Africa, and made their voyage. The article below tells the story of these Afro Cubans' journey to uncover their own roots. 

Cubans Trace Roots to Remote Sierra Leone Village

For decades the Ganga-Longoba of Perico have been singing the same chants, a tradition passed down the generations. But until recently this Afro-Cuban community knew little of the origin of the songs, or of their own ancestors. Now, thanks to the work of an Australian academic, Cuba's Ganga believe their roots lie in a remote village in Sierra Leone from where it is thought their relatives were sold into slavery more than 170 years ago.

"When I first filmed the Ganga-Longoba, I believed their ceremonies were a mixture of many different ethnic groups," says historian Emma Christopher, of Sydney University. "I had no idea that a large number of Ganga songs would come from just one village. I think that's extremely unusual," she says. The initial breakthrough came when a group in Liberia saw her footage of a Cuban ceremony and recognized part of a local ritual.
Spurred on to seek the songs' exact origins, the academic spent two years showing the film across the region until she confirmed that the Cubans were singing in the almost extinct language of an ethnic group decimated by the slave trade.

Her inquiries finally led her to Mokpangumba, where villagers not only identified the Banta language but recognized songs and dances from the initiation ceremony for their own secret society, devoted to healing.
"That's the moment when they said: 'They are we'," Dr Christopher recalls, describing how the incredulous Africans began singing and dancing along with the Cubans on screen. They identified nine of the songs in total, despite lyrics twisted over the decades and distance. For the villagers it was compelling proof that the people of Perico were family.

Safeguarding tradition

During more than three centuries of transatlantic trade, just short of a million slaves were shipped to Cuba. The vast majority were trafficked in the 19th Century as forced labor for the island's vast sugar plantations.

Dr Christopher has singled out a woman known by her slave-name "Josefa" as the likely link between Perico and Sierra Leone. It's thought she arrived in the 1830s when the Gallinas slaving port was most active.
The local plantation owner includes a Josefa Ganga among the property in his will: below his real estate, and just above livestock.

Remarkably, Josefa survived to see the 1886 abolition of slavery in Cuba - far exceeding the average seven-year life expectancy for slaves here, where conditions were brutal - and she managed to safeguard the songs and traditions of home.

Divided 'family'

"Someone once said we originated from the Congo, but I always had doubts," says Alfredo Duquesne, an artist whose work has long been inspired by African themes but who has never known where his own roots lay.

"It bothered me. I wanted to know where I came from," he explains in his single-story home crowded with woodcarvings, near where his ancestors would once have labored in the cane fields. The Santa Elena plantation has long gone. But many descendants of its former slaves still remain in the small town of Perico, including the group labelled "Ganga" by those who trafficked them. 

Every December they meet to pray to Yebbe, as the Ganga call San Lazaro (St Lazarus), in a night-long ceremony of dance, drumming and song that has remained intact through the decades.
San Lazaro is a saint known for curing the sick, and is revered by Roman Catholic and syncretic faiths in Cuba. It was Florinda Diago, thought to be Josefa's great-granddaughter, who preserved their heritage in Cuba; she then entrusted that task to the current "grande dame" of the Ganga community, a frail but feisty woman in her 80s known as Piyuya.

The healing secrets have been lost, but Piyuya can still sing every chant: songs of lament and joy for the dead and in celebration. In the 1980s she wrote out their lyrics for the first time, alongside hand-drawn flowers in a now yellowed and tattered notebook. Organizing a reunion for the divided "family" wasn't easy given restrictions on traveling from Cuba at the time, and limited resources. But eventually, four Cubans did make their ancestors' voyage in reverse - to Sierra Leone.

"When I opened my mouth to sing, they just stood there staring," Elvira Fumero recalls of her arrival in Mokpangumba. "Then it was like an explosion. They started to sing the responses, and dance with me. And I knew then that this was where the Ganga came from," she says, smiling. The Cubans' journey - to Africa, and uncovering their own roots - is captured in a documentary by the Australian academic that shows the two groups singing and celebrating together as well as sharing more modern traditions like baseball.
It's still a rare experience for most Afro-Cubans. "Cuba was cut off at a time when other nations in the Americas were going through black pride and fighting for some justice for what happened to their ancestors," says Dr Christopher, who points out that the island's 1959 revolution declared racism "solved".

"That left a lot of Afro-Cubans adrift, not knowing how to celebrate where they came from and be proud of it," she says. Whilst many Cubans of Spanish descent have rushed to seek out their ancestry - and passports - Afro-Cubans have been far less anxious to do the same. But for Alfredo Duquesne, visiting Sierra Leone changed everything. "It was as if I'd just left the previous weekend. I touched the soil and thought: 'This is it. I've come back,'" he says, describing himself now as "at peace"."At last I know where I come from," Alfredo says. "I'm not a stranger any more."

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Soulful Cali (Colombia)

 Cali, Colombia—the salsa music capital of the world

While on the way home, I was listening to a popular song by the salsa music icon from Venezuela, Oscar De Leon, entitled “Cali.” For you hip-hop fans, he was not singing about California, LOL! He was singing about Cali, Colombia, the salsa music capital of the world, and how he and others are heading there to party.

I thought how sorry I was that I didn't listen to my supervisor at work who happens to be Colombian when he advised me to visit Cali because he knows that I am a salsa music lover. I was clueless in those days and thought that Cali didn't have enough black folks. Thus, I didn't I did not take his advice.

After making a choice between Colombian cities that I knew have a strong black presence, I chose Cartagena, the hometown of one of my favorite boxers, the former middleweight champion Rodrigo Valdez. From there, I visited an African village about two hours south of Cartagena called San Basillo de Palenque. A town that won its freedom from Spanish rule over 200 years before the rest of South America. 

Next time, as the song goes by Oscar De Leon, “yo me voy pa' Cali” (I'm going to Cali),  a city I later learned is the Afro-Colombian capital. Yeah, I heard that Caleños (i.e. people of Cali,) live and breath salsa. A Colombian contact says to me, “imagine the whole city dancing on the streets to free concerts from major salsa groups.”

My favorite salsa groups from Colombia are all based in Cali; Grupo Niche, Grupo Caneo, and Sonora Carruseles.

Afro Venezuelan salsa star Oscar De Leon 
sings his big hit “Cali”