MICHAEL SKINKUS & MOYUBA: FRIDAY, APRIL 28—LAGNIAPPE STAGE, 11:30 A.M
Jazz Fest 48 will be remembered as the year New Orleans officially rekindled its African diaspora cultural connection to the music of Cuba. Michael Skinkus and Moyuba will welcome this moment with a festival-opening invocation at the Lagniappe Stage.
“Jazz Fest contacted me last summer to give them some ideas about who to ask,” says Skinkus, who first played the festival with Smilin’ Myron in 1990. “I was honored, having been part of the preservation of Cuban music in New Orleans and the percussion traditions of West Africa. This is music based on religious music, these songs are all worship songs to the orishas, to the deities and so it’s like doing a blessing to the entire Fair Grounds by doing this first gig, sort of opening the crossroads. If you’re familiar with Santería, the religion is monotheistic, there’s a high god, and what you do is you sing to the loa or the orishas and you make your offerings up to the high god, very much in the way of Catholicism, the way people would create an alter to St. Peter to adore God. That’s why Catholicism and these African traditions work so well together because they’re monotheistic and there are ways to approach the high god through intermediaries.
“Moyuba means to give thanks or praise and we do a series of songs that are based on these rhythms and call-and-response vocals that are sort of petitions to the orishas. We use that as a foundation for what I call music of the ancient future, going back as far as we can to the source but trying to make music that’s about today and about tomorrow.
“The first three orishas that you salute are called the warriors Elegua, Ogun and Ochosi. Elegua is like Papa Legba of New Orleans legend, who you go down to the crossroads to ask favors from, he’s like the favorite of God so he’s the first you salute. Ogun has a big machete, he cuts everything out of your way, clears your path. The third, Ochosi, is the hunter.
“Then we go through some others, some of the female deities: Yemaya, who is the mother of the ocean, she dances with a skirt of seven layers for the seven seas, her colors are blue and white and she’s the maternal figure. Then Oshun is the daughter of Yemaya, she’s all dressed in gold and yellow and white. Yemaya put her daughter Oshun in charge of the fresh water.
“There are several different suites of songs dedicated to the various orishas. There’s Babalu-Aye, the father of health and sickness, ‘father of the language of the world,’ we sing to him.”
Skinkus, who plays Batá drums in Moyuba, founded the band in 2002. This lineup includes a second drummer, Gabriel Velazco, bassist Pat Casey and saxophone player Brad Walker along with singers Margie Perez and Sula and Andaiye from Zion Trinity. Skinkus only plays with Moyuba on special occasions.
“We’ve tried to do it in the clubs but it just doesn’t work in a nightclub so we only take gigs where we can present the music in a setting where we can preserve the music in an ambience that seems respectful to it.”
The band plays music inspired by the Santeria ceremonies of Cuba.
“The idea with these ceremonies is to play the drums with enough spiritual energy that it introduces the trance possession so that the loas and the orishas can come down and speak to the people. That’s not the goal in performance, of course, but in the ceremonial context.”
Skinkus has played to possessions, but notes that the situation is different in a festival setting.
“I’ve been in dance classes where people for example have broken down and started crying in the middle of the class because sometimes the ancestors have some stuff to work out. I’ve played in ceremonies in Cuba where people have gotten possessed, but I’ve never seen a full on possession during one of these performances. The thing is the drums we play at the Jazz Fest, they don’t have the sacred spirit inside of them, those drums have to have special preparation, so the drums we play at Jazz Fest are like profane drums as opposed to the sacred drums used at ceremonies so they really shouldn’t bring the orisha down.
“But people do have reactions. You ever watch the ladies when they start making that movement like they got touched a little bit on the shoulders? It’s a very similar experience.
“We’re trying to educate people, but we’re also trying to give it a New Orleans context. I don’t want to be a Cuban drummer, I don’t want to be a Brazilian drummer. I want to be great at those styles, but I’m not part of that culture so what I want to do is offer my context, the New Orleans way of interpreting this traditional West African music that’s made its way through the Caribbean and up to New Orleans for these many, many years.”