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Notes by Thomas Altmann

Religious Music of Palo Monte — A Cajón Ceremony

A live recording of a Palo ceremony in La Habana, Cuba, incorporating cajones, wooden sound boxes as percussion instruments.

Palo — Congo — Bantú

Palo Monte — otherwise simply referred to as "Palo" — is the Spanish term for the religious practice originally of the "Congos", descendants of the various tribes that had been deported from the regions of Central Africa (Congo, Zaire, Angola, and Mozambique) to be sold as slaves in Cuba. The Congos are also characterized by belonging to the linguistic group of Bantú speaking peoples. Practitioners of the Palo cult, the Regla de Palo or Regla Conga, are called paleros, without view of their tribal or racial descent.

Palo is a Spanish word, meaning "stick". Derived from that, palo is also a popular classification of plants with wooden branches like trees and certain shrubs. The Spanish word monte translates as "mountain(s)" or "the woods", "the wilderness", but is also used for wild-growing plants, leaves, herbs — especially those used for medicinal, magical, or ritual purposes.

The term "Palo Monte" takes reference to certain powerful plants that grow naturally in the uncultivated land. The reason for this idea lies in the fact that Palo Monte is a religion which centers around the effective use of charms, amulets and any kind of strong "medicine" in order to take action and influence and eventually alter reality or intervene in unfavourable developments. Palo is a magical, animistic and practical religion.

Palo Religion

Palo is a magical religion, because it goes back to an archaic magical worldview that implies the sensation of a collective or even cosmic soul and the interconnection of seemingly independent phenomena and in fact anything that exists. Even if it is questionable whether most paleros are able to regress to this primitive sensibility (and it is obvious that "primitive" is devoid of any negative connotation here), their belief in the human ability to alter reality is based on this understanding. The palero’s magical practices are often straightforwardly labelled as sorcery (Span.: brujería), a sorcery that can be used for effecting either good or evil.

Palo Monte is an animistic religion, because it is based on the notion that all things in nature are animated and have a soul and a specific power on their own, a power that can be put to use by the knowledgeable. In terms of magical practice, paleros are particularly known for their "work" (Span: trabajo) with plants, earths, stones, as well as bones and other relics of both animals and humans. The invocation and conjuring of the dead is central to Palo religion. The entirety of these powers can be found combined in a charm called nganga (ganga) or prenda (Span.), a tripod iron kettle filled with various ingredients. In Palo Monte, the nganga represents the ritual nucleus and focus of power.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the beginning of the período especial, it was Palo, more than any other religion, that Cuban people turned to in order to have their existential problems solved with supernatural aid. Palo, first and foremost, is a practical religion, a religion of power that exists exclusively in its practice. Raul Canizares, in his book "Walking with the Night", cites an old santera: "... If you want to feel good, you worship the orishas. If you want something done, you go to a palero". Esteban Montejo, the cimarrón in Miguel Barnet’s well-known book "Biography of a Runaway Slave", explains the difference between the negro congo and the lucumí, stating that the negro congo provides solutions, while the lucumí divines.

The Duality of Santería (Lukumí) and Palo (Congo)

The most influential African-derived religions in Cuba are Santería, of Yoruba (Lukumí) origin, and Palo. These two religions coexist in a kind of benevolent competition — independently, but often also in combination with each other.

The combination of the ritual traditions of both Palo and Santería is referred to as Palo cruzado or Santo cruzado, respectively.

The Branches or Sects of Palo Monte

Palo religion is practiced in Cuba by several distinct sects, the most important of which are Palo Mayombe, Palo Briyumba and Palo Kimbisa.

To begin with, Mayombe is said to be the oldest, purest and most original of them all. Palo Briyumba (Brillumba), however, is a syncretic sect that incorporates the worship of the Orishas, i.e. the deities of the Lukumí (Yoruba). Kimbisa, although regarded as a very old Palo tradition, is best known for its Creole offspring. The Regla Kimbisa del Santo Cristo de Buen Viaje, founded at the end of the 19th century by Andrés Facundo de Dolores Petit. Petit, a charismatic personality, was not only a palero of the Regla Kimbisa, but also a priest of the Santería Lukumí, and a master of the Abakuá secret society, who was reportedly not too shy to even meet the Pope for a private audience. Accordingly, Santo Cristo de Buen Viaje combines Congolese Palo with Santería (Lukumí), Abakuá (Carabalí) and Catholicism, mixed with influences of (Kardecian) Spiritism and Freemasonry.

The reason for the obvious susceptibility of Palo religion to foreign influences is generally seen in its lack of a comprehensive mythological corpus, thus allowing other theological and cosmological systems to fill the vacancies. This was furthermore facilitated by the fact that the largest importation figures of Congolese slaves to Cuba date from an earlier stage of its colonization, meaning that Congolese culture (and religion) has been exposed to (and weakened by) oppression and denigration for a much longer time than Yoruba religion, for example. Yoruba religion gained greater influence in Cuba approximately since 1820, after massive slave deportations from Yoruba-land due to severe political problems and military defeats of the Oyo kingdom.

The Music on this Recording

In Palo Monte, musical ceremonies may be held in honor of the Congo deities or spirits, to celebrate an initiation (rayamiento) or funeral, or to feed, energize and pay hommage to the nganga of a Palo priest.

Palo music is originally performed on a trio of single-headed Congolese drums called Ngoma, together with a solo singer (gallo) and a responding chorus. However, the use of only two drums does occur. The biggest drum is called the caja and plays the improvising part. The Palo rhythm is guided by the time-line pattern of a bell, which is here executed on a guataca (a hoe blade struck with an iron rod).

The authentic Ngoma are frequently substituted by ordinary congas (tumbadoras), which are struck with bare hands and/or sticks, or — like in this case — by cajones.

The cajón is a wooden sound box. The musical use of crates and boxes has been common in Cuba and other Afro-American societies (namely in Peru) since the times when their drums were banned by the authorities, or whenever real drums were either not available or not affordable. In Cuba, cajones figure prominently in the Creole musical genre of Rumba, traditionally in the ancient Yambú style. However, their dry and "funky" sound, once typical for the Yambú, was re-discovered for modern Folklore ensembles who incorporate cajones in the contemporary Rumba style called Guarapachangeo. These cajones are no longer preparated packing crates, but specially constructed percussion instruments, as shown on the cover photo of this CD. Their playing technique is basically the same as for the conga drums.

On this recording, we hear just two cajones and a guataca. The larger, deep sounding cajón carries the basic rhythm implying bass strokes, while the smaller, higher pitched cajón improvises on top of it. This concept of a higher pitched solo drum is borrowed from the quinto in Rumba. In all other African and Afro-Cuban drumming styles — including Palo Congo, it is typically the big, deep sounding instrument that has the soloing function.

Track 1 is the musical opening of the ceremony, interestingly an invocation of three Orishas (Yoruban deities) known as the tres guerreros ("the three warriors") by the names of Eleggua, Ogún, and Ochosi, who are traditionally saluted first in every bembé or toque de santo (Lukumí drumming ceremony) in order to open the path for a successful and undisturbed ritual.

Track 2 contains two hymnic rezos ("prayers"): "Lube-Lube" and "Erisi Balande", both of which happen to be mentioned by Cuban musicologist Fernando Ortíz in his 1950 published book "La Africanía de la Música Folklórica de Cuba". Ortíz attributes the first song to the Briyumba tradition, the second one to the Kimbisa liturgy. Notice the percussive "noise" under the singing, which somehow reminds me of the time concept of 1960ies’ U.S.-American Free Jazz.

Track 3 — Track 11: Various song sequences of the Palo tradition, sung in Congolese language, frequently interwoven with Spanish words and phrases. One of the chants ("Oko Kala") belongs to the Lukumí repertory for the Orisha Ogún, who is the deity of warfare and patron of blacksmiths, and corresponds to the Congolese spirit called Sarabanda.

Most of the songs is in 6/8-meter, accompanied by a bell pattern that can be heard in almost every part of the African continent, and which is played in various styles of Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Brazilian music. This pattern has been identified as the grandmother of the Cuban Clave. The only exception are the songs of Track 6, which are in binary meter, based on a five-note rhythmic pattern referred to as Cinquillo.

Most of the material presented in these tracks is played in a very fast tempo. This is typical of Palo music and of Palo dance, which can be particularly energetic and physically exhausting. Trance possession can occur, similar to Santería ceremonies. However, a Palo spirit only possesses the individual’s head, while an Orisha incorporates itself in the whole body of the initiate. In Palo, the person may equally become possessed by the spirit of the prenda (nganga), the powerful magic cauldron of the Palo priest.

In Track 8 we witness the change of the lead singer.

The last song of Track 11 is most probably borrowed from the Catholic liturgy. This song, plus the opening for the tres guerreros, gives an indication that the event documented on this CD is either Kimbisa del Santo Cristo or at least a Briyumba ceremony.

Recorded by Lawrence Millard on 12/21/2001

Liner notes by Thomas Altmann, 08/2004


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

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