From Dahomey to Cuba ~ The Legacy of Esteban Baró Tossú
Among the multiple ethnic groups that increased the slave population of colonial Cuba, there were many men and women who came from the region of Dahomey, Africa, known today as the Republic of Benin. Africans in Cuba of Dahomean origin were generally known as Arará. The Arará were made up of a homogenous group of ethnicities and tribes. Their convergence in Afro-Cuban mutual aid societies called cabildos was the means that enabled the Arará to conserve their religious and artistic manifestations in Cuba.
In the decade of slavery circa 1870, at the age of eleven years old, Esteban Baró Tossú arrived on our lands from the region of Dahomey, presently the Republic of Benin. He was accompanied by his parents. In those years, they resided in Central Santa Rita Baró in the province of Matanzas, which is known today as Central Rene Fraga. The Baró family takes its last name from the province, as it was customary for slave owners to give their surnames to slaves in their possession so that the enslaved Africans would forget their own names. Due to this imposition, the young slave Esteban adopted the surname Baró.
When slavery was abolished in the year 1886, the Baró family moved to Bemba, present-day Jovellanos, to work on the town’s sugar plantations. Approximately ninety years ago, Esteban Baró Tossú took the initiative to create the African society “San Manuel and His Descendants.” The main objective of this society was to group together everyone who, in some way or another, practiced religious Arará rituals of African origin. In this way, he endeavored to make Arará rituals worthy of respect, and henceforth, practitioners would not confront difficulties when performing their ritual activities such as drumming and African dances, which they would carry out on corresponding days that were respected and upheld within the tradition. This institution was inaugurated on November 7th, 1920.
According to the stories of his descendants, Esteban brought with him everything that we know about Arará rhythms. In his day, it was customary for enslaved Africans to be “permitted” to celebrate their parties. This presented an opportunity for slaves, who took advantage of the celebrations to pay homage to the fodun (saint or oricha) of their devotion.
Over the course of many years, the Baró family has made very serious efforts to conserve their cultural traditions. March 23, 1977 marks one of their most significant achievements. On this day, the Baró family commemorates the founding of their own folkloric ensemble, whose name Ojundegara means “to the rhythm of the drum, I will return to my homeland.” As such, Ojundegara is the only performance group in existence today that has preserved these particular Arará rites along with their musical interpretation. The group was created by Esteban’s eldest children, Maximiliano and Miguelina, with help from Esteban’s grandson Miguel Mederos Baró, who currently serves as Director.
Authored by: The Baró Family
English Translation: Kiley Acosta, PhD