Based on the worship of the Orishas, the Yoruba religion combines the beliefs and ritual practices of the Yoruba peopl, originally established in southwestern Nigeria, Benin and Togo. A belief system as well as a point of cultural heritage, it never fails to inspire artists who, in turn, use it as a conduit for expressing their beliefs, their roots and their ancestors. Spanning, jazz, hip hop, house and bossa nova, we take a look at some notable examples.
Because it follows the roads of slavery from as early as the 17th century, it spread through the Caribbean and into the American continent where it syncretized with local groups, reappearing in various forms: candomblé in Brazil, Santería in Cuba, voodoo in Haiti … Yoruba beliefs are based on the balance or even the alliance between men and nature, each element being embodied by an Orisha, a deity celebrated during ritual ceremonies and honored musically: through dancing, singing and percussion that accompanies the prayers.
1. Alice Coltrane – “Galaxy around Olodumare,” 1972
In 1969, Alice Coltrane’s life changed irrevocably when she met the Indian guru Swami Satchidananda in New York. This elevated her already cosmic heart-searching and modal jazz vision to a whole new level of spirituality, one that profoundly transformed her work, notably on the iconic Journey In Satchidananda alongside the no less mystical Pharoah Sanders. Released in 1972, World Galaxy can also be considered part of this high register. By inducting a string orchestra, a timpani, tampura, harp and organ onto her celestial voyages, Alice Coltrane unveils “Galaxy around Olodumare,” a composition offered to the god of gods in Yoruba deism, Olorun. This sky god is the supreme force that led to the creation of existence, and of the entire universe.
2. King Sunny Adé – “Ori Mi”
Let’s take a trip back to the roots of Nigerian Yorubas now, with a pillar of Jùjú Music, inherited from traditional Yoruba percussion. The guitarist and singer King Sunny Adé – descendant of a Yoruba royal family – became an international star in 1982 when he released Juju Music, a record mixing reggae accents, afrobeat keys and jùjú rhythms on the Iya Ilu, featuring more predominant percussion under the moniker “talking drums.” Whereas Island Records would have liked to have made him a new Bob Marley, the work of King Sunny Adé is full of pieces dedicated to the Orishas. Take “Ogun” for instance, published in 1972, which marks a tribute to the god of iron, and by extension, the god of brass, trumpets and trombones. Another example is “Majo Bi Olokun,” a song dedicated to Olokun, a very powerful god of the ocean. While he would later play with Stevie Wonder and Tony Allen, it’s with his group African Beats that he celebrates Ori, “the head,” both a metaphysical concept and the Orisha of spiritual intuition, of human consciousness and destiny.
3. Princess Nokia – “Brujas”
“Being a witch is my birthright” said Destiny Frasqueri aka Princess Nokia at Trax during the release of the mixtape 1992 in September 2017. With “Brujas” (witches in Spanish), the young New York native of Puerto Rican descent pays homage to her heritage and to the culture of her Nigerian ancestors. “Brujas” opens with a traditional Yoruba chant, a prayer to Yemayá, goddess of salt water, protector of women, mother of men and the Orisha here adorned with a blue veil, her traditional color. The categorical rap of Princess Nokia denounces the stigmatization of ritual practices on this track along with the oppression suffered by her people: “do not fuck with my energy!”.
4. Ibeyi – “River”
“When I say that I am a girl of Yemojá and that Naomi is Shango’s daughter, it is not to invent a life: it is a deep belief, anchored in our veins.” Indeed, Ibeyi named their duo after the “The twins who triumphed over the devil with music” according to the Cuban singer Daymé Arocena, Naomi and Lisa-Kaindé Díaz, who compose with their identity. They were introduced to Yoruban beliefs and practices at a very young age by their mother and after many round trips to Cuba, the twins released Ibeyi in 2015. Their first record turned out to be more than inhabited by the sacred figures of the Cuban santería, including Eleggua and Oya. In “River,” Ibeyi addresses a Yoruba prayer to Oshun, goddess of rivers and white water, beauty, female sexuality and renewal. Invoked here to cleanse their souls, Oshun is often depicted in yellow … notably embodied like this in Beyoncé’s “Hold Up” in 2016, then at the Grammys in 2017, where she celebrated her pregnancy live on TV to over 30 million Americans.
5. Metá Metá – “Obatalá” and “Osanyin”
In Yoruba, Metá Metá means “three at the same time.” Founded in 1999, Metá Metá comes from the thriving art scene of Sao Paulo and brings together singer Juçara Marçal, saxophonist Thiago França and guitarist Kiko Dinucci. The trio transcends musical scenes by fusing psychedelic workarounds, jazz improvisations, saturated afro-punk and sacred songs traditionally addressed to the deities of Brazilian candomblé, where each Orixa has its own singing and rhythm. In their first eponymous record released in 2011, Metá Metá honors the figure of Obatalá, father of orixas, of the world and of humanity, the god of peace celebrated for his wisdom, here welcomed gently by the free flights of Thiago França and the lofty vocals of Juçara Marçal. In 2016, Metá Metá released MM3, a third album conceived as a liberal response to Brazilian chaos (if only they had known): the trio rolls out some ritual prayers like the beautiful “Obá Kosô” and “Osanyin,” in tribute to the healing god of the Yoruba pantheon.
6. OSHUN – “Sango”
Drawing inspiration from Yoruba culture, Niambi Sala and Thandiwe formed OSHUN as a tribute to the freshwater goddess. The goal was to share her divine omnipresence with an audience as large as possible: “it’s not just a question of ignorance, many people have just forgotten where they come from,” they said in 2015 upon the release of ASASE YAA, a mixtape named after the goddess of fertility on Earth. Based in New York, this atypical duo expresses itself in Iya-sol, a very personal blend of their own spiritual universe, neo-soul and hip-hop. On “Sango,” OSHUN appeals to Xangô, god of war, thunder and fire, denouncing the psychological servitude in which they believe too many women exits. They seem invite them to tap into Xango’s strength and anger to emancipate themselves. Alongside classics, there are also a great number of tributes to Xangô in Brazil through the bossa nova of the illustrious Joao Donato, or in Argentina, through the incandescent tango of Astor Piazzolla …
Astor Piazzolla feat. Gerry Mulligan – “Deus Xangô”
Joao Donato – “Xangô é de Ba”
7. ÌFÉ – “Umbo (come down)” and “Prayer for Oduduwa (Para Merceditas)”
ÌFÉ is a collective of musicians, singers and dancers gathered around Otura Mun, who was initially known as DJ Nature. Having been settled in Puerto Rico since 1999, the American has now become babalawo, a priest capable of interpreting the Ifa oracles, in parallel with his musical career. From ÌFÉ’s first album, IIII + IIII, “Umbo (Come Down)” unveils a vocoder prayer appealing to the benevolent forces of the Orishas: “Drop it to the sound … Come Down, Come Down! That place is your home …” he sings in reference to Olokun, god of the oceans threatening to engulf the world, using music to calm him down in a move that would only be prevented by Obatalá. On the same record we find “Prayer for Oduduwa (Para Merceditas),” a prayer sung in Yoruba by the Puerto Rican artist Yarimir Cabán on beats and sonic landscapes by Otura Mun. While ÌFÉ was named after Ile-Ifé, the very real Nigerian city at the heart of Yoruba mythology, Oduduwa is none other than its first king, deified after his death as the Orisha of solitude and the mysteries of the ancestors.
8. Daymé Arocena – “Eleggua”
“My love of santería came through music. And in the end, my religion is music. I feel totally possessed when she enters my body,” explained the young Cuban singer Daymé Arocena at Libération around the 2017 release of Cubafonía on Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood Recordings. A leading woman who is very attached to the Santería, Daymé Arocena offers an entry point to very spiritual dimensions by opening the record with “Eleggua,” an homage to the deity of the destiny, luck, the roads, the intersections, the passages … It is to him that the first prayers in Yoruba ceremonies are dedicated. While this album is conceived as a hymn to Cuba, caught between African roots and jazz traditions, Daymé Arocena doesn’t avoid taking some unexpected paths, house for instance, on this excellent Yambu (Sacred Rhythms Mix) alongside of Joe Claussell.
9. Osunlade – “Cantos a Oshun et Oya”
The elusive American producer Christian Carlos Warren, better known as Osunlade, turns his music into a spiritual experience, an initiatory instrument. Raised in St. Louis (Missouri) in the strictest Baptist tradition, Osunlade became babalawo, a priest initiated into the Ifa divination system, after having found the right expression for his spreading beliefs in Yoruba. This has been followed by many prayers via deep house over the course of his career, like the titles “Oshun’s Arrival” in 1999, published on his label, which was aptly named Yoruba Records or “Obatala Y Oduduwa” in 2002. Combining sacred songs, pulse house and ritual rhythms, Osunlade produced “Cantos Ochun et Oya” in 2001, in honor of the goddess of fresh waters (specifically the Niger River) and of Oya, Orisha wind, storms and cemeteries. Oya is also the only female warrior of the Orisha, violent and impetuous.
10. Skip & Die – “Mami Wata”
Born through the meeting between the traditional yoruba, fon and ewé (ewé ceremonies are very popular in voodoo belief systems, from West Africa to Caribbean festivals), the powerful goddess-mermaid has different names on both sides of the Atlantic: Lemanja in Haiti and Manman Dlo in Guadeloupe. Often depicted with a snake wrapped around her, she is celebrated by many artists including Eric Bibb, Toto La Momposina, Sergio Mendes and Hugh Masekela. Here, she has been reborn within the psychic vibrations of Skip & Die’s Cosmic Serpents in 2015. The South African Cata.Pirata and the Dutch Jori Collignon offer her a sequined ceremony composed of hypnotic choruses and samples of frog sounds in the synthetic languor of the Brazilian rasteirinha.