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Africa in the Americas

Aired November 19, 2005 - 12:30:00   ET


ANAND NAIDOO, GUEST HOST (voice-over): In search of the African Diaspora. We journey across the Americas to see how the African way of life survived centuries of slavery and other forms of discrimination. From Bahia in Brazil, where there's a thriving African culture, to a corner of Africa in Colombia. Then to Cuba, where African influences dominate the Santeria religion.

Plus, the impact of African rhythms on the sounds of the world. These stories up next, as we explore Africa in the Americas, on INSIDE AFRICA.


NAIDOO: Hello and welcome to the program. I'm Anand Naidoo, sitting in this week for Femi Oke.

History tells us that the first enslaved Africans were brought to the Americas more than four centuries ago. Added to the pain of being forcibly taken from their home, the Africans were usually under pressure to abandon their traditional way of life and adopt the culture of their new home.

But if you travel across the Americas today, you'll find the African culture thriving in some areas, proving that somehow the slaves resisted that pressure.

So, this week, we'll visit some communities in North and South America to bring you a piece of Africa away from Africa.

Femi Oke begins our journey with a look at how African traditions continue to influence life in the Americas.


FEMI OKE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This may seem like an African ceremony, but it's a festival happening a continent away -- South America, in a region of Brazil known as Bahia.

SARA BETH WRIGHT, SPELMAN COLLEGE: There is so many different ethnic groups that ended up there in Brazil that -- due to the slave trade, but maintained much of the African rituals and practices and traditions.

OKE: So, Brazil today can boast of having the strongest African influence in the Western Hemisphere, a result of the transatlantic slave trade.

No doubt, slavery had a profound impact on the Americas, but more than simply a supply of forced labor. The Africans brought knowledge, skills, culture and religion.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But there is still a part of them that does not want to identify with the bad connotations of being African, you know.

OKE: In this classroom at Atlanta's Spelman College, Dr. Sara Beth Wright is trying to help her students understand that impact, and in the end, appreciate the culture that is so very much a part of their lives. The African influence, as these students are discovering, can be found in almost every sphere of life, but is more profound in some areas.

WRIGHT: African spiritual influences on religions in the new world.

There's Catholicism that is being imposed in Brazil and also in Cuba - what they did, what Africans did was, with that imposition, they created, used their own traditions, but blended it with Catholicism.

OKE: Today, variations of the blended religion are still practiced in both Cuba and Brazil.

And African influence can also be found in a variety of dishes in the Americas.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You can trace back any group of people, part of their history belongs, and you can tell who they are by what they ate, and how they ate, and why.

OKE: In the United States, for example, the influence is more profound in the South.

DR. DARYL WHITE, ANTHROPOLOGIST: I - partly because it was overwhelmingly it was women, slave women and free African women in the South as cooks, who produced and - and created American food and Southern food.

OKE: The enslaved Africans combined traditional recipes with local ingredients, creating new cuisines. For example, West African jalaf rice became New Orleans red beans and rice, stewed peas and rice in Jamaica, or hopping John in Georgia.

So, centuries after the first enslaved Africans set forth in the Western Hemisphere, African culture and traditions remained vibrant, existing in one form or the other.



NAIDOO: We go next to Colombia. During the days of slavery, the city of Cartagena had one of the colonial Spain's biggest slave ports, and hundreds of thousand of Africans were traded there. Today, in one community set up by escaped slaves, the sounds and memories of Africa live on.

CNN's Karl Penhaul paid a visit.


KARL PENHAUL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): They're singing a song about their lost home in Africa, and about escape from slavery. No matter that they're poor to afford real instruments, they're playing their village anthem from the heart.

This is Pelenke (ph). Villagers call it their corner of Africa in America.

"This anthem shows the whole country that what we have here is black power, and that we're descendants of Africa," she says.

PENHAUL: The village anthem honors their hero, Benkos Bioho. He led the Colombian slave revolt and escaped from the colonial port of Cartagena 400 years ago. Millions of Africans, especially from what is now Congo, Liberia and Senegal, were transported to Cartagena, but like the statue shows, Benkos snapped his chains and led dozens into the jungle of hinterland, to freedom.

At 81, Basilio Perez says his mind gets cloudy when he tries to remember how many children and grandchildren he has, but he remembers the stories passed down through generations like it was yesterday.

"It was as difficult to tell slaves to get here as it is to get from the Earth to the Moon. There were tigers, lions and snakes, it was terrifying to be in these jungles," he says.

Slavery was abolished in Columbia 150 years ago, but nowadays, blacks and Indians rank among the poorest and most discriminated sectors of society, according to government and independent reports.

"The black race is not free, still oppressed, especially in terms of jobs and education. We have minimal rights," he says.

Local legend tells how slave masses split up slaves from the same tribe to stop them from communicating. The ploy failed, and today, Palenke's (ph) inhabitants still speak a language experts say is a fusion of Bantu languages and Spanish.

Teacher Sebastian Salgado said his parents were to ashamed to teach him the language at home, fearing he would be mocked by white Colombians. Instead, he learned in the village's dusty alleys.

"When Palenke (ph) loses its language, then Palenke (ph) looses its identity. If there is no language, we stop being the people of Palenke (ph), the descendants of Africa," he says.

Spanish masters also tried to ban the slaves' talking drums. But the drums have not fallen silent altogether. At 5 years old, Louis Alejandro (ph) has already learned to tap out a tune. His grand dad, Jose Valdez, is the local drum maker, a skill he says was handed down.

"I often used to watch my uncle making drums, and it was etched in my mind," he says.

As the afternoon heat subsides after a heavy tropical thunderstorm, youngsters get together for a jam session. These days, the drums are not for talking, but dancing. Village elders say some of the dancers' movements are a secret code from slave times to symbolize resistance against their masters.

The rhythm may have mingled with more modern sounds of South America, but they can still hear the beat of an African home they've never known.

Karl Penhaul, CNN, Palenke (ph), Columbia.


NAIDOO: Thanks to Karl Penhaul there in Palenke (ph), Colombia.

Still ahead, we'll go to Salvador in Brazil to meet the people of Bahia. Plus, a colorful look at Africa's impact on religion in Cuba. Stay with us. We'll be right back.


NAIDOO: Welcome back. This week, we run a journey across the Americas in search of communities where the African way of life continues to thrive. And our next stop is Brazil. As we told you earlier, here you'll find the strongest African influence in the Americas, and as you will see in this report, in one society the way of life is almost authentically African.


NAIDOO (voice-over): Salvador, the capital of Brazil's northeastern state of Bahia, is sometimes called Africa in Brazil.

WRIGHT: Brazil in particular - we think of it as a Latin American country with - I don't know - light-colored, European-influenced people, but it has the largest number of African descendants outside of the continent of Africa. It's huge.

NAIDOO: It's especially huge in Salvador, referred to by some as the epicenter of African culture in South America. And unlike other parts of Brazil, the people here are proud to claim their African heritage. Four in five Salvadorians say they can trace their ancestry to Africa.

Salvador, the former capital of Brazil, was the major slave trading port in the 16th century, and here, more than any other region, the people of Salvador have maintained much of their African culture and traditions.

Traditions like this ancient dance known as capoeira, originally from Angola in southern Africa. This graceful dance-like fighting style became part of the slaves' way of life, a form of resistance, with music added as a disguise.

Many of the slaves brought to Salvador in the 16th century also came from West Africa. The white turban and dress worn by Salvadorian women came from the Yoruba ethnic group in Nigeria. The songs and dances of Salvador's most dominant religion, Condomble, are also unmistakably West African.

Salvadorans want to keep their culture thriving, so around the city they've organized different groups to promote their heritage and teach others, especially the young, about their way of life.

Some more successful Salvadorans set up this school, where young blacks are taught about their culture.

With that, many here hope that this piece of Africa in Brazil will continue to thrive for centuries to come.


NAIDOO: We head now to Havana, Cuba. Here, the African influence is prominent in Santeria, the popular Afro-Cuban religion. But if you listen to the lyrics of one of the country's most famous bands, you'll also hear something very African. Here CNN's Lucia Newman in Havana.


LUCIA NEWMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Hustu de la Madrid (ph), better known as El Negro, chants out something in the Yoruba language as he tosses four pieces of coconut shells onto the floor to talk to the spirits.

"Be careful with the people who have two faces, who want to do you harm," he tells the woman who came to consult him.

He then sprays rum on his spirit`s altar.

El Negro is the equivalent of a priest in the Afro-Cuban religion known as Santeria. His altar, he tells us, contains special sticks, cock feathers, animal bones and other secrets.

"It's all for opening paths and winning battles, to have tranquility, strength and stability, and to overcome all difficulties," he explains.

Cuba may have been settled by staunchly Catholic Spain, but just walk onto the streets and see the people dressed in Santeria white, or wearing multicolored beads, and you'll realize how strong is Africa's impact on religion here.

"Ochun is the oricha, or deity, that wears yellow and lives in the rivers," says this man. The Yoruba religion is the only one that tells you the present, the past and the future.

Natalia Bolivar, one of Cuba's foremost experts on the subject, explains that Santeria was brought here in the early 1500s by African slaves, especially those from Yoruba tribes in Western Africa. Since their religion was forbidden, they disguised their deities as Catholic saints, a phenomena called syncretism, of fusion of beliefs, that persists to this day.

"Look, 70 percent of this country believes in the Afro-Cuban religion, and I'd say also that 70 percent of this country isn't pure white, that almost all of us have some black blood in us," says Bolivar.

The references to Africa in Santeria are even here -- the opening lines of the latest hit by Cuba's most famous salsa band are sung in Yoruba, not Spanish, and that's not exceptional.

(on camera): The African influence here is everywhere. Before the 1959 revolution, the rich, mainly white class, used to look down on those who practiced Santeria. After the revolution, so too did the communist government. But today, it's a completely different story.

(voice-over): Cubans from all walks of life -- black, white and every shade in between, pile into this downtown store, openly buying all the implements needed for Santeria: bracelets that represent the different deities, herbs, roots and sticks used to attract the one you want, or ward off evil.

"To ward off the bad and bring in the good," says this woman, "especially good health."

"I've been practicing this for 20 years, and I'm a baptized Catholic," says this follower of the deity Yemaya.

At Havana's cathedral, many worshippers carry their Santeria dolls as they pay tribute to the Virgin of Charity, Cuba's patron saint, a practice tolerated, though not approved by the Catholic Church. Unlike in Africa, here they don't see a contradiction in believing in both the Yoruba deities and the Christian God.

"The important thing is to have faith," explains El Negro. "Without it, no religion is worth its salt," he adds, "no matter where it comes from."

Lucia Newman, CNN, Havana.


NAIDOO: Time right now to take a break. When we return, tracing the African roots in world music. We'll hear from superstars Angelique Kidjo and Lura. Stay with us.


NAIDOO: The legendary Bob Marley. He was perhaps one of the most famous artists who spread Afro-Caribbean music around the world.

Today, from the Brazilian samba to the Cuban rumba and the Colombian acumbia, African rhythms continue to influence music in the Americas. And as Guillermo Arduino reports, African artists are also mixing up the beat at home.


GUILLERMO ARDUINO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It is impossible to say how many times African rhythms have traveled back and forth across the Atlantic, but after millions of Africans were brought to the new world as slaves, the music in the Americas began to develop very distinctive beats.

ANGELIQUE KIDJO, SINGER: The drums and the rhythm comes from Congo, from Togo, from Gambia, from Mali, from Benin, from Togo, from Senegal, from -- from different places. To go to Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti, Bermuda, Antigua, Dominican - everywhere. And that's basically what I'm saying, in those, when the rhythms and the drums arrive, they were - they had to hide to play. It was forbidden, and now it's fashionable.

ARDUINO: Benin-born singer Angelique Kidjo has been using this Diaspora since she first left her country to record in France, inspired by the thriving Afro-Caribbean music scene in Paris.

On her latest album, "Oyaya," Kidjo fuses African root beats with such disparate genres as meringue, salsa, calypso, bolero and ska.

KIDJO: It was in the history that those drums and those rhythms that was forbidden during slavery are the rhythm in the music we're dancing on today. Without thinking about - thinking back to the pain that was behind, and what it'd take for the music to survive.

ARDUINO: Another African dancing to the sound of her own drum is Lura.

LURA, SINGER (translated on screen): I began to sing at 17. When the singer Juke asked me to work on an album of Zouk, a very commercial African style that's popular in Portugal.

ARDUINO: Lura, born and raised in Lisbon, is presenting the once obscure Cape Verdean styles to American and European audiences.

LURA: I think that as a `relatively' young Cape Verdean singer, I can show the world my country's other styles.

ARDUINO: Cape Verde, an archipelago off the coast of Senegal, has a mixed music culture of Portuguese and West African roots. It is said that sailors from Portugal, Argentina, Brazil and the Caribbean cross-pollinated the music of Cape Verde.

International superstar Cesaria Evora put this Cape on the map.

LURA: Thank God, we've been lucky enough to have Cesaria Evora, who brilliantly, the way for the introduction of Cape Verdean music. Now I think that we who are the way for the introduction of Cape Verdean music. Now I think that we who are starting out have a duty to introduce the rest, not only in music, but also a cuisine and all the rest. Cape Verde is small, but it has a very great culture.

ARDUINO: The African musical voyage has traveled far and has thrived, with ships and slaves as its earliest messengers. Its unique roots are now permanently embedded in global culture, with each new musical generation finding new ways to carry the heartbeat of Africa.

Guillermo Arduino, CNN, Atlanta.


NAIDOO: Please, e-mail us and let us know what you think of this week's program. The address is

That is our show this week. I'm Anand Naidoo. Thanks for joining us.



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