When the Spirits Dance Mambo | Pittsburgh City Paper

When the Spirits Dance Mambo

Thank You, Mambo

When Dr. Marta Moreno Vega saw a commercial on television for Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, about an American girl in Cuba who stumbles upon the "forbidden" Afro-Cuban rhythmic cultures, she decided it was a movie she probably wouldn't want to see.


Having extensively researched West African sacred traditions and rituals and their effects on the Americas, Vega has her own movie featuring some of the so-called "dirty" dance styles of Afro-Cuban, Afro-Brazilian and Afro-Puerto Rican peoples. Along with filmmaker Robert Shepard, Vega co-produced When the Spirits Dance Mambo, a 90-minute documentary shot in Cuba that showcases various African-isms in song, dance and spirituality, manifested from Havana to New York City and most everywhere in between.


Various Afro-Caribbean priests, priestesses, scholars and musicians are heard from in the film, while mambo and capoeira dancers are seen and Afro-Cuban jazz artists such as Mario Bauza, Frank "Machito" Grillo and Chano Pozo are heard.


Examples of Afro-Latin musical influences can be heard in the American popular culture landscape: Dizzie Gillespie's Afro-Cuban jazz ensembles; Tito Puente and his niece Sheila E.'s influence on Prince's earlier Revolution sound; Celia Cruz collaborating with hip-hop artist Wyclef Jean for "Guantanamera"; and even actor Desi Arnaz playing the "Baba Lu Aye" on early episodes of I Love Lucy.


For Hollywood to produce movies that deal with Afro-Caribbean dance and label it "dirty" or "forbidden" is offensive, says Vega. That's why the East Harlem-born founder of the Caribbean Cultural Center in New York created this documentary, "to combat the negative images and give our own history of the beauty of our traditions."


When African slaves were brought to New World coasts, many of them were jailed, beaten or killed if they attempted to exercise their traditional spiritual practices. To this day many Afro-Caribbeans practice Catholicized versions of their native rituals in the forms of Voudun, Yoruba and the Santeria, of which Vega is an initiated priestess in the Lukumi ("my friend") tradition.


"Outsiders see Catholic images and are fooled into believing that Africans left their religions behind," says Vega. "But Africans were very clear that they were merely using these Catholic images to camouflage their African beliefs and practices."


So what's next for the mainstreaming and growing awareness of Afro-Caribbean/Latin American dances and rituals? Capoeira to sell the newest McDonald's salad? Santeria to launch the latest SUV? It's already happening, says Vega. Puerto Rico, Cuba, Brazil and other Latin American and Caribbean nations have begun commodifying the African-derived customs for tourism exploits.


"But just as these traditions survived the worst oppression and brutality known to mankind, they will survive this as well. We understand the line between popular and what has to remain sacred and private."