Chris Ifatoye Theberge: “There are different dimensions of Ifa in New York City”
Is it not always nice to situate our guests within particular contexts that make their story accessible to us? The answer of course is yes and so we asked Chris to lead the way.
So what was growing up like for you, Chris?
Chris Theberge: I was born in Washington D.C. and raised internationally as the son of a U.S Ambassador. My early experiences as a teenage drummer allowed me to interact and perform with people in the countries in South America where my father served. From that time on the drum was a method for me to travel through time, society and culture. When I landed in New York City (NYC) in my 20’s I came across Cuban and Puerto Rican musicians who were doing incredible things with the drums. I was immediately captivated and my path deepened as I investigated the African roots of the instrument I was performing. I was fortunate to help to form the Groove Collective, a group of NYC jazz musicians from different backgrounds who went on to tour the world for a decade and received a Grammy Nomination – during this period in the early 90’s I began my travels to Cuba and Nigeria to study the conga and bata drumming systems.
Which gig would you say brings you very fond memories that will best capture your experience with the Groove Collective?
The experience of Groove Collective was that of learning and adventure. At that age, in our 20’s we felt invincible and did all sorts of extreme things to our bodies, like traveling daily for months on end with little sleep. For example 30 gigs and 40 flights in 30 days across Europe and lots of exploring and partying (some of us). It is the type of learning experience that one has when one travels and lives in close proximity with other people for extended periods. Add in the wildcard of us not having a single leader, so there were 10 very independent artistic spirits traversing the globe together and descending on towns to open minds and move bottoms. In the end our mission was to bring the musical melting pot of NYC to the world and get people to dance.
I have to say out of all the performances, some stand out for the locale -Mount Fuji Japan or Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, for instance, and yet others for the musical experiences including performing alongside some of our heroes who we such as James Brown or B.B King.
What attracted you to Yoruba culture and studies:
I grew up playing drums in the U.S and Latin America as a youngster and I developed a curiosity to learn more about the roots of the instrument that is the drum. This led me to New York City (NYC), then eventually to Cuba and the more I studied the more I learned about the cultural aspects surrounding the instruments. In Cuba, the answer to many of my questions to the elders and drum pioneers inevitably ended with “Esto viene de Africa” (This comes from Africa) and at some point, I decided I must go to Africa to learn more about the culture and the music that the drum was central to.
What has been your journey with Ifa, what was your first experience in Sagamu like?
I was first in Sagamu accompanying researcher Dr. Amanda Villepastour from UK who was doing research on the Bata drumming families in Nigeria. During that first visit I met my late Baba Ifa Chief Ifagbade Oduniyi, the Araba of Emuren/Batoro as well as Taiwo Abimbola – the son of Baba Wande Abimbola who was installed as Àwísẹ Awo Àgbàyé in 1981 by the Ooni of Ife, Ọba Okunade Sijuade. It was a very challenging time because I was there during the events of 9/11 and I was isolated from my family and my people during those very difficult days for America. I received Isefa, or partial initiation into Ifa, in Oyo at the Abimbola compound in September of 2001. During my visit to record and interview the Bata drummers of Sagamu, I met Chief Ifagbade and we developed a very strong connection. I pledged to him to return to do my initiation into Ifa tradition with him at some point in the future. I returned 3 years later and completed my initiation with him and also travelled to Erin Osun and Iseyin to study and record the royal Bata drumming families. Ifa has served to broaden my view and understanding of life and my place and role, as well as to connect me more deeply to my drumming.
Pictures from Chief Ifagbade remembrance festival Feb 9 2008
April 27th 2007 Chris wrote a message all his friends announcing the passing of Chief Ifagbade
It is with great sadness and the heaviest of hearts that I bring you the news that my dear friend and teacher the Araba Chief Ifagbade Oduniyi of Sagamu has suffered a stroke and passed on suddenly to the ancestral realm. To many he was a great father, brother, teacher, healer, friend and religious leader. It is a devastating loss and the hole he has left behind will be quite big, but we must complete the work he has started. He was an example to us all – a man of deep compassion, generosity, humility, honesty and knowledge. He was a prince among men and it was a great blessing to have known him.
what important lessons have you learned along the way
I would say the single most important lesson I learned was that of drumming as a language – prior to traveling to Nigeria I had not experienced the idea that the drum could be used to express literature and transmit oral information. That was a fundamental change in my view of the instrument I would dedicate my life to. Another great lesson I learned was the idea that the energy in traditional society flows to the elders. The elders are celebrated and valued and supported in Yoruba traditional culture. That stood in direct contrast to my experience in the U.S, where all the energy and focus is on youth and everyone wants to be young. When I returned to the U.S. from my travels, the idea of putting our elders in nursing homes seemed very uncivilized compared to my experience in Yoruba traditional culture.
To a Nigerian not conversant with the state of Ifa in New York, how best will you describe the community
I would say it is diverse, dynamic and growing. There are various different dimensions of Ifa in New York City. There is the Cuban/Puerto Rican Santeria-Ifa community and the West African traditional-based Ifa community and they are continuously interconnected and influencing one another and welcoming newer generations of descendants and outsider/newcomers alike. The advent of the internet and social media has truly been an accelerant. Some of the Babalawos I met in my early travels to Southwestern Nigeria were very remote and disconnected from our western culture and values and that has changed completely. I was compelled to travel initially because information and knowledge was hard to come by — that is not the case now. However, nothing can replace going to Africa, to Nigeria, to smell the earth, interact with the people and be immersed in the culture. There is nothing like on this earth like Yoruba culture and it cannot be explained to someone who has not been there. Unless of course someone has a framework of understanding of the life of traditional/indigenous peoples.
To give an added perspective to Ifa in different parts of the United States of America, Ms. Stephanie Escoto, who is a fine artist and works in a Mental Health Office, obliged us with what Ifa means.
“Ifa in Miami, Florida, is most commonly referred to as Santeria. More commonly practiced by the Cubans and Cuban descendants who’ve migrated from Cuba seeking refuge from political and social strife. More recently, there has been a surge in the practice of Ifa from different cultures who live in Miami. Especially from places such as the Dominicans to Puerto Ricans to even European families.
It is thought different from its original culture, Yoruba, the practice of Santeria remembers its ancestors and their beliefs. Its pantheon consist of 7 Orishas: Eleggua, Oshun, Yemaya, Chango, Obatala, Oggun, San Lázaro (also known as Babaluaye). The practice of Santeria also includes the spirits, Eegun, who walk with us and aid us on our spiritual paths. Ceremonies and rituals take place throughout the city of Miami and Hialeah. You can identify the believers by their beads, headdresses, clothing, and way of greeting each other. Parties and celebrations in the name of the Orishas and Eegun can be heard for miles, especially on the day of San Lazarus on December 17th. The streets of Hialeah are adorned with purple flowers and gifts for the Orisha at his shrine on 16 Ave. Though miles away from Nigeria, Miami is enriched with cultural remembrance of the Ifa faith.”
To most Nigerians reading these perspectives, it may be new knowledge that what is taken for granted in the South Western part of the country is taken seriously elsewhere. To better illustrate this let us turn the space over to Ms. Nicole Peterson
“During preparations for my initiation in Nigeria, the Yoruba Babalawo in charge of the ceremony stopped midway of the divination he was doing and exclaimed, “Ah! This is the perfect Orisa for this person! Who told her to get this Orisa?!” To which my American Babalawo smirked and replied. “We did….we divined for her before coming here.”
So are there limitations in the practice of Ifa as a non-Western belief system?
“The limitations to practicing Ifa religion in America include the language barrier, and the lack of certain traditional ingredients required for rites and rituals. Many practitioners memorize liturgical chants and songs in Yoruba language sometimes without fully understanding the deep meanings. In terms of obtaining ingredients for rituals, many African shops in the area service the community by providing products imported from Yorubaland. However, the language and the lack of traditional ritual products are two reasons why many initiates feel safer traveling to Yorubaland for initiation to ensure that their initiation is done correctly. Typically, one travels with a trustworthy Ifa priest who has an established connection with Ifa priests in Yorubaland. The Ifa priest who takes practitioners to be initiated serves as an intermediary to safeguard against any type of exploitation, advocates for the initiate’s comfort and safely, and he is proficient enough to know if the initiation is done the right way.”
To buttress what Chris Ifatoye Theberge told you “Ifa community is New York and surrounding cities can be estimated around a few thousand practitioners, and growing. It is one of the largest Ifa/Orisa communities in the United States. Ifa worshippers span across age, ethnic background, social standing and professions. There are Ifa worshippers in New York who are in the political field, science and medicine, educators, and just about every professional area imaginable.
Most practitioners were raised in Christian households. Only a small percentage inherited Ifa/Orisa religion from their parents. For many of us, it was a search for our African roots and the need to have gods in our image that led us to Ifa.
I must let you know that there are sub-sections within the Ifa/Orisa community in New York. There are those who practice Ifa based on a Latin/Cuban lineage. Those practitioners mainly travel to Cuba for Ifa initiations and are mostly of Latin heritage. Their practice is considered to be Lukumi. Then there are traditionalists. Traditionalists identify most with the Yoruba practice from Nigeria. They travel to Yorubaland for their Ifa initiations and are closely aligned with Ifa priests in Yorubaland.
It is important to note that Ifa and Orisa are sometimes viewed as two separate systems – whereby some practitioners are heavy on Orisa worship while others are heavy on specifically Ifa worship. Orisa initiations are frequently done in New York. However, as far as I know, there are no Ifa initiations being done in New York.
Although it’s a growing trend, there are only a few Ifa temples in New York. There are however, many houses or ‘iles,’ as they are called. Awọn Ile are mostly involved in Orisa worship. The head of the house is usually a priest or priestess of Orisa and are considered to be godparents of the members of that house.
The function of the godparent is to guide the spiritual journey of the individual. Some godparents even become intimately involved in the godchild’s personal life and so a familial relationship can evolve. Godparents do divination, spiritual work, and rites such as initiations. They also advise members of their ile on how to properly care for their Orisa. If a godparent is not qualified to perform any of those responsibilities, they then take the godchild to another priest to perform those services. The godchild pays for all spiritual services. Based on the type of ile, members also congregate to worship in ritual ceremony. One of the more common ritual ceremonies is called a bembe. A bembe is usually dedicated to one particular Orisa but sometimes it can be done for multiple Orisa at the same time. One of the benefits of being a part of a house is sharing the cost of hosting a bembe or other rituals, and rituals to Ifa and Orisa must be done regularly.”
As it is our practice on these pages, we start with a main act and then bring in other voices to add to our knowledge of the central theme.
To those who may appreciate putting this subject matter in proper context the website of Rebecca McKee states that, “[t]he discipline of Religion examines diverse cultures and the ways in which each has answered questions of existence, meaning, and purpose. Scholars of religion use an interdisciplinary methodology to understand religious systems, including sacred text, space, ritual, lifestyle, and organization.”
McKee is not alone in helping to answer the question of why study or show interest in religion at all when it is so subjective and personalized. Mbiti (1969) had earlier argued “[a] study of these religious systems is, therefore, ultimately a study of the peoples themselves in all the complexities of both traditional and modern life”
Our guest today appears to be balancing his love for secular music with his quest for a spiritual essence. Ifa is not fetish like most Christians have been socialized to believe. Hope you enjoyed our guests for this week. If you did it will do no harm if you let us know. So long!