Divided Family: Through Music, Cubans Trace Their Roots To Sierra Leone
It is often said that music has the power to bring people together. That sentiment is definitely an understatement when it comes to the Afro-Cubans community Ganga-Longoba of Perico.
Cuba’s Ganga people have been singing the same African chants for generations, but it wasn’t until an Australian researcher took interest in the songs, that they were able to trace their chants to a remote village in Sierra Leone, 170 years after the slave trade.
“When I first filmed the Ganga-Longoba, I believed their ceremonies were a mixture of many different ethnic groups,” says historian Emma Christopher, of Sydney University. “I had no idea that a large number of Ganga songs would come from just one village. I think that’s extremely unusual,” she says.
After tracing their roots back to Sierra Leone, four Cubans made the trip to the African country to delve more into their history. Christopher captured the moment for the documentary They Are We.
"Cuba was cut off at a time when other nations in the Americas were going through black pride and fighting for some justice for what happened to their ancestors," says Dr. Christopher, who points out that the island’s 1959 revolution declared racism ‘solved’. That left a lot of Afro-Cubans adrift, not knowing how to celebrate where they came from and be proud of it," she says.
Whilst many Cubans of Spanish descent have rushed to seek out their ancestry—and passports—Afro-Cubans have been far less anxious to do the same. Organizing a reunion for the divided “family” wasn’t easy given restrictions on traveling from Cuba at the time, and limited resources. But eventually, four Cubans did make their ancestors’ voyage in reverse - to Sierra Leone.
“When I opened my mouth to sing, they just stood there staring,” Elvira Fumero recalls of her arrival in Mokpangumba. “Then it was like an explosion. They started to sing the responses, and dance with me. And I knew then that this was where the Ganga came from,” she says, smiling.
For Alfredo Duquesne, visiting Sierra Leone changed everything.
"It was as if I’d just left the previous weekend. I touched the soil and thought: ‘This is it. I’ve come back,’" he says, describing himself now as ‘at peace’. "At last I know where I come from," Alfredo says. "I’m not a stranger anymore."