Finding Their Roots!

Slave trade separated families and destroyed communities all across Africa.  Forced to travel across the seas, these “stolen people” also had to forsake their rich African culture preserved for generations through music, dance and oral story-telling traditions, leaving behind their cultural heritage.   Recently, I read an amazing article about a small community of Cubans from the Gangá-Longobá ethnic group who, through music and dance passed down from their grandparents and great-grandparents, have been able to trace their ancestral roots back to a small village in Sierra Leone.  

A professor at the University of Sidney, Dr. Emma Christopher, spent two years traveling throughout Africa trying to place the origins of a distinct collection of Afro-Cuban songs.  In a small village in Sierra Leone’s Upper Banta Chiefdom, a number of the Cuban songs and one of their dances were identified by villagers as part of an initiation rite of the now-defunct Menda secret society.    Although neither the Upper Banta people nor the Cubans currently speak the Banta language, both communities on opposite sides of the Atlantic sang in the same ancient dialect.  The elders of the village remembered their ancestors’ stories of “stolen people” and recognized the familiar Cuban songs as their own.   The rest is a new history. 

Last winter, four Cuban musicians were able to travel to the tiny village of Mokepie in Sierra Leone where they met Mama Lucy Amara, the last head of the Menda Society.  The African villagers and the Cuban musicians sang their ancient Banta songs and danced together, declaring each other family.  A documentary film called They Are We was made of this reunion and plans are underway for future exchanges.  The proud Gangá-Longobá Cubans have found their roots at last.

A happy ending to a tragic beginning, this reunion is a perfect example of how music, dance and the arts can preserve a culture and bridge continents.  Reflecting on some of the rarely-heard international music and dance performances World Music/CRASHarts presents ­­- I often wonder how many audience members, with or without cultural ties to other nationalities, find an unexplained familiarity in the music and a sense of coming home to their roots.   If you have such a story to share, we would love to hear it!

For more information on the Cubans’ visit to Sierra Leone:


-Cheryl Weber, Director of Development