Dominican singer-songwriter Xiomara Fortuna, The Queen of Afro-Caribbean Fusion, showcases her latest album “Etaquetúves” (It is what you see), at Hostos Center in Mott Haven, The Bronx, on Saturday, April 1, 2023, at 8pm. $20. hostos.cuny.edu 🇩🇴
By “lo ko-Ki, ko Keith” Widyolar
SANTIAGO DE LOS CABALLEROS, Dominican Republic, March 30, 2023 ~ Xiomara Fortuna is an unusual Dominican artist in that she fully embraces her African roots, and her music really is a fusion of many Afro-Caribbean traditions (merengue, méringue, rumba, bomba, plena, cumbia, samba, tango, etc.). We are different branches with the same roots. Fortuna brings it all back together.
It is What you See
Xiomara has always been unapologetically about the Dominican Republic’s African Diaspora roots, but a 2021 heart attack that almost ended it all, made her decide to say whatever she has to say now. She is a fierce Caribbean woman.
The album’s title (It is what you see) is a clever multidimensional word play. Xiomara runs the title words together the way a French or Caribbean Creole speaker might do. She is saying both that she is a Dominican of the African Diaspora, and that you may or may not be able to understand her, depending on your cultural training. It’s not just what you see ~ it’s what you can see, or even are willing to see.
This is significant because even though we are all mixed and every country has some of every point of view; in general, Dominican identity is Spanish-speaking White Catholic in contrast to Kreyol or French-speaking Black Vodun in Haiti on the other side of the island of Hispaniola. It’s one of the sad legacies of the Colonial Era which continue to divide us. We have similar postcolonial problems in the United States, and around the world.
Before anyone gets excited, think of children who are all born innocent, and the many who experience the shock of learning that some people dislike them and are mean ~ for no good reason at all. Whatever was done in the past, the children don’t deserve this.
All humans spontaneously generate and respond to similar symbols, around the world and across time. Fortuna is running deep in the archetypes of the human psyche, which are the same for all of us. In the European Diaspora, we know these symbols through the work of Freud and Jung. They are universal.
Viajes = Journeys
Life in the African Diaspora, in fact all life, is a series of journeys, and that’s how the songs on “Etaquetúves” are expressed. She sings of Kalûnga, the watery boundary in the Yowa or Dikenga Cross, the Kongo cosmological diagram which beautifully describes the phases of life using the metaphor of the sun’s daily journey.
Kongo is one of the three African Diaspora cultures that rooted in the Americas. Kongo culture is from Central Africa. In the Americas, we’re all mixed together: Dahomey, Yoruba and Kongo. In the States, we just call it Yoruba because in Cuba, Yoruba traditions have absorbed the other cultures. With Indigenous, European and Arab influences, this is where Latin music and dance comes from.
Yoruba tradition even enters American popular culture as Br’er Rabbit, Bugs Bunny, and the gospel, ragtime and the blues, the root of the popular music and dances of the United States.
Somos Hijos Del Mar
In Cuba and Puerto Rico, there is a saying that we are children of the sea (somos hijos del mar). West Africa is the transition zone from the Sahara Desert to the rich grasslands and forests of Central Africa. The rivers that bring water, bring life, so water is sacred.
The African Diaspora was brought to the Americas across the sea.
We are mostly made of water. In fact to have a baby, a woman’s body creates her own inner sea of amniotic fluid. When her water breaks, we are born. A woman’s water is just like seawater, because life originally came from the sea.
So in many ways, we really are children of the sea.
The Great Journey
The old human traditions universally respect both life and death. The Kalûnga line represents the border between them, which became associated with the Atlantic Ocean. Africans knew that those who made the journey across it, never returned, so being kidnapped and taken away across the sea was a terrifying fate. It was a journey to the land of the dead.
The Journey of Life
Xiomara uses a vertical pipe in her videos and on stage for this album. It represents “tukula,” the transition from childhood into maturity. It is the peak of one’s life, when we are physically and reproductively strongest.
The Journey of Death
After maturity, we begin the long decline into death and cross the deep water again. The saying “dust to dust” is a reference to the endless recycling of the star dust from which we are all made.
The European Diaspora may be more familiar with Charon and the rivers Acheron and Styx which separate the worlds of the living and the dead in ancient Greek tradition, but it’s all the same thing. Interestingly, “Aché” (Acheron) in Cuban Yoruba is a reference to the life force.
Most of the old traditions don’t consider the world of the dead to be bad. It’s just the other side of life. In fact many human traditions see death as the beginning of new life. That’s important because if we don’t keep creating new life, it’s the end of all things. That’s why artists are so vital. They keep creating new ideas that give us inspiration and hope.
And there always is hope. It turns out there was life for the African Diaspora on the other side of the Kalûnga. It was very hard at first and we should never forget that. But what was born was the popular culture of the Americas. It turned out so beautiful.
A Personal Journey
I’m getting old, and in old age, you begin to see the world differently because you see your own end coming in a way the young cannot understand. Strange things have been happening to me my entire life. Like Xiomara, I have decided to go ahead and speak my truth. In fact, she reaffirms for me that it is the right thing to do. In the end, truth is all you have left.
I find comfort in the Yowa. Though I will eventually end up as a puddle on the ground, whatever is me will be recycled into something else. I hope it is good, loving, and inspiring.
I discovered the Kalûnga, just a month ago in Santo Domingo when I lit a candle for La Altagracia, the patron saint of the Dominican Republic. La Altagracia, Our Lady of Highest Grace, represents Colonial Spain, but in the Americas, most saints have an African Diaspora pair. I went looking for her pair and found Kalûnga. Since then, I’ve not been able to retrace my exact steps, because I wanted to see how La Altagracia led me to Kalûnga. I can’t find it, but however it happened, Her Highest Grace led me directly to Kalûnga.
I’m a very good Argentine tango dancer. Tango is a Europeanized version of an African communal tradition. I always wondered why the tango circle of dance is counterclockwise. In the tango, we mimic the sun’s journey across the heavens, and back around Mother Earth as described in the Yowa.
In Xiomara, I was surprised to see the Yowa again so soon, and for something I never heard of to suddenly show up three times in the third month of 2023, my 63rd year. The Trinity is an important part of Dominican identity. It’s also important in Yoruba tradition, and even my personal identity as a Caribbean, as a son of Eleguá.
OMG, just remembered how Yemayá and the waters of the Atlantic Ocean kept me in the Caribbean. Really. There is something going on here, but that’s another story.
In Santiago de los Caballeros (not far from where Fortuna was born), I’ve begun rereading Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” (1949). Campbell’s thesis is that humans do pretty much the same things around the world and across time. I read it at the beginning of my life in college. Now I’m reading it again from the other side of life.
The Yowa is there too, not in the Kongo context, but as a description of the hero’s psychological journey, the rites of passage: separation ~ initiation ~ return in the monomyth, the hero story that all cultures share.
It’s the story of Moses, the Jewish people, Christ, Muhammad, and Buddha. There’s a similar pre-contact Australian aboriginal story. It’s the story of the “Star Wars” movie. Now it’s the story of Xiomara Fortuna.
Once you learn to see it, you begin to see signs of the African Diaspora AND our common humanity everywhere. The Yowa has a cross in it. It is the symbol of Harlem Stage, a famous African Diaspora theater in Harlem that was converted from a waterworks. The Bantu and Abrahamic words that describe the divine: Yowa and Yahweh are strikingly similar. Most of us have been taught to see our differences, but we are far more alike than we are different. It’s because we are all human.
Xiomara Fortuna at Hostos Center
Go see Xiomara Fortuna at Hostos Center. Her music falls in the jazz, samba, and afrobeats frame and is really wonderful. You can hear the entire Latin world in it. The album is quite a journey. Like she says, it is what you see. Now is the perfect time to open your eyes to buena fortuna, in whatever way that makes sense to you. Dios te bendiga. ¡Aché! 🇩🇴
“Cada mañana me levanto
saludo al cielo y a mi diosa.”
“Every morning I wake up
and greet the sun and my goddess.”
Get tickets at hostos.cuny.edu
Thank you Hostos Center for sponsoring Latin music at New York Latin Culture Magazine!