The Cuban Lexicon Lucumí and African Language Yorùbá: Musical and Historical Connections

Reference work entry


Lucumí’s vocabulary is strongly related to Yorùbá in southwest Nigeria due to a historical connection stemming from the transatlantic slave trade. It is variously described as an Afro-Cuban language still spoken by contemporary religious devotees, a Cuban dialect of Yorùbá, derived from a mixture of Yorùbá dialects in southwest Nigeria, an archaic form of Yorùbá that has preserved the Nigerian past in Cuba, and/or corrupted or incomplete Yorùbá. The word “lexicon,” however, rarely appears in Lucumí portrayals. Since inadequate linguistic research was undertaken in Cuba while African vernaculars were still spoken outside of ritual and musical contexts in the first decades of the twentieth century, Lucumí explanations are frequently highly presumptuous or speculative. Much contemporary research lacks scholarly rigor and has relied uncritically on anecdotal evidence collected from selected field respondents, whose narratives are frequently compromised by religious identity politics within a hierarchical and secretive spiritual tradition. A growing body of literature about Lucumí has been little challenged and continues to be uncritically recycled into new scholarship and the religious community itself.

Along with critiquing existing literature about uttered Lucumí, this chapter draws on my ethnomusicological field work in Nigeria and Cuba since 1998 to argue that Lucumí has been a lexicon – a memorized corpus of words and phrases largely devoid of syntax – dependent on musical and ritual performance and written sources for almost a hundred years. While much Lucumí analysis has relied solely on transcribed text without any regard for the sonic dimensions of pitch, rhythm, and amplitude of uttered, sung, and drummed texts, I assert that musical structure can be more enduring than linguistic content. By drawing on empirical historical evidence and illustrating my argument with analyses of my field data, published song texts, and commercial recordings, I demonstrate how musical analysis can be harnessed as a powerful method of determining the vestigial relationship between the Lucumí lexicon in Cuba and the Yorùbá language in Africa.


Lucumí Yorùbá Nigeria Cuba Orisha Music and language 


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The School of MusicCardiff UniversityCardiffUK

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