It’s the biggest religion you’ve never heard of. But unlike the Abrahamic religions, Orisa worship is an organic lifestyle and spiritual practice which revolves around ancestral elemental forces. Originally developed in West Africa, where it is also known as Yoruba and Ifa, Orisa came to the New World with the African human cargo transported on slave ships. There, it developed further into variants such as Lucemi, Condomble, Voudun and Santeria, and was often integrated into the imposed religion of Christianity, where Orisas were syncretized with Christian saints. Today, the Orisha tradition links places like Cuba, Trinidad, Haiti, and Brazil with Afro-Caribbean cultures in New Orleans, Miami and New York, as well as in its original home of Nigeria.
Orisa sacred music has long been a part of African, Latin, and Hispanic culture, and there are Orisa-affirming festivals all over the world. But until this weekend, there had never been an Orisa-themed festival in Oakland. That all changes with the Orisa Urban World Festival, a two-day event which kicks off Friday night at Oakstop with “Oro Lati Enu Awon Agba: When the Elders Speak,” a panel discussion of Ifa elders which also features musical performances by Zion Trinity, Charlotte Hill O’Neal & Awon Ohun Omnira, an African marketplace, and DJ Kobie Quashie.
On Saturday, the location shifts to the Uptown Nightclub, and features performances by Afro-Cuban singer and Lucumi priestess Bobi Cespedes, vocal harmony group Zion Trinity, urban world music artist WolkHawkJaguar, reggae-hip-hop fusion group Prosperity Movement, neo-soul vocalist Osunfemi Wanbi Njeri, former Flipsyde emcee Jinho “The Piper” Ferreira, and Afrocentric singer-songwriter Sistah IMiNAH Orisabukola.
“Orisa worship is a way of integrating the energy of the cosmos, the power of nature, the history of human civilization, and our individual and communal inheritance into a practice that engages our creativity and aligns us with our chosen destinies” — Luisah Teish
It’s a truly impressive lineup, and one which connects the spiritual and rhythmic practices of African-American and Afro-Caribbean culture with their elemental roots, through both contemporary and traditional forms.
Because something like this has never happened before in Oakland – a city known for its love of Afrocentric culture as well as its large black population – Oakulture thought it would be appropriate to ask the performers themselves to describe the significance of the event and explain what Orisa means to them.
According to Obafemi Origunwa, “Orisa lifestyle is sacred science, codified into day to day life. By aligning your life with the divine principles that govern the universe and the natural world, you learn to practice small acts that have a big impact on your life and the lives of those you’re destined to serve.”
Ifa priestess and storyteller Luisah Teish adds, “Orisa worship is a way of integrating the energy of the cosmos, the power of nature, the history of human civilization, and our individual and communal inheritance into a practice that engages our creativity and aligns us with our chosen destinies.”
While Orisa is an established practice, many people are still unfamiliar with ritual-mythic traditions. Origunwa says attendees should be aware that “òrìsà is the natural path. Everyone has ancestors. None of us sent ourselves into the world. We are all here to continue the missions handed down from our family lineages.”
Teish further elaborates: “First they must ask themselves whether their presence here is a response to a deep calling or a mere curiosity. If it is a mere curiosity, there is a lot of material online (a lot of it is pure trash) that they can access to entertain themselves. But if the attendees are impelled by ancestral calling to further investigate this path, I recommend that they connect with these or other elders/teachers who can perform divination, connect them with their ancestors, provide materials for study and guide them on a path of spiritual growth and destiny fulfillment.”
Unsurprisingly, there are many misconceptions about Orisa. Perhaps the biggest is that it is evil, or demonic. These misconceptions, Teish says, “were based on Eurocentric, Christian interpretations of our traditions as uncivilized, violent, and ineffective. Through the blessing of enlightenment, those notions are daily being disproven and dispelled.” However, she adds, “Some people fail to realize that Orisha are living entities-energies with real power and consciousness that is both receptive and responsive to human interaction.”
Origunwa notes that “people tend to fear what they do not understand. Because òrìsà tradition is so deeply embedded into Yoruba culture, which few people [in America] have been exposed to, it is convenient to project one’s fears onto practices, images and ideas that seem so foreign at first glance.”
Charlotte O’Neal aka Mama C also weighs in here: “many people look at African traditional spiritual paths in a somehow negative light, even going so far as to relate it to some form of ‘witchcraft’…This is so very obviously because of the brainwashing that continues in so many communities around the continent from the majority religions and missionaries from back in the day to present.”
One of the things the Orisa Urban World Festival hopes to clarify is the symbiotic relationship between spiritual and cultural tradition. As Origunwa says, “What we call arts are actually sacred disciplines, from the indigenous perspective. Poetry, music, dance and visual arts are all essential elements of the practice. They blend seamlessly together during rituals, ceremonies and festivals, as expressions of the òrìsà themselves. The arts reveal spiritual values, according to the will of the òrìsà.”
Teish adds that ancient traditions such as storytelling are indeed relevant in these modern times, while the purpose of the cultural arts “is to awaken and nurture the inherited genius each of us received from the Universe through the surviving intelligence of the ancestors. When we express that genius through the arts we affect people and things at an emotional-cellular level that goes beyond mere intellect and helps the person to experience a direct transmission of energy and wisdom to manifest transformation.”
“Oakland is a lei line for spiritual development… Also, Oakland needs Orisha’s healing energy to address the challenges of poverty, violence, and pollution” — Luisah Teish
Bringing Orisa to Oakland is both intentional and significant, Teish says. “Oakland is a lei line for spiritual development. In the past we have looked to Cuba, Brazil, Haiti and places outside the U.S. (save New Orleans which is really a culturally Caribbean city inside the U.S.). We now have enough initiated priests in U.S. cities like New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago, etc. to begin to manifest an African-American expression of our inherited genius. Also, Oakland needs Orisha’s healing energy to address the challenges of poverty, violence, and pollution.”
Having previously attended global events such as the Orisa World Congress in Nigeria, WolfHawkJaguar relates that the decision to bring an Orisa festival to Oakland was actually made by the Orisas themselves. “This is ancestor work. It’s what they called for and we give thanks they trusted us to carry out their wishes.” He goes on to note that the goal of the event is “to spread love, peace, prosperity and positive progressive universal vibes through our creations, giving thanks to our ancestors, our head, and our Orisa.”
For more information, or to buy tickets, click here.