Women and Water: Connections in Caribbean Music and Spirituality
que he vencido,
porque he sido vencida,
que mi mujer de aire,
que mi mujer de agua,
será mujer de tierra
será mujer de fuego”
that I have vanquished,
because I have been vanquished,
I vaguely understand
that my air woman,
that my water woman,
will be an earth woman,
a fire woman”
—Mujer de Aire, Mujer de Agua (1982) by Gloria Díaz
Women and water—both have come to stand for life. Many of us are told they are the givers and sustainers of life, or perhaps the most essential ingredients for existence. But how did we come to this understanding? What are its impacts on women’s lives and their status in society? And why does the association between women and water seem to remain over time and across cultures?
At the 2023 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Memorias de Agua: An Evening of Film, Dance, and Music featured the film Daughter of the Sea, Puerto Rican music and dance group Bomba Yemayá, and Afro-Cuban singer Bobi Céspedes with her band. Through different media and musical styles, all of them celebrated the spiritual awakening and knowledge residing in water and in devotees’ interactions with this element. United in the Yoruba- and Catholic-derived faith Regla de Ocha, or Santería, but exploring different creative traditions, Memorias de Agua both reaffirmed and challenged the women-water connection.
Throughout the world, women and water are connected via resilient and durable symbols. In various Western mythologies, we find feminine creatures like water nymphs and mermaids. In the Caribbean in particular, various female spiritual figures relate to water. There’s Atabey, the Carib/Taíno goddess of the sea, the moon, and fertility; Oshún, the orisha (deity) of fresh waters, sweetness, and sensuality; and María Lionza, the queen of the espiritismo marialioncero religion in Venezuela who is known as the goddess of water eyes or protector of the waters, goddess of the harvest. The main figure for Memorias de Agua was Yemayá, the Santería orisha of fertility, motherhood, and sea waters. These figures suggest that fertility is the shared characteristic between women and water and also what makes them essential for life.
Yet, this connection is not only a spiritual and symbolic one. There is also a sociocultural and material reality in which we can observe the proximity of women and water. Throughout history, women have become responsible or are considered apt for several water-related activities: cooking, water fetching, washing, cleaning, and cultivating. In certain contexts, we tend to idealize women who adopt so-called “water-like” traits like fluidity and fertility, while men embrace “fire-like” qualities like transformative, even destructive, power. As a result, societies tend to limit the range of activities and roles considered appropriate for women and tacitly impose standards of femininity.
Musically speaking, metaphors and stories about women and water are present in song lyrics, whether they reference mythology, religious devotion, or daily life. Several music scholars, such as Peter Cooke and Laurence Libin, have noted that a number of women-centered musical practices around the globe happen in bodies of water or use water in the making of musical instruments. In some traditions, women generate sounds directly from water, like Cameroonian liquindi, Vanuatian ëtëtung, and Venezuelan tambor de agua. In other traditions, water modifies the timbre or sound quality of drums, like the Malian dyi dunu or the assakhalebo played by Tuareg women in Niger.
Although women may dominate musical traditions connected to water, there are many other genres or roles within certain traditions from which their participation is discouraged or banned. In Cuban Regla de Ocha, for example, it is acceptable for women to play in güiro ensembles but not batá drums ensembles. Both ensembles are used for worship in ritual contexts, including in reverence to the water deity Yemayá, and women are welcome to sing in either of them. The prohibition is uniquely for the batá drums.
“Central to female batá taboos is the belief that women are irreconcilable with consecrated batá because they menstruate,” percussionist Vicky Jassey writes for Folklife Magazine. “Menstrual taboos are not unique to Santería; they show up in Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, and Buddhism, as well as other African religions systems that journeyed to Cuba such as Palo Monte from the Congo region and Abakuá from southeastern Nigeria and Cameroon.”
Musician Elizabeth Sayre, who plays percussion in Bobi Céspedes’ band, has also studied the exclusion of women from the batá practice. She identifies several rationales given by members of the community, including:
- Añá (the orisha of the drums) is a feminine force, therefore a woman playing the drum creates an improper imbalance of gendered energies.
- The batá drums belong to the orisha Changó, the epitome of virility, and a woman player cannot enact the masculinity appropriate to this situation.
- Women are too susceptible to spirit possession to be given the responsibility of playing (men who possess easily are also forbidden to play).
- Feminine energy is of the earth, while masculine energy is of the heavens. Since the drums are used to call heavenly energy (orisha) to earth, men are the appropriate ones to do the calling.
How can women who are drummers and Regla de Ocha devotees reconcile their desire to honor and worship orishas through music? The acceptable answer is they can play shekeré (a shaker made from a calabash gourd), sing, or dance. However, dissatisfaction with the prohibitions has increased, and we see more women engaging in the batá drumming tradition. A noticeable example is the group Obini Batá, based in Cuba, composed only of women who perform traditional Afro-Cuban genres through dance, percussion, and singing.
During the 2023 Folklife Festival, we saw bataleras (female batá drummers) Elizabeth Sayre and Ami Gastón play with Céspedes’ band. Although, generally speaking, women are still not allowed to play batá in ritual contexts, they are carving an important opening through public performances like Memorias de Agua. Their drumming is a statement of female empowerment—made even more striking when considering that, in playing for a female orisha like Yemayá, they are exposing many devotees’ contradicting attitudes toward women and ideas of femininity. On one hand, Regla de Ocha honors sacred female figures, while on the other, its rules hinder the artistic and spiritual aspirations of women. Not even for female orishas who embody water-like qualities are women free to play the batá drums in all contexts.
The Puerto Rican bomba tradition has no such prohibitions, but men tend to dominate this area of performance. Even without any female percussionists at the Festival, Bomba Yemayá’s intervention centers the female creative voice and is thoroughly grounded in a spiritual approach to bomba music and dance. According to dancer and leader Mar Cruz, having her own group and realizing her own artistic vision had been a seemingly distant but persistent dream. As Cruz tells the story, when Yemayá inquired about her goals and wishes, she told the orisha about her idea to create an ensemble. So when the group was formed, Cruz did not hesitate to honor her with the name Bomba Yemayá.
The story Bomba Yemayá brought to Memorias de Agua is one about renewal, healing, and gaining clarity through spiritual knowledge. On stage, in successive songs, they evoked “little angels,” or deceased children, dancing and departing peacefully after their baquiné (Afro-Puerto Rican ritual of transition for their souls); the curandero (folk healer) Dr. Güenaga; invocations to orishas in lucumí (the Yoruba-derived language for sacred rituals created in Cuba); good and bad spirits; Santa Marta La Dominadora, a deity of the Dominican 21 Divisions religion; and all the ancestors. This was a gathering of multiple worlds.
While representing the town of Loíza, Puerto Rico, Bomba Yemayá also sails the waters of the Caribbean Sea tracing our ties. Their performance touched upon Cuban, Dominican, and Puerto Rican culture to give us a bigger message about the Afro-diasporic Caribbean. The water that divides these places can also connect them. The sea waters of Yemayá keep these histories alive and in circulation. When water as a metaphor signifies movement and fluidity, instead of prescribing or attaching qualities to female bodies, women like Cruz find a source of power and creativity from within their own spiritual and cultural traditions.
The two musical groups offer examples of how the women-water connection can limit female agency and contribute to an ideal of femininity that many women are not interested in adopting. It is also selective: sometimes it is enforced, and sometimes it is downplayed by other cultural elements that preserve social orders or roles. The women-water connection might not be interpreted consistently or in every aspect of life, and it is certainly not the only element to consider when assessing women’s participation in musical traditions. But it is pervasive and it does impact women’s lives in varied ways.
The creative approaches shown in Memorias de Agua shed light on potential openings for African and Afro-diasporic women to assert themselves and to creatively denounce or circumvent the limitations of the women-water connection. Bataleras in Bobi Céspedes’s band bring attention to the gendered prohibitions regarding batá drumming, sparking conversation and perhaps a more definitive change. Bomba Yemayá teaches us that their deep connection with water is something to be embraced as a spiritual, historical, and creative potentiality.
Looking forward, could an awareness of water-inspired drumming and dancing from women across the diaspora foster a network of knowledge, sorority, and solidarity? Could women use these practices as a way to intervene and resignify the negative aspects of the women-water connection? Artists like Bobi Céspedes and Bomba Yemayá are already broadening traditions to find out.
Vicky Mogollón Montagne was the program assistant for the Creative Encounters: Living Religions in the U.S. program at the 2023 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. She is a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology at the University of Texas at Austin and is an alumna of the National Museum of the American Latino ’s Latino Museum Studies Program.
This article received federal support from the Latino Initiatives Pool, administered by the National Museum of the American Latino.