London Lucumi Choir: Iya – Songs for the Mothers

Album review by Dave Willetts

The London Lucumi Choir is a community project founded 17 years ago by the charismatic Daniela de Armas, a Londoner who is a musician and practitioner of the Cuban religion known as Santería. The choir celebrates in song the culture and music of that tradition.

The word Lucumi is said to come from the phrase ‘Oluku mi’ which means ‘my friend’, a greeting people of Yoruba descent (West Africa) used in Cuba to address each other. It is how they identified themselves and identified their language which became a uniquely Cuban version of Yoruba. Lucumi also refers to practitioners of Santería.

Daniela explains “the songs from the Lucumi tradition are an expression of the Afro-Cuban branch of Orisha worship. However, the songs have also been on a journey in a cultural sphere especially with the formation of the Conjunto Folklorico de Cuba. The songs you could say, are part of the national Cuban identity. They appear in popular songs and art forms in present day Cuba. However, it is a living, breathing tradition which is always in a state of change. For example, the bata drum rhythms are played much faster these days.”

This new album, the third by the Choir, is dedicated to the strong feminine aspects of Santería – a deliberate counter to our patriarchal society and a clear connection to the female ‘orishas’ (goddesses) such as Yemaya and Oshun. The album’s title – ‘Iya’ – means ‘mother’ in Yoruba and resonates as a vital connecting element throughout the album.

While songs and rhythms transported from Africa to Cuba more than 200 years ago are still sung and played there, the same songs are sung in Brazil and Trinidad. In this spirit, Daniela has introduced sounds of contemporary London into the Choir’s sound and the diversity of the members adds to the unique flavour of the group.

The inclusive choice of musical styles emphasises the shared elements of Yoruba culture across the world – there are songs from spiritualism, songs accompanied by the sacred Cuban bata drums, songs from acapella ‘bembe’ tradition, and songs which include Brazilian ‘Candomblé’ rhythms and chants. The singing and playing throughout is wonderful, Daniela herself has a fabulous voice and the choir and drummers provide a strong and assured accompaniment. One of the joys of the album is the Trinidadian singer Sheena Ajibola Richardson who brings not only a profound knowledge of Yoruba song but a fabulous spirit, her unique style adding new life to ancient melodies.

For Daniela, the choir is first and foremost a vehicle to get people to sing, connect, enjoy harmonies and grow in confidence. This goal is evident throughout ‘Iya’ and the album is a tribute to Daniela’s commitment and energy. Anyone new to Cuban Orisha culture will discover a perfect introduction here and opportunities to sing along and dance to this joyous music.

Download and stream the music of London Lucumi Choir