Songs Help Cubans Trace Roots to Sierra Leone

The Ganga-Longoba of Perico, Cuba, have sung the same chants for decades – passing the traditions on from generation to generation.

Until now, the singers had little knowledge of their ancestral roots – or how the songs arrived in their community.

Yet thanks to the work of University of Sydney historian Dr Emma Christopher, Cuba’s Ganga have been able to trace their origins back to a single remote village in Sierra Leone, through the careful examination of their songs.

It is believed that ancestors of the Afro-Cuban community were sold into slavery approximately 170-years ago, bringing their chants – thought to be songs of healing, with them to Cuba.

Dr Christopher’s first breakthrough came after a group in Liberia saw her footage of a Ganga ceremony and recognized elements of their own local ritual, inspiring her two-year search into the songs’ origins.

Her findings eventually led her to the village of Mokpangumba, where locals rapidly identified the near-extinct Banta language; once belonging to an indigenous group torn apart by the slave trade.

“When I first filmed the Ganga-Longoba, I believed their ceremonies were a mixture of many different ethnic groups," explains Christopher “I had no idea that a large number of Ganga songs would come from just one village. I think that's extremely unusual”.

Villagers identified nine songs in total after watching footage from the Perico community, despite changes to lyrics from time and distance, claiming “They are we” in acceptance of the Cubans as family.

For the Ganga themselves, the findings have erased many doubts ; proving that their heritage lies not in Congo as previously thought, but in Southern Sierra Leone.

Since the discovery, members of the Ganga-Longoba have visited Mokpangumba in further attempts to uncover their roots. Their journey has been captured in a documentary by the Australian researcher entitled They Are We; featuring emotional scenes of the two groups sharing ancient musical traditions and welcoming their new family ties.

Spanning more than three centuries, approximately one million slaves were shipped to Cuba for transatlantic trade purposes. The majority were trafficked against their will in the early 19th Century, becoming laborers on the Island’s sugar plantations.

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