Casabe: Women's Songs of Healing

Juan Martínez, Eulalia "Lala" Castillo, Ernestina "Neta" Castillo, Julio "Sueñito Alvarez (from left to right) sing traditional Garífuna songs of healing. Triunfo de la Cruz; June 1998. Photo credit: Drew Irwin.

Listen to Garífuna traditional women's songs!

Jacqueline Wiora Sletto
Contributor, Garífuna World

Yucca: A Cultural Legacy
The Garífuna communities zealously conserve their art, music, handicrafts, and religious beliefs. Altogether, they constitutes a very unique way of life. One activity, however, is distinguished as the very essence of Garífuna culture: the preparation of yucca bread. This dry bread, known as areba in Garífuna, is prepared with the root of the yucca. This plant is cultivated in the tropics as alimentation and is a legacy of the Carib Indians. The Carib so greatly appreciated the yucca root that they originally named their language, "ka.ri,funa," which means, "the clan of the yucca." Subsequently, the Garífunas derived their name from the same word, meaning "the people that eat yucca."

A Woman's Cartharis
The preparation of the yucca bread is a long process that begins with the collection of the roots. Generally speaking, various women or children rise before dawn and head to the fields. The fields are frequently situated in the middle of the humid jungle, between eight and fifteen kilometers in distance from the villages. Under the shadows of the palm and guanacaste trees, they collect between 18 to 20 kilograms of yucca root. The roots are carried in baskets over their heads. They arrive in town just in time to avoid the oppressive mid-day sun of the tropics. The women and children protect themselves from the sun inside elevated houses constructed over piles (pilotes). There, they peal and wash the roots. They grate the roots over the wooden boards embedded with sharp stones.

The monotony of the operation is accompanied with songs in which the women meditate or reflect on the sadness of life. The songs are sad, but their chanting makes the work more pleasant, explains Garífuna painter, Benjamin Nicholas. Nicholas frequently employs the making of yucca bread as a theme for his paintings. This observation seems contradictory, but it is possible that these melancholy songs serve as a catharsis for a people whose life has not been easy.

The songs cease when the grinding of the yucca ends. The women take up a more agreeable activity: filtering the yucca pulp (pulpa) through a hand-made, two-meter long, cylindrical bag (ruguma). The bag is filled with the yucca gratings and is hung from a branch. It is stretched by the counterweight of heavy stones. The pressure forces the poisonous liquid and the starch found in the root to be extracted. The remaining white power is left over night to dry. It is later sifted.

The yucca pieces that do not pass through the sieve are utilized to make wine. The starch is used to cook or to wash clothes. Many Garífuna families now resort to modern electrical equipment for grinding the yucca roots. However, the process of preparing cassava bread continues to be a mystical link with their ancestors. This belief in the power of their ancestors is another characteristic of the Garífuna culture.

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Credit: Jacqueline Wiora Sletto, excerpt from "Los fuertes lazos ancestrales," Garífuna World. All rights reserved. Translation by K. Stevens, Stanford Center for Latin American Studies, 5/2/00.