“Last night was the vigil, and today the day, celebrated as that of Saint Lazarus, associated among practitioners of the Afro-Cuban tradition Lucumí with the orisha Babalú-Ayé, also called Asojano. He is summoned with many other names throughout West Africa and in houses of Brazilian Candomblé. As a deity, he ‘rules’ disease, chiefly dermatological and venereal, as well as epidemics, including those of smallpox and HIV/AIDS. One of the most famous pilgrimages in Cuba leads to his shrine in El Rincón, and every December 16th, devotees gather to beseech him in anticipation of his feast day, the 17th, for healing of the physical and social body.
Of course, Babalú’s name entered the pop culture lexicon not through dissemination of his rich mythology or recognition of his worshippers’ complex practices, but with Cuban musician Desi Arnaz on “I Love Lucy” in the 1950s. As Philip Sweeney writes,
The singer Miguelito Valdés, who brought the conga to New York in the 1940s, acquired the nickname “Mr Babalú” with his version of a song toBabalú-ayé written by Margarita Lecuona, before the young Desi Arnaz usurped his position and became even more successful with it. (This links to the book The Rough Guide to Cuban Music by Philip Sweeney)
Different transcriptions exist of the song; I translated the version below for a course, and offer it here, warts and all. I do so not only to dramatize the difference between what viewers thought he may have been saying and the actual religiously inflected lyrics, but also to bring attention to their racial and gendered dimensions—typical of the ‘Afrocubanismo,’ complete with dialect and stereotypes about Afro-Cuban physiognomy, that had been promoted by composers of European descent from the 1920s onward. I always wonder whether Desi told Lucy exactly what he was singing.
Estan empezando lo velorios/ The vigils are beginning
Y que le hacemo a Babalú./ And what we do for Babalú.
Dame diecisiete velas/ Give me 17 candles
‘Pa ponerlo en cruz./ To put them in a cross.
Y dame un cabo de tabaco, Mayenye/ Give me a plug of tobacco, Mayenye,
Y un jarrito de aguardiente,/ And a little jar of aguardiente [rum]
Y dame un poco de dinero, Mayenye,/ And give me a little money, Mayenye,
Pa’ que me de la suerte./ So that it gives me luck.
Yo quiere pedir/ I want to ask
Que mi negra me quiera/ That my black woman love me
Que tenga dinero/ And that she have money
Y que no se muera./ And she not die.
Ay! Yo le quiero pedir a Babalú/ Ay! I want to ask Babalú
Una negra bembona como tu/ For a thick-lipped black woman like you
Que no tenga otro negro/ That she not have another black [man]
Pa’ que no se fuera./ So that she won’t go away.
Here are two videos of dancers dancing to “Babalu-aye”