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Old Pacts, Nfumbe, and Modern Continuances.

Working the Dead

Sala Malongo,

Working spirit for a student / client this weekend, and a few thoughts came to mind. One in particular was about the nature of bone, spirit, and pact as it has moved through time....and how Cuban Palo's history has manifested itself in American Palo.

There were many Chinese in Cuba working during the slave times, and the societies of Cuba, the Munanso, the cabildo, etc often contained members who were of partial or full Chinese Ancestry. Many of us, Mayemberos and Brillumberos alike, count Tata ndi bilongo "Chino" Arriete as an ancestor. There is an old line of co-working and powerful Cuban spirits of Chinese ancestry in the current of Palo. Their influence flows in interesting ways though practice. 

As I'm working with the remains of an individual to bring forth his spirit from the un-manifest and pregnant darkness, we begin to connect. His identity starts to press against reality, like a finger pushing against water and without breaking the surface tension. As any image viewed through water---and therefore any viewed through the Kalunga--had distortion, so the images received at this time from spirit. This particular spirit suffered an ignoble end.

His bones--a portion of which I worked over with lustral waters, with mpembe, with mpemba, with ntoto--spoke of his ill use. Of his poor upbringing, of his incarceration and suffering in China. Of his death, which may as well have been a slow execution. His remains sold. "Legally" sold, which does absolutely nothing for him. Without receiving the death rites, the prayers and incense, the connection with both ancestor and child he floats moor-less in the dark. Even if he would be accepted among his ancestry, he doesn't feel worthy of such a thing. He's been in the dark for sometime now, and his mind has come to reflect his environment. Words come with difficulty, structure with difficulty. He's an entity of the formless, and remembering his form is both sweet and sad at once for him.

I speak to him of pacts. How he is called is secret, of course....but he is called how nature calls all things formless into form. 

He longs for context. For meaning, for power and form. He longs to *do* things. He is willing to work. He wants to. He won't find himself alone in this company of Spirits. 

How interesting. Many of the bones we work, as we can acquire them legally, are of Chinese persons. Persons who have not had proper burials or rites, and are sent powerless into the dark. Rites can change this, can empower the living and the dead. The pact is good, for both the Tata and the Nfumbe.

 People have asked me how a Chinese spirit can work with Palo, and it's amusing. Chinese folk been involved in Palo for centuries. The world isn't simple, and many alliances have been forged. Working peoples tend to find away to get along and get ahead. 

Those first pacts made between communities, particularly between spiritual workers, continue to manifest their power in our structure and practice. 


  1. I just want to say it's a pleasure seeing you posting here again. I follow you on tumblr, too, but I'm not really familiar with Palo, so I can't comprehend those discussions so easily.

    I really love your depth and breadth of knowledge and have learned a lot from your long form posts here. You have a knack for explication that is at once clear and lyrical.

    Chinese historical presence in Cuba, this poignant tale of a displaced Chinese spirit - of course, the world is always more complex than the simple characterizations we to try to assign to it.

    Looking forward to many more like this.

    - LL

  2. "The world isn't simple, and many alliances have been forged. Working peoples tend to find away to get along and get ahead. Those first pacts made between communities, particularly between spiritual workers, continue to manifest their power in our structure and practice."

    Well said. I wasn't aware of the history of the alliance between overseas Chinese and Palo practitioners, or of Tata ndi bilongo "Chino" Arriete, until I heard you speak about him at the "Honoring or Appropriation Panel" at Pantheacon. I was inspired by and appreciated everything you said during that panel, and was hoping to speak with you more, but wasn't able to find you afterwards. I was also inspired by your quotes which appeared in the Wild Hunt article on Black History month.

    It's extremely powerful that you're working with Chinese spirits who didn't receive proper rites. They're a class of being, often called "hungry ghosts," who are seen as potentially very dangerous, unless they're honored properly (i.e. during the Ghost Festival of the seventh lunar month). I burn incense at the local Chinese cemetery for the Chinese who are still buried there and elsewhere in the county I live (most of the overseas Chinese had their bones exhumed and sent back to China), including those who may still be in unmarked and undiscovered graves. Obviously, the bones you work with are not receiving any such offerings before they come to you. Thank you for your work.

    1. Thank you for your well-thought out comment, and the traditional classification for these spirits. Very interesting, and a fitting name.


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