The Miami Herald
January 21, 2002

Death silences a Santería singer, but not the songs that she rescued

 Olympia Alfaro's favorite stages were not those bathed in the fleeting light of celebrity. They were fruit-laden shrines where her orishas, the Afro-Cuban deities of her Santería faith, came down to dance amid the devotees.

 Like many Cuban singers of her Old Havana era, Alfaro could belt out a traditional bolero or a son like the best of them. But what made her most happy was to sing the ancient melodies of West Africa, in languages carried to Cuba by slaves from Nigeria and Benin. She sang with an open, smiling face, her eyes cast to the heavens.

 This is the last memory that her faithful listeners now cherish. Nearly two weeks ago, Alfaro collapsed as she sang at a tambor, a religious ceremony, at the home of
 friends. She suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage and spent days in intensive care.

 Friday morning, Alfaro died at Baptist Hospital. She was 74. She will be buried today at Woodlawn Park West in Southwest Miami-Dade.

 Born in Havana's famed Buena Vista section, Alfaro did take the road to stardom, as did her sister, Xiomara, one of Cuba's legendary voices of the 1950s.

 While her sister, now a devout Christian, sang acclaimed cabaret renditions of Afro-Cuban spirituals, Olympia performed in more intimate settings, against the rhythms of sacred batá drums.

 Four decades ago, she brought her songs to exile, planting the first musical seeds of what is now the flourishing culture of the Yoruba religion. As a revered apuón, a
 ceremonial lead singer, Alfaro was considered a pioneer in the way the religion is practiced and celebrated here.

 A gifted devotee to Yemayá, the mother goddess of the oceans, she is credited with initiating thousands of believers into the Santería faith. To them, she was known as Omí Sanyá, her initiate name.


 ``She always surprised me with her knowledge. I see her as a rescuer of long-forgotten songs. She even knew the araré words to ancient songs from Benin. We recorded some of them together,'' recalled the Afro-Cuban artisan and musician Ezequiel Torres, one of South Florida's best-known master drummers who frequently accompanied Alfaro at religious ceremonies.

 Torres asked Alfaro to accompany him two months ago to a religious ceremony in Chicago. As always, he says, she was ready in a flash and regally dressed. He always marveled at her ability to dance in daunting high heels.

 News of Alfaro's death spread quickly among Miami's olorishas, the initiates of Cuba's African deities.


 One well-known Santería priest and anthropologist sent out a mass e-mail message of sorrow.

 "The community has lost a valued apuón who touched the lives of many of us in many ways with her incredible voice that will never be equaled,'' wrote Willie Ramos, a Santería priest who last year co-curated a landmark exhibit called ``At the Crossroads: Afro-Cuban Orisha Arts in Miami,'' at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida in downtown Miami.

 Ramos cited Alfaro's role in what was an important moment of Santería history in the United States. She was there, in 1975 Miami, when a delegation of Santería priests consecrated the first orthodox set of batá drums. She was the first singer to accompany those drums.

 ``She was there for hundreds, even thousands of olorishas in the United States,'' he wrote.

 Certainly this was her gift, not only to those godchildren, but to any student of history and culture and faith. It was the knowledge she shared, the songs she spread, all those ancient melodies that she refused to take with her.

                                    © 2002