Areitos - Ancient Caribbean Taíno Dancing and Singing Ceremonies

One Thing the Spanish Recognized Among the New World People

Dancers and singers entertain the crowd during the
Dancers and singers entertain the crowd during the opening ceremony for the World Netball Champs in Kingston, Jamaica: about as close as we can come to a picture of areitos. Michael Bradley / Getty Images

Areito also spelled areyto (plural areitos) is what the Spanish conquistadors called an important ceremony composed and performed by and for the Taíno people of the Caribbean. An areito was a "bailar candanto" or "sung dance", an intoxicating blend of dance, music and poetry, and it played a significant role in Taíno social, political, and religious life.

According to 15th and early 16th-century Spanish chroniclers, areitos were performed in the main plaza of a village, or in the area in front of the chief’s house.

In some cases, the plazas were specifically configured for use as dancing grounds, with their edges defined by earthen embankments or by a series of standing stones. The stones and embankments were often decorated with carved images of zemis, mythological beings or noble ancestors of the Taíno.

The Role of Spanish Chroniclers

Almost all of our information concerning the early Taíno ceremonies comes from the reports of Spanish chroniclers, who first witnessed areitos when Columbus landed on the island of Hispaniola. Areito ceremonies confused the Spanish  because they were performative art that reminded the Spanish of (oh no!) their own ballad-narrative tradition called romances. For example, the conquistador Gonzalo Fernandez de Ovideo drew a direct comparison between the areitos "good and noble way of recording past and ancient events" and those of his Spanish homeland, leading him to argue that his Christian readers should not count the areitos as evidence of Native American savagery.

The American anthropologist Donald Thompson (1993) has argued that the recognition of artistic similarities between the Taíno areito and Spanish romances led to the obliteration of detailed descriptions of song-dance ceremonies found throughout Central and South America. Bernadino de Sahagun used the term to refer to communal singing and dancing among the Aztecs; in fact, most historical narratives in the Aztec language were sung by groups and usually accompanied by dancing.

Thompson (1993) counsels us to be very cautious about much that has been written about the areitos, for this exact reason: that the Spanish recognized conflated all kinds of rituals containing song and dance into the term 'areito".

What Was an Areito?

The conquistadors described areitos as rituals, celebrations, narrative stories, work songs, teaching songs, funeral observances, social dances, fertility rites, and/or drunken parties. Thompson (1993) believes that the Spanish undoubtedly witnessed all of those things, but the word areito may well have simply meant "group" or "activity" in Arawakan (the Taino language). It was the Spanish who used it to categorize all kinds of dancing and singing events.

The chroniclers used the word to mean chants, songs or poems, sometimes sung dances, sometimes poem-songs. The Cuban ethnomusicologist Fernando Ortiz Fernandez described areitos as "the greatest musical artistic expression and poetic of the Antilles Indians", a "conjunto (gathering) of music, song, dance and pantomime, applied to religious liturgies, magical rites and the epic narrations of the tribal histories and the great expressions of collective will".

Songs of Resistance: The Areito de Anacaona

Eventually, despite their admiration for the ceremonies, the Spanish stamped out the areito, replacing it with sacred church liturgies.

One reason for this may have been the association of areitos with resistance. The Areito de Anacaona is a 19th-century "song-poem" written by Cuban composer Antonio Bachiller y Morales and dedicated to Anacaona ("Golden Flower"), a legendary Taíno female chief ( cacica) [~1474-1503] who ruled the community of Xaragua (now Port-au-Prince) when Columbus made landfall.

Anacaona was married to Caonabo, cacique of the neighboring kingdom of Maguana; her brother Behechio ruled Xaragua first but when he died, Anacaona seized power. She then led native revolts against the Spanish with whom she had previously established trade agreements. She was hung in 1503 at the order of Nicolas de Ovando [1460-1511], first Spanish governor of the New World.

Anacaona and 300 of her serving maidens performed an areito in 1494, to announce when Spanish forces led by Bartolome Colon met with Bechechio.

We don't know what her song was about, but according to Fray Bartolome de las Casas, some of the songs in Nicaragua and Honduras were songs of explicit resistance, singing about how wonderful their lives had been before the arrival of the Spanish, and the amazing ability and cruelty of Spanish horses, men, and dogs.

Variations

According to the Spanish, there was lots of variety in the areitos. The dances varied a great deal: some were step patterns that move along a specific pathway; some used walking patterns that went no more than a step or two in either direction; some we'd recognize today as line dances; and some were led by a "guide" or "dance master" of either sex, who would use a call and response pattern of song and steps we'd recognize from modern country dancing.

The areito leader established the steps, words, rhythm, energy, tone, and pitch of a dance sequence, based on ancient clearly choreographed steps but continually evolving, with new adaptations and additions to accommodate new compositions.

Instruments

Instruments used at areitos in Central America included flutes and drums, and sleigh bell-like rattles made of wood containing small stones, something like maracas and called by the Spanish cascabels). Hawkbells were a trade item brought by the Spanish to trade with the locals, and according to the reports, the Taino liked them because they were louder and shinier than their versions.

There were also drums of various sorts, and flutes and tinklers tied to clothing that added noise and movement.

Father Ramón Pané, who accompanied Columbus on his second voyage, described an instrument used at an areito called the mayouhauva or maiohauau. This was made of wood and hollow, measuring about a meter (3.5 ft) long and half as wide. Pané said that the end that was played had the shape of a blacksmith's tongs, and the other end was like a club. No researcher or historian has since been able to even imagine what that looked like.

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to the Caribbean, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Edited and updated by K. Kris Hirst

  • Wilson SC. 2007. The Archaeology of the Caribbean. New York: Cambridge University Press.
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Maestri, Nicoletta. "Areitos - Ancient Caribbean Taíno Dancing and Singing Ceremonies." ThoughtCo, Dec. 10, 2016, thoughtco.com/areitos-ceremony-169589. Maestri, Nicoletta. (2016, December 10). Areitos - Ancient Caribbean Taíno Dancing and Singing Ceremonies. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/areitos-ceremony-169589 Maestri, Nicoletta. "Areitos - Ancient Caribbean Taíno Dancing and Singing Ceremonies." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/areitos-ceremony-169589 (accessed December 15, 2017).