Afro Little Havana: Commemorating the Black History of the "Latino Ellis Island"

Olympia Alfaro: Ritual Singer (1927-2006)

Olympia Alfaro was a legendary Afro-Cuban religious singer who performed in many spaces in Little Havana before she passed in 2002.

She is remembered as one of the most revered ritual musicians in the United States. Before she died in 2002, she served many years in the role of akpón, the lead singer in ceremonies of Regla de Ocha, also known as Lukumí or Santería. Most of these ceremonies took place in private homes, including homes in Little Havana. From memory, Olympia could draw upon an extensive repertoire of songs and knew exactly how to incorporate them in the context of ceremonies involving song, rhythm and dance. She had a powerful and beautiful voice, and she was also a talented dancer.

Olympia was born on November 10, 1927 in the Buena Vista neighborhood of Marianao in Havana, Cuba. She grew up surrounded by Afro-Cuban music. Her sister, Xiamora Alfaro, later became famous as a Cuban singer. 

In 1964, she traveled to New York. Those present at the birth of La Regla de Ocha in the United States remember her. Olympia's aunt, Prudence Alfaro, was initiated as a priest in the Lukumi religion in the 1800s, yet when Olympia was initiated into the religion on July 25, 1968, she was first in her immediate family to do so. According to her Amen-Ra Payne and Grace McIntosh, who wrote a tribute to her, the Orisha Elegba/Elegguá ("opener of the way") instructed Olympia to sing for him every time she could, and it was her custom to greet him every morning at the start of her day.

In 1975, she accompanied a delegation of Lukumi priests who consecrated the first set of fundamento batá drums (consecrated drums) in the U.S. She hosted and sang at this first tambor de fundamento in the U.S., which took place in New York. 

In 1980 she moved to Miami, now a priestess of Yemaya, and began singing at religious ceremonies in South Florida. Her first mentor, Tinibu, tried to give Olympia every possible opportunity to sing at religious events. She also learned to dance for Orisha, even in high heels. In 1988, she performed in two Miami-based theater productions, and in 2000 made an appearance in the movie, ''For Love or Country."

She worked for twenty years as an akpón in Miami before her death in 2002 at age 74.

Below is an interview with Willie Ramos, who knew Olympia personally and testifies to her talent and contributions.


This biographical material is adapted from various sources, including a tribute to her  by Amen-Ra Payne and Grace McIntosh, and material from the page "Orisha singers," which includes a sound sample of her voice and more details about ritual music in Miami.

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