“Beyond the Songs, There is Something Deeper” - Babalawo Antonio Mondesire on Music, Sacrifice, and His Journey to Ifá Priesthood

October 10, 2015

In the second episode of our free podscast series “NYC Faith Leaders,” Babalawo Antonio Mondesire reflects on his journey to the Ifá priesthood, a life story weaving together culture, race, politics, faith, all expressed and influenced by the power of music.

Baba Tony was born in the Bronx to parents of Puerto Rican and Eastern Caribbean (Dominica) ancestry.  He is an Ifá Priest, Spiritual Counselor, Educator, and Percussionist.  The spiritual title Babaláwo (or Baba for short) literally means “father of esoteric studies,” and the term “Ifá” may be translated as “encoded, esoteric, universal knowledge, wisdom and understanding.”

The ancient tradition of Ifá is held in high esteem among the Yoruba people of West Africa, and throughout the African diaspora.  The colonial slave trade brought the tradition of Ifá to Cuba and other Caribbean nations, and more recent patterns of immigration have brought it to the United States directly from Yoruba land and Nigeria. In Cuba, the Yoruba practice of praying to God, Oludumare, was achieved through relationships with the Orisha, or spirits – what Baba Tony calls God’s deputies and emissaries to humanity.

Enslaved Africans found ways to camouflage Orisha with attributes of Roman Catholic saints in order to comply by the laws of the state, circumvent sanctions and avoid persecution for practicing any expression of African religion. What began as a survival adaptation has since evolved into a diaspora model for African inspired spirituality.  “Santeria” remains a common term for Yoruba religious expressions in the United States and the Caribbean, however, the more accurate term is Lukumi, or simply Yoruba.

Throughout our interview, Baba Tony describes how both the Ifá and Lukumi spiritual traditions – as well as the inspiration of music – came together in his search for identity, meaning, and theological grounding.