The African Roots of the Palo Tradition


Palo Mayombe

Palo – or The Laws of the Congo – are a group of closely related denominations, sects and religious practices of Bantu origins. They are the roots of slaves brought to Cuba from Central Africa. Other names associated with The Laws of the Congo include Palo Mayombe, Palo Monte, Palo Congo, Brillumba, Voodoo, Obeah, Candomble, Kimbisa and more.

Originating in the Great Lakes region of Eastern Equatorial Africa, many Bantu peoples migrated to other Central African regions. Some wanted to escape wars of conquest and expansion. Others to expand their own families. And yet others to find more fertile lands and escape disease. After crossing the African continent in a toilsome march, one of the Bantu migration waves spread in the area of tropical forests and grasslands. These grasslands and forests stretched to the Congo River estuary and to the upper reaches of the Cunene, Cubango, Cuito and Kasai rivers. Among these groups were our African ancestors, who settled at some point in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth centuries in the coastal region that corresponds to what is now known as Angola. This area stretched along near the mouth of the Kwanza River to the coast outside of the Congo Brazzaville. They would bring their African magical and religious traditions with them. These Bantu communities gave rise to a series of small states that, in the course of time, were merged under a central authority. This was Monikongo.


The oral tradition of Monikongo, or the Bakongo, tells us different stories about the establishment of the kingdom. One says that nine of the nephews of Monikongo left and crossed the river to settle in the Zaire region. They settled much of the area south of the Congo river. They then distributed the lands among the nine nephews. To this day in Congo nine is considered a sacred number. By the time Monikongo reached a real legacy each would have sworn their loyalty to the King and his exploits in war and peace. It was said that Monikongo and his nephews had the most powerful sorcerers and only because of their powerful magic were able to control such a large portion of Africa.

From the late sixteenth century, slavery took many from West Africa to Cuba. Slaves were taken from Cameroon to the southern part of Angola. This included the areas as far as Mozambique on the southeast coast of Africa. Slaves would land in different parts of Cuba. Hundreds of Congolese, Ngola and Cabinda were placed on sugar, coffee and snuff plantations scattered through the island.

In witchcraft, the Bilongo Burukutela tradition, also known as salting, has its origins in the Congo Basin. Large numbers of slaves were brought to Cuba from this region. Therefore, a large number of the chants you will hear in Palo are made in a mixture of the Spanish and Kikongo languages. Other influences have further been introduced through their presence in Spanish-speaking countries in the Americas.

It wasn't until relatively recently, in the mid twentieth century, that Palo began to spread outside of the local Cuban communities. It is unknown today exactly how many practitioners of Palo exist, although in Cuba you are more likely to find practitioners in rural rather than city areas.