This Documentary Uncovers an Afro-Cuban Community Singing in an Almost Extinct African Language

They Are We tells a story that, were it not told by a University professor in the middle of a documentary, you’d swear couldn’t possibly be true. Emma Christopher, who’s written extensively on the Atlantic slave trade and teaches at the University of Sydney, found herself connecting a remote chiefdom in Sierra Leone with a small Afro-Cuban community in Perico whose traditional song and dances suggest a direct lineage to that Western African group. The film’s title is a direct quote from a Sierra Leonean upon watching videos of the Cuban dancers: “They are we!” he exclaimed, seeing something in the annual San Lazaro ceremony that looked all too familiar.

That’s right, a lively celebration by the proud members of the Gangá-Longobá in central Cuba eventually led Christopher to find the African village from whence the songs came from generations ago. Moreover, she arranged for these Afro-Cuban people to fly to the place where their ancestor was torn from her family, sold to slavery, and taken to the Caribbean island all those years ago.

As Christopher told an audience here in New York, “It’s completely incredible that they’ve kept these songs and dances alive for all these centuries!” The songs were being sung in a very particular kind of language — the Banta tongue — which is nearing extinction in Western Africa. Armed with this amazing story, Christopher moved to Cuba for two years and ended up getting a Fellowship from the Australian Research Council that helped her fund the finished film. In it, we see four Cubans from Perico make the journey to Sierra Leone where they are met with open arms by a community that was all too happy to get to know these long-lost family members. They Are We is a moving story that celebrates this colorful and vibrant slice of Afro-Cuban culture, and which shows the resilience of tradition even in the face of historical violence.

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