Sobre una tumba, una rumba. With these words, Cuban novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante wrote the epitaph for his friend, Spanish-Cuban cinematographer Néstor Almendros on the occasion of his death. (Almendros was cinematographer for many of the films of Francois Truffaut; he won an Oscar for his camera work in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven.) Cabrera Infante was making reference to the title of the song made popular by legendary Cuban singer María Teresa Vera early in the twentieth century, which in turn captured the essence of a varied number of Caribbean funerary rituals.
When ancient Taíno caciques died, the bands of the tribe would gather at the gravesite to sing and dance areítos about the chief’s past deeds. In the coastal areas of Puerto Rico, when black children passed away, a feast with dance and song (the baquiné) would be celebrated, to remind family members that the child had moved on to a better life. The great Beny Moré paid homage to drummer Chano Pozo (who originated Afro-Cuban jazz with Dizzy Gillespie in 1947) in one of his plaintive songs. And at the funeral of Rafael Cortijo (one of the early progenitors of Puerto Rican salsa), a host of drummers convened to play in his honor.
There are the crude clowns and clownettes of our governmental culture; there are the simple comedians who crowd our late night shows and stand-up comedy cabarets; there are the grim buffoons (wannabes who are not funny) who spread their political misery through the media; and then there are the koshare—the tricksters and sacred clowns who remove us from our petrifications, and put us in contact with the sacred forces of the universe. These are the Chaplins and the Buster Keatons; the Laurel and Hardys and the Marx Brothers; the Lucille Balls and the Carol Burnetts.
In the book in which John Neihardt captured his sayings, the medicine man Black Elk explained the function and the power of sacred clown (heyokas):
Only those who have had visions of the thunder beings of the west can act as heyokas. They have sacred power and they share some of this with all the people, but they do it through funny actions. When a vision comes from the thunder beings of the west, it comes with terror like a thunder storm; but when the storm of vision has passed, the world is greener and happier; for wherever the truth of vision comes upon the world, it is like a rain. The world, you see, is happier after the terror of the storm.
But in the heyoka ceremony, everything is backwards, and it is planned that the people shall be made to feel jolly and happy first, so that it may be easier for the power to come to them. You have noticed that the truth comes into this world with two faces. One is sad with suffering, and the other laughs; but it is the same face, laughing or weeping.
The descriptions of Robin Williams’ comedy that have surfaced after his death speak of the speed of his improvisations; of the endless current and originality of his perceptions; of his “volcanic” talent. These are signs of the “sacred power” that Black Elk attributed to the Lakota sacred clowns—touched by the hand of God.
In our indigent and pallid culture there will be no songs for Robin Williams, no beating of holy drums, no sacred dances to speed him on his way. We do not treasure our tricksters and sacred clowns. We belittle them with money, fame and fortune, but ignore their vision; we weep for them when they pass, but discard their message. In Robert Altman’s Popeye, Williams left us an enduring portrait of his fate. Popeye dresses in his best clothes to attend Olive Oyl’s engagement party. When he enters the room, the guests fall silent at his strange demeanor: his popped-eye, his slurred speech, his oversized forearms and his waddling walk (observe Williams carefully during these silent moments). Popeye sadly concludes that he is not wanted, and leaves the party.
We steal from the sacred clown his joy and laughter, and leave him to walk into the night with his bitter truth.