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The Artistry of Afro-Cuban Batá Drumming

The Artistry of Afro-Cuban Batá Drumming: Aesthetics, Transmission, Bonding, and Creativity

Kenneth Schweitzer
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    The Artistry of Afro-Cuban Batá Drumming
    Book Description:

    An iconic symbol and sound of the Lucum'/Santer'a religion, Afro-Cuban batá are talking drums that express the epic mythological narratives of the West African Yoruba deities known as orisha. By imitating aspects of speech and song, and by metaphorically referencing salient attributes of the deities, batá drummers facilitate the communal praising of orisha in a music ritual known as a toque de santo.

    InThe Artistry of Afro-Cuban Batá Drumming, Kenneth Schweitzer blends musical transcription, musical analysis, interviews, ethnographic descriptions, and observations from his own experience as a ritual drummer to highlight the complex variables at work during a live Lucum' performance.

    Integral in enabling trance possessions by theorisha, by far the most dramatic expressions of Lucum' faith, batá drummers are also entrusted with controlling the overall ebb and flow of the four- to six-hourtoque de santo. During these events, batá drummers combine their knowledge of ritual with an extensive repertoire of rhythms and songs. Musicians focus on the many thematic acts that unfold both concurrently and in quick succession. In addition to creating an emotionally charged environment, playing salute rhythms for theorisha, and supporting the playful song competitions that erupt between singers, batá drummers are equally dedicated to nurturing their own drumming community by creating a variety of opportunities for the musicians to grow artistically and creatively.

    eISBN: 978-1-62103-006-5
    Subjects: Music, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. A Note on Typography and Word Usage
    (pp. xiii-2)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 3-20)

    Afro-cuban batá [bàtá, bata] drumming is among the most sophisticated, intriguing, and elusive of the world’s drumming traditions. An iconic symbol of the Lucumí/Santería religion,¹ the batá are talking drums that explore epic mythological narratives of the West African Yorùbá deities known as orisha [oricha, ocha, òrìṣà, òòṣà, santo, orixá, oxa]. By imitating aspects of speech and song, and by metaphorically referencing salient attributes of the deities, batá drummers facilitate the communal praising of orishas in music rituals known astoques de santo. In addition to the professional drummers who take turns playing the three double-headed batá, shaking a rattle...

  6. 1. The Lucumí Religion and Its Music
    (pp. 21-49)

    In the first half of the nineteenth century, a booming sugar economy in Cuba was spurred by a void in the global market left by the Haitian revolution (1791–1804). This boom led, in part, to a voracious appetite for African slave labor to work on Cuba’s many plantations. Despite both a growing international abolitionist movement and aggressive efforts by the British navy to intercept illegal slavers, Cuba continued importing African slaves until the relatively late date of 1866. This growing demand for labor coincided with the disintegration of the mighty Òyó Empire, which had been centered in the northwest...

    (pp. 50-65)

    Forced to migrate to cuba in the early nineteenth century as a by-product of the transatlantic slave trade, members of the Yorùbá Àyàn cult struggled to preserve their practices and beliefs in the face of a variety of cultural pressures. Among many others, these pressures included efforts from the Spanish government and Catholic religious leaders to repress African culture; influences from other African ethnic groups in Cuba; and, perhaps most significant for this study, fragmentation of families and the interruption of kinship lines. Adapting to these many pressures, and in particular to the loss of the social cohesion inherent in...

  8. 3. Overview of the Batá Repertoire
    (pp. 66-96)

    The batá repertoire consists primarily of multi-sectional compositions called toques. Within any given section of a toque, drummers are permitted a range of variations, usually referred to as “conversations.” By making a change in his drumming pattern, the iyá (the lead drum) drummer indicates that at least one of the other two drummers (the itótele and okónkolo) should alter their pattern(s) in an acceptable and often codified manner. Simple in theory, this structure is often difficult for the untrained ear to perceive and requires significant simplification when depicted in writing. For example, at the level of pitch and timbre, small...

  9. 4. Learning the Basics: EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING
    (pp. 97-116)

    While in many music traditions the act of performing and the act of teaching are distinct, in batá drumming they occur simultaneously. The mechanisms that permit batá drummers to play alongside one another for upwards of five hours and provide a successful drumming for the orishas and the community without rehearsal are the same mechanisms that help iyá players transmit knowledge to inexperienced players on the itótele and on the smallest and simplest drum, the okónkolo. Though it is increasingly common to engage in lessons and conduct rehearsals, especially among foreigners, much of the training required to master batá still...

  10. 5. Pancho Quinto: RUMBERO AND BATALERO
    (pp. 117-142)

    Batá drumming, like many of the world’s other great musical traditions, exists within a tremendous paradox. On one hand, batá drumming is a complex musical form, requiring years of diligent and devoted study with a competent master. During apprenticeship one hopes to absorb much of their master’s technique, style, and aesthetic. On the other hand, each musician is expected to develop and nurture his own distinct style. Those who have had the pleasure of listening to and learning from several masters can attest to the nuances in each one’s musical phrasings.

    In order to understand the art of playing the...

  11. 6. Traditional Ñongo: MUSICAL ANALYSIS
    (pp. 143-166)

    While the ritual repertoire of batá drumming can be admired for its expansiveness, it is equally important to appreciate the depth of the repertoire that is reflected in the unique performances of each toque. This chapter offers an in-depth exploration of a single batá toque, the “traditional” ñongo.¹ Ñongo is a deceptively simple, four-beat repeating pattern that is interrupted periodically by conversations between the two larger drums in the batá ensemble, the iyá and the itótele (see Fig. 6.1). This chapter illustrates and analyzes some of the complex guidelines that govern this conversation.

    Ñongo occupies a unique place within the...

  12. 7. Modern Ñongo: THE EVOLUTION OF A TOQUE
    (pp. 167-192)

    Musical genres are in a constant state of evolution. In the world of batá drumming, the rate of change is not uniform across the entire repertoire. While some toques easily absorb progressive influences, others resist change. As discussed in the previous chapter, the rules that guide conversations in ñongo, in particular, are flexible enough to allow substantial variety between artists. To put it another way, stylistic innovation is a defining feature of the toque. If one were to compare performances of ñongo across any ten-year period during the past century, I suspect that he/she would find a slow, but noticeable,...

  13. Appendix 1: Transcriptions of Ñongo Excerpts
    (pp. 193-206)
  14. Appendix 2: Musical Examples Available on Website
    (pp. 207-208)
  15. Glossary
    (pp. 209-212)
  16. Notes
    (pp. 213-226)
  17. References
    (pp. 227-236)
  18. Index
    (pp. 237-242)