Drumming in our Modern Popular Music

I refused to believe it! How did I end up living in a place where people don’t know what I mean when I say that “what hasn’t rained is still in the clouds” or “that they fly, they fly”? They have no idea what platanitos en almibar, carambola, or serenata is. More over, they’ve never heard of El Gran Combo, Roberto Rohena, Los Mu�equitos de Matanzas, Willie Col�n, Maelo, or Lavoe. And they can’t play clave to save their lives. When I first came to the United States, I was, to say the least, shaken.

The cultural experience is extremely different in the United States when compared to places like Cuba and Puerto Rico. Even though the United States and the Caribbean Islands had a large population of slaves coming from the same general area in West Africa, the cultural/musical impact that these slaves had on the United States seems to be less than they had in the Caribbean. A very significant cultural contribution that slaves made to the Caribbean islands was in the way of religion. The so-called, “primitive” religions of the Yoruba, the Lukum�, If�, and Santer�a among others have played a major role in influencing the Caribbean culture, and more importantly for our discussion, Caribbean music. The traditional Santer�a music has played a major role in delineating popular, modern music and culture in some Caribbean islands like Cuba and Puerto Rico and is still very prevalent and strong in the popular culture.

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To understand why and how Santer�a has had such a major impact on our popular culture and music, we must have a basic understanding of how this religion’s roots and how it came to be what it is today. Santer�a is a religion with its origins in the Yoruba tribe from West Africa, more specifically around what we know today as Nigeria and along the Niger River. They had a very powerful and complicated structure organized into kingdoms. One of the most important ones was Benin, which lasted about 12 centuries.

During the late 18th and early 19th century, the Yorubas fought a series of wars among themselves and against their neighbors which led to the fall, and later the enslavement of the Yoruba people. Between 1820 and 1840, the majority of the slaves taken from Benin were Yoruba (Gonzalez-Wippler, M. 1976). A lot of these slaves were taken to Cuba to work at the sugar cane plantations. The Yorubas in Cuba were come to know as Lucum� because of the Yoruba greeting “oluku mi” which literally means my friend (Gonzalez-Wippler, M. 2003).

Spanish laws, even though they allowed slavery, gave slaves some rights, at least in theory. Supposedly they had the right to private property, marriage and their personal safety; the slaves also had to be baptized in the Christian faith. The church tried hard to convert the Lucumi people, but the conditions were to hard. There was a shortage of priests and the slavery conditions made the Lucum�s reluctant to learn about God. The results were basically that the slaves superficially accepted Christianity while in reality they maintained their native religion. In an effort to maintain and hide their native religion and magical workings, the slaves identified their Deities (Orishas) with catholic saints.

This gave way to the syncretism of the two religions; it came to be known as Santer�a. A catholic saint and an orisha are seen as different manifestations of the same spiritual entity. Santer�a worships a central creative force known as Olo Dumare, which is identified with Jesus. He is “the alpha and the omega” and he expresses himself to this world through Ash�. Ashe was described by Wippler Gonzalez as “…[Ash�] is the blood of the cosmic presence; Olodumare’s power for life, strength, and justice. It is the divine current that knows all the major and minor receptivity channels. It is the absolute base of reality…”

I mentioned that under Spanish laws, slaves had some rights in theory. I believe this is one of the most important reasons why the African customs, culture and traditions prevailed in the Caribbean more so than in the United States. The slaves’ religion was eventually tolerated as the syncretism between Christianity and Yoruba under Spanish rule and they were allowed to get together and drum and dance and sing. As a matter of fact, the Spanish almost encouraged these activities for they saw them as a way to keep the slaves from stirring up revolutions. In the United States it was a different story, slaves were not allowed to partake in these activities for the slave owner’s fear of a revolution. This went on until places like Congo Square in New Orleans appeared. Nowadays, Bat� drumming is beginning to be heard in more some mainstream music of the United States. (Summers, B. 1992)

By the time that Congo Square came along, percussionists were an established institution in the Caribbean to the point where the percussionists were frequently the bandleaders. This idea has been prevalent throughout history in the Caribbean. Some of the greatest bandleaders in the history of Latin music have been percussionist; Rafael Cortijo, Tito Rodriguez, Tito Puente, and Roberto Rohena all hit the skins.

Catholicism has its liturgies and hymns, Baptists have gospel and Rastafarians have reggae. In all these faiths music serves as an instrument to empower its followers and the history and accounts pertaining to the religion. In Santer�a, music plays an even bigger role as it serves as a tool humans use to communicate with the orishas. Whether it is by playing the sacred bat� drums, by dancing or by singing the cantos, participation is the quintessential way to be part of and interact with the spiritual beliefs of Santer�a.

The religious ceremonies in Santer�a are called Tambor, bembe, or guemilere. These ceremonies are essentially pseudo-structured parties in honor of a particular deity; they include the initiation of a person into Santer�a, celebrating an orisha’s anniversary, or even as an act of gratitude to an orisha for a favor he or she did for a santero. The music provided by the drums or shekeres is the main tool Santeros use to slip into this trance-like state by the way of short repetitive rhythms and chants directed towards a particular orisha; then, when a person is on the brink of possession, the master drummer will play a casse (a break), which will throw the dancers off balance and render them susceptible for possession. When the orishas mount a person, the ceremony is considered blessed (Nu�ez, L. 1992)

Santer�a music has been so important and so present in Afro-Caribbean culture that it has had major influences in our current popular music in the Antilles and parts of the United States. The importance of this genre cannot be stressed enough. Most of the percussion rhythms in Latin music, jazz, and other types of music where percussion is essential can trace its roots back to religious, West African drumming. The roots of a lot of our modern percussion seem to lie in that nation. (Perez-Medina, T. 1998)

After extensively listening and analyzing many recordings of popular Caribbean music, produced in the Caribbean and in the US, one can truly start to hear and appreciate the amazing influence that Bat� drumming has had in the music culture across the map. I’m going to present a number of examples in an effort to illustrate the wide range of music that has been influenced by bat� drumming.

Some albums are more explicit than others about their bat� influences. For example Celia Cruz’s Homenaje a los Santos extensively treats the subject of Santer�a. With lyrics and songs like “Yemay�” and “Elegua quiere tambo”, Cruz creates a popular, secular recording that honors and helps shed light on the concepts of Santer�a. Other examples of albums by popular artists that clearly deal with Santer�a are Patato Valdes’ Bat� y Rumba, Mongo Santamar�a’s Drums and Chants that has songs like “Ochun” (contains a guiro rhythm) and “Oromiso” (a Lucumi rhythm honoring Chango), Los Mu�equitos de Matanzas’ Ito iban Echu (which has toques for Obatal� and other orishas) and Mercedita Valdes’ Cantos Afrocubanos (which honors Eleggua, Ogun, Obatal�, Yemay�, Ochun, Chango and Osain with familiar Bat� Toques like Iyesa and Bakota) and finally one of my favorites, Pancho Quinto’s En el Solar La Cueva del Humo with songs like “El Sinsonte”. These are all very popular artists among the Latin community and the World Music aficionados; they have also been starting to make their way into the mainstream.

Other artists are not as blatant about their bat� roots, but after one carefully listens to their music, one can see the heavy influence the religious drumming had on them. Rumba singers like Celia Cruz and Compay Segundo have produced records that are not explicitly about Santer�a music, but contain many elements of the tradition. Artists across genres have also been touched by the bat�s; Pablo Milanes, a “nueva trova” singer, in his record Cancionero has a song called “Identidad” which happens to have part of the “Rumba Obatal�”.

Bat� drumming has also heavily influenced some Cuban hip-hop groups like The Orishas, and The Cuban Hip-Hop All-Stars; this is one of the most seemingly clashing combinations of the traditional and modern ideas, yet the music doesn’t struggle, it flows with ease. Other artists like Carlos Santana, have been producing records that are heavily influenced by bat� drumming in a rock context; Wyclef Jean has collaborated with Celia Cruz and in the process has assimilated part of the bat� culture.

It seems that the more modern the music is and the more electric instruments it uses, the harder it is to trace back to the Afro-Cuban/Bat� drumming roots; some of the allegations I’ve made here about groups being influenced by bat� rhythms might seem far-fetched to some, but it is essential to be open minded and sensitive to the subtleties that the music carries with it.

As we can see, sometimes it may seem like this religious drumming style is not a strong influence in popular music, but in reality, it is everywhere. It is in Matazas in a Friday night bemb� and it is in a studio in the United States for a major recording label. The complexities and to a certain point the magical quality that the rhythms evoke continue to spark the interests of musicians around the globe whether they are involved with Santer�a or not. It is also interesting to examine how engrained into the Caribbean culture these practices are that even when a musician might not necessarily be trying to create music associated with Santer�a, one can hear the prevalent influences that these toques, cantos and rhythms have had.

To end I would like to quote Gonzalez-Wippler when describing the spirit of the bat�s:

…Every drum that came from Africa, not just the bat�a, carried inside it a kola nut that was believed to be the soul of the drum. For that reason each drum was believed to be alive, speaking with a voice all its own…

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