[This is a significant article on the topic that was formerly available online but is now hard to find]
Center for Black Music Research Digest Spring 2000, 13 (1)
Cuban Batá Drumming and Women Musicians: An Open Question
by Elizabeth Sayre
This article is a follow-up to Andrea Pryor's interview with Nagybe Madariaga Pouymiró, which appeared in the last issue of CBMR Digest (Fall 1999) and continues to explore the role of women in batá drumming.
Cuban batá drumming, with its attendant song and dance styles, is the best known among several African-derived sacred performance traditions reconstructed and reinvented in nineteenth-century Havana and Matanzas—and perhaps also outside these urban centers (see Vélez 1996, parallel text, 1–12). The batá ensemble of three hourglass-shaped, double-headed drums-the iyá, or mother drum, flanked by the small okónkolo and the medium-sized itótele—plays a large repertoire of tightly interlocked melody-rhythms derived from praise poetry for the orishas, Cuban-Yoruba deified forces of nature. Many of the literal meanings of the Cuban toques (batá pieces) have been lost, yet contemporary bataleros can translate the meanings of some drum phrases, which include insults to provoke and praise names to soothe the orishas when they possess devotees. The batá generally are learned through apprenticeship with a master drummer, and the music is maintained relatively strictly, although some improvisation—based on musical rather than verbal ideas—does occur, increasingly so in more modern styles of playing. Still passed down within religious lineages in Cuba and elsewhere, batá drumming is also taught in Cuban music schools to both natives and foreigners, men and women, while would-be batá drummers in the United States and Europe learn from increasingly available transcriptions and recordings, as well as from immigrant master drummers. Now more than ever, the batá are becoming widely known outside the religious context.
Some of the most compelling and beautiful percussion music in the Americas, batá drumming has been the subject of a number of ethnomusicological studies in the past twenty years (see References); however, many musical, liturgical, and historical questions remain to be investigated. These include the question of the prohibition against women and gay men playing consecrated drums in the religious context. This prohibition extends to ceremonies that are played on aberikula (unconsecrated) drums—a type of ceremony that is more common in the United States than in Cuba because of the relative scarcity of consecrated drums here—as well as to many informal, secular settings such as drum and dance classes where unconsecrated drums are used (see Cornelius 1991 for changing dynamics in New York City in the 1970s and 1980s). This exclusion by gender or sexuality immediately affects women and gay men who wish to play or research the batá, precluding certain types of participation or participant-observation. As a woman percussionist and scholar (I play batá and other drums) and as a relative outsider to Lucumí communities, I am obviously far from unbiased, and I am personally implicated in these issues. Even so, the question of women and batá drumming goes beyond mere sexist exclusion, as seen from one perspective, or aggressive intrusion of Western feminism into Afro-Caribbean belief systems, as seen from another.
Explanations about the gender prohibition typically are given as follows.
· Women cleanse themselves through menstruation and therefore do not need to play batá, because playing is itself a cleansing.
· Añá (the orisha of the drums) is a feminine force, therefore a woman playing the drum creates an improper imbalance of gendered energies.
· The batá drums belong to the orisha Changó, the epitome of virility, and a woman player cannot enact the masculinity appropriate to this situation.
· Women are too susceptible to spirit possession to be given the responsibility of playing (men who possess easily are also forbidden to play).
· Feminine energy is of the earth, while masculine energy is of the heavens. Since the drums are used to call heavenly energy (orisha) to earth, men are the appropriate ones to do the calling.
· Because women menstruate, it is dangerous for them to approach the consecrated drums, because their menstrual blood may be mistaken as an offering to Añá.
· Because the menstrual cycle is associated with the Aje, or “witches”—antisocial, feminine spiritual forces—female contact with Añá will void the consecration of the drums (Marcuzzi 1995).
Religious practitioners readily admit that some of the explanations are inconsistent, even within Lucumí (Cuban-Yoruba) theological terms. For example, the batá are sometimes said to be owned by one of the aspects of the orisha Ochún, who represents the river and feminine beauty and sensuality. Also, in ceremony, women practitioners are permitted to touch their foreheads to the drums (foribale) as a sign of respect, just as men do. There is evidence that the tradition is not entirely closed to women players: batá drummers in Nigeria and Matanzas, Cuba, have been known to teach their daughters how to play in the interest of passing on knowledge to subsequent generations (Amira and Cornelius 1992; Fiol 1999; Drysdale 1999). It has been suggested to me that the rigid prohibition against women and gay men playing batá is a result of the influence of Spanish Catholicism on Yoruba beliefs. Whatever the religious or historical reasons for the practice, it continues today in all known contexts; however, the particular dynamics of the gender prohibition differ from place to place and from community to community.
The practice of Yoruba religion, like its music, is becoming more widespread and varied. Several excellent ethnographies document different regional developments in the United States (for example, Brown 1989; Daniels 1998; Hucks 1998). Many contemporary scholars of Yoruba religion, like earlier scholars such as William Bascom and Pierre Verger, have become religious practitioners. Conversely, practitioners are coming into the academy in ever greater numbers. As a result of these cultural developments, the distinguishing of “insiders” from “outsiders” is increasingly complicated, particularly as Yoruba religion now more than ever is a territory from which different, and often conflicting, cultural and political banners are flown (Matory 1998).
As a result, the question of women musicians and batá drumming cannot be reduced to the question of “outsiders” imposing their gender or sexual values on “insiders” or straight men discriminating against women and gay men. Wherever religious communities are active, it is still unusual and often controversial for women—whether insiders or outsiders—to play batá, even in nonreligious contexts.(1) Nonetheless, today there are at least four folkloric women's batá groups active in Cuba: Obini Batá and Ibbu Okun in Havana, Obini Aberíkula in Matanzas, and Obini Irawo in Santiago (Boggs 1992, 306–307; Strubbe 1999; Perkins 1995; Porter 1999; Drake 1999). There also are many women players in Europe, Japan, and Canada, as well as in the United States, where a few women's percussion groups are actively playing batá in traditional styles.
Given the increasing proliferation and differentiation of Yoruba religion and the widely varying dynamics of gender, religious and cultural affiliation, race, and class in the different cities and countries where it flourishes, the question of women and gay men playing batá drums deserves some ethnographic and scholarly attention. The following highly condensed history of batá drumming provides a context for contemporary debates on cultural and gender ownership of the drums.
During the Cuban sugar boom of the 1830s, enslaved and freed Africans from different ethnic groups pieced together, readapted, and added to local traditions from home to fit a brutal new context. For example, the drums in the Oyo (Nigeria) area that had saluted only ancestor spirits and Changó, the tutelary deity of music and dance, were redirected in Cuba to speak praises to an entire pantheon of forces, as people from different regions pooled their resources and memories to create a partly old, partly new spirituality that could address everyday problems in a familiar manner. Until they were banned by the government in 1884, the cabildos de nación, urban mutual aid societies organized by ethnic groups under the auspices of the Catholic church, were probably the most important sites for the maintenance of the Cuban-Yoruba and other African-based traditions (Brandon 1993). Drums and drumming were part of public and private celebrations centered around the cabildos (Brown 1989). At the turn of the century in Cuba, the Lucumí religion was forced to retreat from more public expressions and became centered in private homes, which still are the most important places of worship in Cuba and elsewhere (Brown 1989).
In the early twentieth century, Cubans began to claim their African heritage as part of their national identity, albeit with ambivalence (Moore 1997). Cuban scholar Fernando Ortiz was a major intellectual player in the early valorization of Afro-Cuban expressions. In 1936, he commissioned the first set of aberikula drums ever made and presented master drummer Pablo Roche (also known as Okilakpá or “Strong Arm”) and his drummers in public performance on the batá. Since then, the batá tradition has had a secular as well as a sacred existence—in the streets, on the stage, and in the global marketplace (2)—although batá music remains more obscure than other famous African and Afro-Caribbean percussion such as the jembe and the steel pan (Charry 1996). Musical experiments blending batá with other genres began quite early. Ortiz (1952, 324–325), for example, reports his colleague Gilberto Valdes' attempts at composing for batá and symphony orchestra in the 1930s. Many jazz fans are familiar with Mongo Santamaria, Francisco Aguabella (selected as an NEA National Heritage Fellow in 1992), Julito Collazo, and other Cuban sacred drummers who contributed to Latin jazz in the 1950s and later. In the past fifty years, batá drumming has achieved a significant presence in the United States, where knowledgeable bataleros, whether Cubans or their first, second, or third generation students, are now found in all large metropolitan areas.
The Cuban Revolutionary promotion of Afro-Cuban traditions since the early 1960s, including the formation of professional folkloric ballets at the regional and national levels, has affected the batá drumming tradition profoundly. For certain highly skilled musicians in Cuba, batá performance and teaching have been professionalized (see Hagedorn 1995; Vélez 1996). Meanwhile, Cuban folkloric performance has become a model for drummers outside Cuba (Vélez 1994), especially since the early 1990s, when Cuban folkloric groups began to appear in the United States, and organized music and dance study trips to Cuba have become popular among many North American and European enthusiasts. Although frequently raised as a question or problem that requires more research (see Cornelius 1991; Amira and Cornelius 1992; Hagedorn 1995; Vélez 1996; Delgado 1997), the prohibition against women and gay men playing consecrated batá drums, and its relationship to religious, social, and political systems inside and outside Cuba, has never been directly explored in either academic or popular literatures. Andrea Pryor's (1999) all-too-brief interview with Nagybe Madariaga Pouymiró is therefore an important contribution. First, it is the only instance in any of the literature on Afro-Cuban sacred music where a Cuban woman musician's voice is heard. That she is from Santiago, and not Havana or Matanzas, also is unusual and valuable. There are some fine ethnographies and musical biographies on Afro-Cuban sacred drummers, but no one has written about any of the outstanding Cuban women musicians, such as Merceditas Valdes (who died in June 1996) or Amelia Pedroso, who have contributed much to Cuban orisha music.
Second, Pouymiró's theologically based arguments for women playing batá in ceremony are worth noting since women players in Cuba and abroad typically have justified their activities by carefully delineating them as secular or folkloric. Examining issues of gender and sexuality in relation to the batá tradition very well may shed new light on the “folklorization” of Afro-Cuban ritual music.
Third, the interview highlights the dual, and sometimes conflicted, position of batá drumming as both a profession and religious vocation in Cuba.
Fourth, Pryor's introduction reminds us that women's struggles for recognition and success play out differently in different contexts.
Socialist egalitarian feminism in Cuba and liberal democratic feminism in North America and Europe have met Lucumí values (which are far from uniform themselves) on different grounds and have produced very different situations for women musicians. One hopes that Pryor and other musicians and scholars will be inspired to do more work that explores these issues and adds to knowledge and debates about Afro-Cuban traditions.
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