On Dec. 23, 2015, Ned Sublette interviewed Amanda Villepastour, researcher and lecturer at Cardiff University in Wales, author of Ancient Text Messages of the Yorùba Bàtá Drum: Cracking the Code (Ashgate), and editor of the anthology The Yorùbá God of Drumming: Transatlantic Perspectives on the Wood That Talks (University Press of Mississippi). Under the name Amanda Vincent, she was a pop music keyboardist before becoming an ethnomusicologist.
Ned Sublette: How did you get started in music?
Amanda Villepastour: All children, all people are musicians. But I started playing professionally when I was 14. I was playing piano in a Chicago blues band in Perth, Australia. I did a degree in composition and went straight into the pop music industry–first with my own band, called Eurogliders, which did well in the United States and Japan and in some countries around the world, and then I moved to the U.K. in 1987, and my first gig was with the British pop band called the Thompson Twins. I’d only been here for a few weeks, and I made a record with Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood. I was pretty scared, I have to say. And then I got a call from Boy George, who I went on to work with for about five years, playing keyboards and writing songs with him. Then later I played with some post-punk bands–the Gang of Four, Billy Bragg, various sessions, I was writing songs.
And then along the way, I made my first trip to Africa. That was in 1995. I was supposed to be going to Nigeria, but they hanged Ken Saro-Wiwa, the activist, in Nigeria, so I had to divert my ticket to Ghana. When I got back from Africa, and I was pretty down, pretty depressed. I walked into a bookshop and I chanced across Robert Farris Thompson, Face of the Gods, and I looked at this and I thought, oh my God, is this an area of scholarship? I went home and I started applying for master's degrees in ethnomusicology, and that’s how I got into this profession.
Could you tell us in short form a little bit about your experience doing fieldwork in Africa and in Cuba?
I went to Ghana first, as I said, and to the Republic of Benin. But that wasn’t when I was a researcher, that was sort of my proto-research, if you like. My next big trip was to Cuba in 1998, which was a huge big-bang moment for me, and my first trip to Nigeria was in 1999. I was as well prepared as anyone could be for that trip. I had studied the language at a master’s level, I was well read, I had made good connections. But I will never forget that first two or three days when I was so, so culture-shocked in Nigeria.
Tell me more . . .
Well, there were different levels of culture shock. I found Lagos very shocking, and the road culture is terrifying. I saw dead bodies on the side of the highway. I’d never seen anything like this. Road accidents are just through the roof.
And then I got to Òyó, and my host family, who are still very close friends of mine, were really loving and welcoming, but I found it difficult to unpack the messages. I was learning the language, and everyone could speak English, but still, there’s ways of meaning and modes of behavior that take time to understand.
You’ve been back to Africa many times.
I have. I’ve been back to Nigeria–oh, maybe up to a dozen times now. But I’ve traveled widely in Africa as well. I was a museum curator at the Musical Instrument Museum–MIM--in Phoenix, in my last job. And I traveled around Africa collecting musical instruments at that time, so I’ve traveled in about a dozen sub-Saharan African countries.
Since you’ve been in so many African countries, could you give us a quick basic overview of the phenomenon of drum speech in Africa generally?
Drum speech is part of a much larger thing called speech surrogacy, where musical instruments mimic or encode speech. All over, that’s done with drums, flutes, xylophones, and sometimes contemporary instruments like piano, bass guitar. So you find a lot of drum language and speech surrogates in West Africa, around Ghana, Benin, Nigeria of course, but right through Central Africa you get slit drums. Then you get to East Africa, a place like Uganda, there are speech surrogates everywhere. There’s so many different languages, they’re using speech surrogates on harps, flutes, xylophones, drums, it’s really limitless, actually.
Are there recordings available of these?
There’s ethnomusicologists who have done a lot of good work in many of these regions. However, there’s really been no edited collection for many, many years collating all these different traditions of speech surrogates.
You’ve studied drums in Nigeria, and also drums in Cuba. Could you tell me what your focus has been?
My focus has been Yorùbá music in Nigeria and in Cuba. Yorùbá is a language group in southwest Nigeria, probably 25 million, 30 million people speak this language, in about 21 dialects. And of course in Cuba, there are vestiges and continuations of the cultures in this region through and after the slave trade. Bàtá drumming is my thing.
What are bàtá?
Bàtá is onomatopoeic. The name of the drum is an imitation of how the drum sounds. Bà-tá, low-high. In Cuba they say the word with stress: ba-tá. But it’s a sacred drum that worships the òrìsà, the Yorùbá deities. We know that the bàtá is at least 500 years old. And this is from collating oral history, written history of early travelers, including North African travelers who were writing in Arabic, and also piecing together the different bits of history that you find in the oral literature of the bàtá drum. The drum is associated with an early king in the region called Ṣàngó, known as Changó in Cuba. The people we now know as Yorùbá were probably called something else a long time ago. Bàtá is almost like a deity itself. The bàtá drum is a musical instrument, but it’s also a sacred vessel. They seal the god of drumming, called Àyàn in Nigeria, inside of the sacred vessel, so Àyàn, Ṣàngó, and bàtá are very close to each other.
Are these drums concentrated in a particular region?
The bàtá is actually quite marginal now in Nigeria. The dominant drum is dùndún. So you find clusters of families and compounds who have kept this tradition going. It’s found in the southwest of Nigeria, but I really haven’t seen other African drums that even resemble the bàtá. It’s really unique in terms of the way the instrument is made and constructed, and how it works musically.
I’m familiar with the bàtá of Cuba, with their asymmetrical hourglass shape and their three different sizes. Is this something that we see in Nigeria, or do they take on different organological forms?
The drums in Nigeria and Cuba are actually quite similar in terms of structure. In Nigeria they are more conical than hourglass, in Cuba they’re more hourglass than conical, but if you look at the drums of different regions and at different times, they may be closer together. So when people are looking at traditions in the homeland and the diaspora, they often assume that things didn’t change in Africa and they changed in the diaspora, but music changes everywhere. Musical instruments change everywhere. And actually there’s been very little exchange between bàtá drummers in Africa and in Cuba, even up to now. So considering that they parted ways about 150 years ago, there’s actually been very little change.
Who are the òrìṣà, and what do they have to do with bàtá?
Òrìṣà is a word for spirit or deity or god, and it’s one kind of spirit in Yorùbá traditional belief. Probably the most important òrìṣà for the bàtá is Ṣàngó, a 14th- or 15th-century king who has now been deified and is called Changó in Cuba. And of course there’s the god of drumming, Àyàn, known as Añá in Cuba, perhaps the most ubiquitous òrìṣà of them all, because anywhere there is òrìṣà worship there’s drums, pretty much. But Àyàn is heard; Àyàn is not seen like the other òrìṣà. They have their coded colors, they have the things the devotees carry to indicate the òrìṣà, so Òṣun, goddess of the river, would carry a fan. Ṣàngó carries an axe. Ògún, who’s the god of iron, would carry a cutlass, he’s also a blacksmith and a hunter, but Àyàn is associated with the drums. Not colors, not objects, not attire, in the same way. So Àyàn is unique, and Àyàn is probably the most noisy of all of the òrìṣà.
Is Àyàn, then, what we know in Cuba as Añá?
Yes. Àyàn, and Añá, to my money, is the same spirit.
How do the bàtá talk?
This is a big and complicated question. First I have to say a little bit about the Yorùbá language, because speech surrogates work in different ways around Africa. It depends on how the language works. English is a stress language, so if I stress a word differently, I change the meaning of that word. So "present" means something different from "present." Intonation adds meaning rather than changes meaning, so I can change a statement into a question with intonation, but in tone languages, a different melody of words and phrases completely changes the meaning.
Part of what speech surrogates do in tonal languages is follow the melody of utterances. But that’s not the only thing that they do, depending on the language. In bàtá drumming, we also divide up the kind of vowel sounds, so the loudest vowels, like a [as in cut], ẹ [get], e [say], ọ [got], o [go], means a loud sound on the drums, with a strike on both of the skins, usually. Whereas the quieter vowels, like i and u, where the mouth is more closed, means a quieter sound on the drum--that’s really simplifying it. But also other things are marked with the speech surrogacy. So in Yorùbá, an r sound is a single tongue flap [demonstrates]. It’s not a roll, just: [demonstrates].
You usually find two notes in quick succession, just before or just after the consonants, so that you get [demonstrates a flam]. And then the bàtá can’t glide–unlike the dùndún, the talking drum, which can change the tension of the head, the dùndún slides and plays the melodies, or even exaggerates the melodies, like natural Yorùbá speech. But the bàtá has got fixed tuned skins, so it has to be more clever about how it encodes speech. So instead of a glide, you usually get a flam, two notes in very quick succession--and I couldn’t hear this until I recorded the drummers and slowed it down, and asked my teacher, “Oh, do you do this when you glide?” And he said, “Oh, yeah.” They don’t think of telling you these things, you just have to go on a journey of discovery.
How many years did it take you to be able to hear this?
Well, I’ve still got a lot to learn. I’m still discovering new things all the time. I first heard recordings of Nigerian bàtá in the mid-1990s, but when I got to Òyó, in Nigeria in 1999 and I heard the drums for the first time in person, it just sounded completely different. It was amazing. I’ve studied a lot. I sat down and learned. I was never a stage performer, I didn’t take it up to a professional performance level, but I did a lot of work learning the rhythms and learning drum phrases, and I also collaborated with the Yorùbá linguist and information scientist Túndé Adégbọlá, who helped me analyze the data I’d collected.
So what kind of messages are sent by the bàtá, and to whom?
Well, the bàtá is a very difficult and complicated instrument to learn. It’s much harder than other forms of drumming, and I have studied a range of hand drumming, so one has to start very young. The kinds of messages that bàtá transmits are:
Sacred texts, in religious contexts, and by religious I’m not talking about Islam or Christianity, I’m talking specifically about òrìṣà worship.
Proverbs: Yorùbá people use proverbs a lot in everyday speech. We might use idioms like “all’s well that ends well” occasionally, but in Yorùbá speech people tend to use a lot of idioms and proverbs, so these are everyday sayings that are quite well known, so it helps give the context for what the drum is saying. And it’s quite socially coded, so that if someone walks in the room, a proverb will give context for that person. But also...
Personal poetry, known as oríkì: Every person has their own personal oríkì, which the drummers and oral singers in the tradition will need to know.
So if I was a Yorùbá person, a good bàtá drummer will know who both my parents are, they’ll know what town I came from. And this word oríkì is usually translated as “praise poetry,” but it’s not always praiseful, because a drummer will also record the deeds in life that weren’t that nice, so one has to be careful.
And profanities! I’ve collected amazing profanities, and I believe there’s one day of the year in Ìbàdàn, for all of the drummers get together and there’s one or two days of these obscene drum texts, and everyone rolls around laughing. I’ve collected a lot of these profanities, they’re hilarious.
Can you give me an example?
I don’t know, my mum might be listening. Seriously, part of the reason speech is encoded is because musical instruments can say the unsayable. They can utter things that shouldn’t be uttered humanly. And they can also communicate over long distances because they’re loud. But it’s also believed that musical instruments and drums can communicate directly with the divine.
How does that work?
In bàtá drumming, there’s this god sleeping inside. So in the tradition, before a ceremony, the drum is fed with food, with blood maybe from a rooster or something, which wakes up the spirit and the drummers go out to play. And the Àyàn or the Añá inside of the drum calls down all of the òrìṣà. I’ve heard Àyàn called the emissary of the gods, so Àyàn is the one that can speak to all of the gods.
In Cuba, where there is a tradition of playing on unconsecrated drums for public performance, I’ve heard it said that without Añá, the drumming will not be heard by the òrìṣà.
People say different things in different contexts. Different drummers have different beliefs. And also, when we’re going into places like this as researchers, people are quite selective about what they do or don’t say. But I’ve seen people go into trance with unconsecrated drums, so the music has a power unto itself.
Your book is called Ancient Text Messages of the Yorùbá Bàtá Drum. What is the idea behind that phrase?
It’s a playful title, but it’s also profound. When I went to Èrìn-Òṣun—which is a small town outside of Òṣogbo, well-known for its big religious festival and artwork--there were no mobile phones. In fact, when I started going to Nigeria, there were very few mobile phones at all. People in the cities, in Lagos, had phones, but it was very late coming in Nigeria. I was there in 2003 and there were no mobile phones, and I went back less than a year later, in 2004, and everyone had a mobile phone! However, in Èrìn-Òṣun, there was no mast. So people could own a mobile phone but they couldn’t get a signal.
On my very first day in Èrìn-Òṣun, I told Rábíù (Chief Alhaji Rabiu Ayandokun) I was there to study, and he said, O.K. He picked up a drum and played something. I thought he was warming up or improvising on the drum, and within a few minutes, this young man comes running in the room, and he’s sweating, and Rábíù starts giggling, and he says, “I just drummed him a message to come and bring the omele abo.” I was like, “Wow!” I was hooked.
They didn’t get mobile phones until much later. I don’t know how this is going to affect the tradition there. Maybe it’s a piece of research that someone ought to do, but mobile phones is not the only thing that’s having an impact on speech surrogacy and bàtá tradition.
Probably the biggest factor is religious change. Traditionally Christianity hasn’t been very friendly to bàtá drums. There are a few Christian bàtá drummers now, and it’s only just starting to come into the church, but for most of the 20th century, most Àyàn drummers, that is, people born into the Àyàn lineage, are nominal Muslims. So Islam has been quite friendly and tolerant of traditional religion in Nigeria. The other impinging factor is capitalism. As music becomes commoditized, young people want to earn money, they want to go to the city. To learn bàtá, it’s a lifetime’s work. It has to start very young, and it’s small money. There aren’t really wealthy bàtá drummers in Nigeria, or if they are wealthy it’s not from playing the bàtá drums, it’s from something else.
The subtitle of your book is Cracking the Code, referring to how bàtá speech is encoded. How is it encoded?
This is a complicated question. I would say I’ve begun to crack the code, and there’s still more to learn from working with more drummers in different regions, but basically there’s different realms that the drum encodes. One of them is pitch: the relative melody of how natural Yorùbá is spoken. Also some of the consonants: it makes it less ambiguous to differentiate some of the consonants.
So they can play not only the pitches of the vowels, but also some of the consonants that surround the vowels?
Yeah, a few. I found a different hand position for the consonant sh. I saw Rábíù’s hand just shift up the drum. He doesn’t know he’s doing these things half the time. I was videoing his hand as we made the recordings, and so I would then make musical transcriptions, but also studied the videos to see what was happening with his hand. And he got really impatient with me at times, he would say, “Don’t ask me what I’m doing! I don’t know how I’m doing what I’m doing.” Because they [hereditary drummers] learn to speak on the drum at the same time they’re learning to speak. So it’s like the hand is an organ of speech.
You suggest in your book that there is, I believe the phrase is, "a machine language," to refer to how language is encoded for drumming.
There’s this amazing difference in bàtá drummers from other Yorùbá drummers. They have a coded language that they speak. It’s called ẹnà. Ẹnà is a generic word for coded language, and so there’s different Yorùbá coded languages that children play with. We do that in English, pretend languages to exclude adults or whatever. But this language, ẹnà bàtá, aurally mimics the sound of the drum. But it acts as an interface. It’s very complicated to get natural Yorùbá into drum speech, so there’s this interface language which breaks Yorùbá down into binary form, like a machine language. There are seven vowels in Yorùbá, it’s broken down into two categories of vowels, which puts it in a binary form, simplifying it, and it’s also a pedagogy, so drummers can communicate what to play with this binary language, but also the dancers know it. There’s lineages of masqueraders, called Òjè. A lot of the women in the masquerade lineage marry the Àyàn drummers, but they speak this language as well. So what they’ve done is transformed this machine language, this binary spoken language into a vernacular. The first time I heard it I was amazed. It sounds really weird. It sort of sounds like Yorùbá but it isn’t, and I couldn’t understand it. And those around communicate with this language. And other Yorùbá drummers can’t understand it.
You say people marry and both parties speak the drum language? Did I get this right?
I’m told–I haven’t done research on this--on what happens with the dancers–I haven’t heard any women speaking in ẹnà, but I’m told that they understand ẹnà. They need to be able to understand it to dance, because the relationship between the dance movements and the drummed speech is very, very close. I expect that they learn some of these dances using ẹnà. And I’ve seen that in Guinean dance, I’ve seen it in other West African forms, where drummers will communicate movement through vocables. But I haven’t heard of any other tradition where they’ve transformed the vocables into a spoken language.
Let me get into the question of speech versus dance as a function of drumming. Can you address that? Drums are not just playing rhythm, they’re speaking, but they’re not just speaking, there’s a rhythmic component. How does this work?
I don’t know how to answer that question. But if dance is very, very close to drum speech, then I suppose it’s arguable that there’s speech in bodily movement. You’ve given me an idea, Ned. I’ll have to footnote you for that one [Laughs].
I was talking to Akeem Àyánnìyí a couple of days ago and I asked him if cell phones are cutting into the market, so to speak, what are drummers doing? And he said, “We’re playing dance music.”
They’re playing a lot of dance music, and according to my teachers there’s a few reasons for this. One of them is that the young drummers who are coming up don’t really know a lot of language, because the traditional forms of pedagogy and transmission are breaking down. They can play little bits of drum text, but they don’t have the encyclopedic knowledge of the last generation. A lot of bàtá music now is for people to dance to at secular parties like weddings, funerals, naming ceremonies, and not so much for òrìṣà ceremonies, because that’s really on the decline. Apart from big compounds that have international connections where they have a lot of North Americans and people from Latin America coming over, it’s really very marginal, òrìṣà worship in Nigeria.
So do you see this as an endangered tradition?
It is an endangered tradition. I think things are changing quite fast. It’s because of social change. People are speaking more English. Literacy changes things as well; I’m told that literate people have a much smaller memory than illiterate people. I’ve worked with drummers who can’t read or write, but they have an extensive knowledge of texts and amazing memories.
What have you learned in your study about the transformations that the bàtá went under in Cuba?
All music changes over time. We know that language changes very quickly in the same way music changes. Music changes very quickly, but perhaps not as fast as language. I think there is evidence that musical structures will endure longer than linguistic structures. It’s wrong to imagine that the tradition changed in Cuba and stayed the same in Nigeria. This bàtá tradition was always changing in both places, and there’s actually been very little interchange. It’s hard to know what is least changed, or what’s the oldest, but there are really important intersection points.
Ethnomusicologists talk about surface structures and deep structures--it’s quite an old idea by now that came from linguistics. When you hear the bàtá in Nigeria, and the bàtá in Cuba, they sound really different on the first listening. But I found after years of study and transcribing and really getting under the surface, and looking at the musical structures and how all of these rhythms are assembled, they’re very, very similar at the deep structural level. The way the different drums are functioning, and the different skins of those drums are functioning, is very, very similar.
The main change in Cuba has been the loss of an African language as a vernacular. The language of bàtá drummers in Nigeria speak is Yorùbá. There’s a sacred lexicon in Cuba called Lucumí. People claim it’s a spoken language; it’s not. People can learn and utter extensive texts, but it’s learned-and-memorized words and phrases, and really the grammar has gone out of it, so people don’t use it as a vernacular. This is the biggest change. A Yorùbá Nigerian drummer can be creative with language, so he can think of a sentence and play it on the drum. A Cuban drummer can’t do that, because they don’t have the language at their fingertips, but they might have vestiges of Yorùbá drum language that they can learn and repeat. I would say that is the primary difference between the two traditions.
The Cuban batá repertoire is so extensive . . .
I think the song repertoire in Cuba is probably more extensive than the rhythms. Because there are generic rhythms which can have any number of songs performed over the top. People who have studied batá for a long time, particularly people from the outside of Cuba, tell me that it’s a finite repertoire. Finite in the sense that there’s a liturgy, there’s a set repertoire. Of course there’s a lot of variation inside it, and it’s fluid, and the rhythms are changing, and people are creative and what they do with it, but it’s pretty much a finite repertoire. Whereas in Nigeria you get huge regional differences. The bàtá are speaking different dialects, and the drums look really different, the way the drums are made is really, really different, and their performance practices are different. So there’s much more variation in everything in Nigerian performance practice, in drum texts, in construction, all of these things.
Meanwhile there seems to be a globalization of Cuban batá going on.
Well, I’d say it’s already globalized. There are certainly few places in the affluent world where there’s no batá. There’s consecrated drums, and òrìṣà devotees across most of the Euro-American world now.
What do you think the distribution of recordings has meant in terms of the diffusion of batá playing?
The impact has been huge. The first transcriptions were from Fernando Ortiz in the 1950s, and he didn’t do the transcriptions. I think there were some earlier transcriptions coming out as well. And that provided the key for drummers outside of the culture to be able to figure out what was going on in the recordings, but they weren’t very accurate transcriptions. And then the Steven Cornelius/John Amira book of transcriptions [The Music of Santería] of the oru seco [the ceremonial sequence of rhythms played without singers] came out. So that then gave drummers access to the rhythms, but not people who couldn’t read music. But it was really in the 1990s that the flood of recordings coming out of Cuba of batá and oricha songs really made a huge difference, and made the repertoire accessible, and there were parts of the repertoire that people said should never be heard, the Egun [ancestral] sequences, but they’re all coming out in recordings now.
Ken Schweitzer points to the Abbilona series as particularly influential over a wide area.
It was really one of the first systematic releases of recordings, and they had CD after CD after CD, they had one for each oricha. Then Lázaro Ros did the same thing. That put whole repertoires of rhythms out in the world. And then of course people started transcribing them in Europe and the United States, and then releasing books of transcriptions, and it started to accumulate in terms of what was available.
If you listen to the Lydia Cabrera recordings from 1957, it doesn’t sound like the way batá is played now. The importance of the legacy is paramount in all batá playing. Ken [Schweitzer], for example, believes that popular music is having a major impact on the way batá is played. Do you have that sense?
Yes, I think it probably is. Popular music technology, the way the drums are recorded, but also–unconsecrated batá, aberinkulá, is a fairly new thing in Cuba. It hasn’t been around that long–maybe since the '30s, '40s, there’s evidence to suggest that–and so, the instigation of non-sacred drums changed things a lot as well, so then it moved into folklore and popular music. But you know, like a lot of musical traditions, it seems to have gotten faster, the drums are tuned higher. Those old recordings just provide yet more evidence that musical traditions change quickly.
Could you talk about the importance of specific sets of drums? I know you’ve been working with one in Matanzas.
A lot of drummers attach their own personal prestige to the drums that they’re initiated to, there’s lineages of drummers which are interrelated with lineages of drums. In Cuba, a set of batá drums has to be born from another set of batá drums. It’s like a quasi-human birth—except that there’s no women involved. It’s all men who do these sacred ceremonies, and give birth to a new set of batá drums. So the initiation of the drummer is in relationship to a set of batá drums. Now, really, when they’re talking about a set of concentrated batá, they’re talking about the spirit inside, rather than the drums themselves. Because what I’ve been seeing is that they will change the shells of the drums,—and they don’t really like to talk about this, because they speak about the drums as original and old—but if they’re a working set of drums, they have to change the shells from time to time, because they deteriorate, and of course there’s bug damage and all this other stuff in the tropical climate. So when they talk about the lineage of the drums, they’re really talking about that consecrated package inside that represents the god of drumming, Añá.
You spoke of a birth ceremony in which women take no part, which brings me to the question of women in drumming.
I’ve done a lot of research on this in Cuba and in Nigeria. Women are outside of the tradition in both places. In Nigeria it’s more social. There aren’t taboos which prevent women from playing or picking up the drums, but I found that Yorùbá women generally aren’t interested, whereas since the 1980s Cuban women have become more and more interested. I now have a Ph.D. student, Vicky Jassey, who’s doing concentrated research on this in Cuba, and there are women playing Añá now. It started in Santiago de Cuba, on the east of the island. It’s interesting that there’s very little on the Internet about this, and people aren’t talking about it, and generally people in the tradition are deciding to ignore it. It’s curious to me that there’s not more talk about this, because word must be out.
We’re going to fix that. What can you tell me about women playing drums in Africa?
Women play drums all over Africa. In certain parts of Africa it’s really, really, common. So for example I went to Mozambique, to get a set of timbila, these xylophones of the Chopi people. The women have started to play that now, but they have their own drumming tradition where they go off. But also in Kenya. I saw a lot of girls and women drumming, and I went to their national competition—15,000 people take part in this competition, they just call it “Festival.” I was in Mombasa, and there were many, many girls and women drumming. In South Africa–well, up until recently, there really wasn’t much drumming in South Africa. Drums are less important when you get to the southern tip of Africa. Musical bows are much more important in that region.
So yes, there are traditions where women can drum, or also there’s women’s drumming traditions like—in the Sahara Desert, the Tuareg women have a tradition called tendé, so during the day the vessel is a mortar and pestle for cooking, and when they decide to have a ceremony they put a wet goatskin over the mortar and they string it with rope and they string some beams onto it and women come and sit on the beams to tension the skin. The women play the drum, and the men dance around them on camels.
Can you tell me a little bit about your experience in Matanzas?
I went to Matanzas in 2012 to do what I thought was going to be top-up research, just to update my research from the early 2000s for my next book, which I’m writing at the moment. And I chanced upon a really amazing story which has turned into a major project.
The person who’s been helping me there, Luis Bran, said, “I think we should go and talk to this guy up on the hill, no one’s spoken to him for a long time,” and he used to play Carlos Alfonso’s drums, this very famous Cuban drummer. And he used to play Chachá’s drums, Añabí, regarded as being one of the oldest sets in Matanzas. We went and spoke to this old man in his 80s. He said, “I remember this set of drums! In Cidra, out of town, in the provinces. I saw those drums in 1953. I touched them. They were hanging on a wall.” Hence the story started, and so we went on this journey to find the drums, and found out they were actually in Matanzas as a working set of drums, but the young drummers who are playing them didn’t know the full history of the drums that they were playing.
I’ve done three or four years of research on this, and all of the young drummers I’m working with have become involved. They’re learning how to do their own research, and we’ve made this beautiful recording which is going to be coming out in 2016. We brought Justiliano, the man who told the story, we brought him out of his long retirement, and he played on the recording along with two other elderly gentlemen, and then Justiliano died. He made the recording and then a few weeks later he joined the ancestors. It was very sad, but everyone said, “Well, you know…” but he was happy because for the first time in his life, he had recognition. So it’s a really beautiful and engaging story, but it’s an incredible recording.
What’s the name of it?
Transmission at the Crossroads. It’s about the transmission of knowledge, the transmission of the drums. Some magical things happened when we were making that recording. The old guys who recorded, I thought they were going to go home. Oh no, they weren’t going home. We were in the theater, and they sat there with their arms folded and my coproducer said, “O.K., now we’re going to play Osaín.” Osaín is the oricha of fauna and traditional medicine. The old guys got up, and they just came up on the stage, they moved quickly. I said to Luis, “What’s going on?” And apparently they walked past and Justiliano said, “Osaín is mine.” And so they brought an old style, the younger drummers hadn’t heard these rhythms played in this way. And not only that! After they finished the recording that night, they packed up the drums, the engineer took the mics down, the drums were on a chair sitting in their bags, and then one of the other drummers, Pello, went over, got the iyá, the lead drum, out of the bag, started playing something, and I saw these young drummers crowding around him, and then Luis said to the engineer, “Put the mics up.” He actually taught them a rhythm they’d never heard before, and then they sat down and played this rhythm.
So there’s some magical moments, but now they’ve set up a whole studio, through philanthropy, through their friends and international partners, they set up a digital arts center in the middle of Matanzas! This is a small town that’s always lived in the shadow of Havana and the tourist industry in Varadero. But now every artist in this town, every musician in the town, is turning up at this space and I believe they’ve got five or six recordings backed up. The work ethic of this group of musicians and artists is just staggering. They just work in the studio 24 hours. There’s a lot going on there. There’s visual artists involved, and people are coming and knocking on the door from out of town. They’re recording styles which haven’t been released before.
What’s the name of the studio?
Before we go, what are the most common misconceptions about bàtá?
In Nigeria, there is a misconception that bàtá drumming is evil or dangerous. In Cuba, there’s a misconception that the batá there is a talking drum. It really only has vestiges of drum speech. Another big misconception is that Lucumí is a spoken language in Cuba. It’s a lexicon of learned words and phrases. In terms of how Nigerians see Cuban batá drummers, there’s a misconception that the Cubans have lost most of the knowledge about batá drumming, which is absolutely not true. A common misconception I’ve heard from Cubans about Nigerians is that there’s no bàtá left in Nigeria because all the drummers are Muslims. In fact, it’s the Muslim drummers that have kept the tradition alive there.
Thank you, Dr. Villepastour!
Thank you . . .