Batá drums, treasures of Cuban popular culture

Batá drums, treasures of Cuban popular culture

Heritage & Traditions

By Irene Ferrer

Music and religion come together in the batá drums, sacred instruments of the Rule of Ocha that "speak" to the followers of this religion through the rhythmic richness they transmit.

Of Yoruba origin, from the African region of Nigeria, this sacred-musical tradition came to Cuba through the slaves brought to these lands, with whom the group of beliefs known as Santeria also arrived.

On the Caribbean island the drums were reproduced, characterized by their hourglass shape, one cone longer than the other and leather patches at both ends, of different diameters, mounted on rings joined together by strips of leather or strained hemp.

The percussion set is made up of three drums. The iyá, a Yorubá word that means mother, is the oldest and the guide, with the most serious register and on which improvisations are made. The medium one is called itótele and the smallest is the okónkolo, which means small and gives the highest notes.

In the instruments, a means of communication with the orishas (deities), resides Aña, the spirit that animates and protects them, the object of reverence and offerings.

The drummers, called olú batá, must have skill and experience, as well as solid knowledge of the liturgy, dances and songs that correspond to each of the gods and the ceremonies in which they are performed.

According to anthropologist and ethnologist Fernando Ortiz, considered the third discoverer of Cuba due to the scope of his research (after Christopher Columbus and German naturalist Alejandro de Humboldt), it was in the Havana town of Guanabacoa where the first set of drums, called Add Fo, was consecrated in Cuba in the second half of the 19th century.

At present, batá drums are played by the most significant instrumental groups of traditional Cuban popular culture. They also belong to the heritage of other nations in the geographical area where Santeria is practiced, making up the format of various artistic collectives that cultivate secular music.