Afro Cuban Drums of the Santeria Religion
Aña, the sacred bata drums
In Africa, the bata drums were the drums of the kings and were only played for them. And in Cuba, until the last few decades, the Aña (pronounced an-yá) drums were only played for the presentation of newly crowned Santeria priests (Iyawos) to the community and the sacred drums. Bembe drums or güiro (shekeres) were used for all other drumming ceremonies. Today, however, the bata drums are played more frequently and for a wider variety of reasons (such as a Santero's Ocha birthday, or to give thanks to a specific Orisha).
The bata are a set of three hourglass shaped drums that are played held across the lap. They are carved from solid wood and their open ends are covered in goat skins. One end is larger than the other, and both ends are percussive. The large end of the drum is called the "inu," or mouth, and the smaller end the "chacha."
The largest drum is called Iya (Mother) and is dedicated to Yemaya. It is always in the center. The medium-size drum is dedicated to Ochun and is called itotele. And the smallest drum belongs to Chango and is called the okonkolo.
The sacred bata drums are specially consecrated with rituals that may only be attended by men who have had their hands washed to play the drums, and by babalawos (priests of Orula), who are necessary for certain of the rituals. The Aña drums carry a secret inside them and, once consecrated, represent the oldest Orisha. All heads must bow to Aña (as seen when Santeros salute the drums).
There are probably fewer than 100 sets of sacred bata drums in the world. Unconsecrated bata drums are called abericula.
The best way to understand the percussive relationship between the three drums is to think of them as conversing. They are speaking with each other, with the singer and chorus, with the Orishas, and with Olofi (God). Each end of the drum is played independently of the other, and each drum plays a different part of the overall rhythm, or toque. No one drum can be played without the other two.
Bembe drums are war drums. In Matanzas, any upright, pegged, cylindrical drum played with one or two sticks in the Lucumi Santeria tradition is called "bembe." The typical bembe drum set has three pieces: the cachimbo, the mula, and the caja. The Bembe Macagua is an exception because it includes a fourth drum, called the baja. Unlike the bata drums, bembe drumming allows for improvisation around a standard rhythm on the caja. And, in the case of an Orisha who joins the drumming celebration, it is the Orisha who tells the drummer how to hit the drum, not the drum that tells the Orisha how to dance. A particular gesture that the Orisha makes tells the drummer how to hit the drum, and thus together they communicate to the heavens and to Olofi.
The Bembe Macagua drums are unique. They were made at the beginning of the 20th century in the area surrounding the Macagua sugar mill, near Perico in Matanzas province, by drum makers of an Arara or Dahomey tribe called Majino. The original Macagua drum had three pieces: cachimbo, mula and caja. The owner of the drum, Aurelio Angarica, decided to give the drum to his good friend and the godfather of his children, Jose Geraldo del la Mercedes, also known as Cheo Chango, a well-known Santero in Matanzas. To differentiate what would become Lucumi drums from the original Majino drum, a fourth piece, the bajo, was added to the set. The Bembe Macagua are consecrated Lucumi bembe drums, dedicated as war drums to Chango. For an interview about the birth of these drums, and for demonstrations of the Majino, Arara Sabalu, and Macagua drum rhythms, please see Kabiosile's DVDÂ La Fuerza del Tambor. To hear the drums played, see the same DVD or listen to the last two tracks of Bata y Bembe de Matanzas.
Güiro or shekeres (pronounced chekeres, with a hard "ch" in Matanzas) are hollow gourds wrapped in varying patterns of cord and seeds or beads so that, when struck on the bottom or shaken, they make a distinctive sound. There are three shekeres in a set: the uno (the smallest), the segundo (the middle one), and the caja (the largest). In Matanzas, they are played with a full set of 3 tumbadora or conga drums.