The vibrations of Afro-Cuban batá drums reverberated throughout the corridors of Booth Hall Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. during Occidental’s Afro-Cuban Drumming Ensemble Concert in Bird Studio. The ensemble, comprised of four students enrolled in the MUSC 123 “Afro-Cuban Drumming” class — Cordell Harris (senior), Casey Diaz (senior), Florence Matteson (first year) and Nico Bluffan (junior) — performed seven pieces. Professor Joe Addington, who has been a professional Afro-Cuban drumming master for more than 20 years and professor of Afro-Cuban drumming at Occidental and Pomona College for nine years, led the students this past semester.
Afro-Cuban beats derive from the rhythms and songs of the Afro-American and Carribean religion, Santería. The religion is a blend of Catholicism and the West-African religion Yoruba. It was originally practiced by slaves in the 16th century in attempts to preserve their traditions from religious colonialism. According to a flier distributed during the event, the musical pieces are dedicated to specific orishas, or spirits of the gods — the performance is an attempt to embody the attributes of each deity through beat and dance. Over time, Afro-Cuban music has evolved to incorporate Haitian and Spanish styles in developing genres such as Merengue, Rumba and Gagá.
The ensemble began with a rhythm to represent Eleguá, the orisha of crossroads and the opening and closing of paths in life. Matteson began by tapping the lead conga drum and the other performers slowly joined in with their own distinct beats. As the rhythm grew faster, Addington and guest Bobby Wilmore, a friend of Addington and fellow professional drummer, chanted along in Lucumí, the Yoruba dialect spoken in Cuba. The acceleration of the drumming led to the surprise entrance of Afro-Cuban choreographer Kati Hernandez, another visiting guest. Hernandez was draped in red and black satin and personified the childlike, trickster characteristics of Eleguá. She whirled through the studio in an impish style, interacting with the audience members by sneaking up behind them, picking up their items and laughing mischievously.
The performers seamlessly transitioned into their next piece, a calmer beat dedicated to Yemaya, goddess of the waters and ruler of motherhood. The students traded their conga drums for batá drums, which are known for their sacred presence in Santeriá ceremonies. The double headed batá drums consist of three tapered cylinders of different sizes that work together to create a single sound. The song for Yemanya is a call and response, a style of music where performers play two phrases, one group responding to the other. Hernandez also accompanied this song by dance, moving fluidly across the stage in a turquoise dress, changing movements as the beat shifted.
“The music is a communication between the drums telling a story with each rhythm. Every time the singer calls out a name in the song, it signals a change in the drums and a new movement for the dancer. For Yemanya, the movements are composed but fluid, like waves in water,” Hernandez said.
A short Merengue piece demonstrated the drummers’ technical skills in hand control and pacing, while their light-hearted interpretation of Cuba’s most famous song, “Guantanamera,” highlighted the evolution of traditional Cuban beats in popular culture.
The grand finale was a song played in the style of Gagá, a musical genre with strong Haitian influences. Addington led the drums with a chekeré, a dried gourd with a woven beaded net that originates from West Africa. Audience members clapped along with the main beat while the drummers took on their own individual rhythms. Hernandez and four student dancers moved across the studio with red and blue flags, rallying the audience into a conga line, a traditional dance taken from Cuban carnival, a ten day festival held in late July.
After a semester of practicing two hours each week, the concert served as a gratifying showcase for the performers. MUSC 123 is offered every semester but consistently draws in students from different musical backgrounds. According to Addington, many of the students had never played the drums before, let alone Afro-Cuban beats.
“The class was definitely an interesting experience for me. I had no idea what to expect when enrolling but I’m really glad I ended up sticking to it. I had a lot of fun and I’m happy I have a little bit of rhythmic and drumming experience now,” Diaz said.
For other students in the class, the experience had a deeper influence on their musical studies. Bluffan, who has been part of the ensemble for three semesters now, is also taking private lessons with Addington as of this semester.
“Learning different composition styles like Afro-Cuban has been awesome, it’s taught me different rhythms and helped me think about music in new ways. As a music major, I’m interested in so many varieties of music but everything I learn actually ends up becoming really relevant in my experience with percussion and composing,” Bluffan said.
The Afro-Cuban Drumming ensemble — worth one unit — is one of six ensembles offered by the music department and is open to students of any major.