By Olavo Alén Rodríguez and Jon Griffin
The batá drums are the sacred instruments of Cuban Santería. They are made up of three hourglass-shaped drums of different sizes that perform specific musical functions. Their main religious function is that of establishing a medium between the believers of Santería and the God, or Orishas, that they beckon. The batá drums are of African (currently the territory of Nigeria) origin. Additionally, these drums are connected to the worship of the Orishas professed by the Yoruba that still inhabit that land today.
The characteristic polyrhythms executed on the batá drums have substantially enriched Cuban music; therefore, many elements of these same polyrhythms have been put into use in many of the very diverse styles of this music. Lastly, they have also been adopted by other musical instruments in the Cuban culture.
These drums also are also utilized in the music of the Candomblé in Brazil. Nevertheless, here we will refer only to their Cuban classification. Currently, the Cuban batá drums are the result of an evolution that includes the reconstruction of African instruments and laws in Cuban land by the slaves of Yoruban origin.
Each drum has two skinned membranes of different sizes mounted on two respective hoops that flank the outside of each of the two mouths of the drum. The hoops are joined and tightened. Later they are to be used with straps or shoulder straps of leather (or hemp) that draw an N-shape on the wooden body of the instrument.
The family of batá consists of three drums of different sizes denominated from largest to smallest. The resonance boxes have an hourglass shape and possess two drumheads of different diameters whose skins are tightened through a system of longitudinal strings (from one drumhead to another). These strings are tightened at the surface of drum body by other transverse strings. To play the batá, it is placed horizontally and both drum heads are struck with the palms of the hands in different combinations.
Each batá drum has a specific name. The largest drum (i.e. with the greatest diameter) is called the Iyá and creates the deepest tones. This name is equal to the Yoruban word that means mother. The name Iyá is also a reference to the sounds that are created the great mother earth who, for Africans, has the deepest and wisest of voices. The second, or middle, drum in size is called Itótele and its name in the Yoruban language indicates the one that follows the mother (or the Iyá). The third it is called Okónkolo and this name contains the Yoruban word Konkó which signifies small.
The Iyá has the most important musical function of the batá drums. The complex rhythms and various improvisations that are performed on this instrument carry the essence of the musical message. The Iyá drum is fixed with two strap trails of skin with rattles and bells around both drumheads. A red resinous substance of ritual significance, fardela, is placed on the center of the major head, modifying the vibrations of the drum head when struck. The Itótele and the Okónkolo communicate of a lot more simple, repetitive rhythms that lay down the foundation or “bed” for the improvisations performed by the Iyá.
The batá drums possess a secret or añá; they are objects of special cults and should be played only by men, referred to as Olú-batá, who are especially initiated for this function.
The batá ensembles in Cuba are found fundamentally around the western region from where one finds excellent players and soloists.