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  • “Chango ’ta veni’/Chango has come”: Spiritual Embodiment in the Afro-Cuban Ceremony, Bembé
  • Joseph M. Murphy (bio)

Over seventy years ago, Melville Herskovits ([1941] 1990, 8) argued that the African heritage of any people of the African diaspora could not be understood without reference to the others. He saw and documented cultural continuities from Dahomey to Suriname, Trinidad, Haiti, and the United States. What struck Herskovits, and many visitors and scholars since, is a remarkable similarity in what he called “emotional expression” in the religious life of communities of African descent (210). These “highly emotionalized religious and ecstatic” experiences, he argued, could be attributed to a shared African heritage in which music, dance, and trance were linked. The focus of this essay is this spirituality of embodiment, where the divine being is “called” by percussion, singing, and dancing to become manifest in the body of an initiated medium and in the body of the congregation as whole. Our community is that of Afro-Cuban variously called Lucumi, Santería, or regla de ocha, where direct African provenance is apparent in nomenclature and the historical record. Yet, after a description of the batá drums that invoke the spirit, and the bembé ceremony that makes it manifest, we will ask whether the same isomorphism of music, body, and divine presence is the touchstone of religious experience and cultural memory throughout the African diaspora.

In his magisterial work of the 1950s, Los Instrumentos de la Música Afrocubana, the Cuban ethnographer Fernando Ortiz (1955) documented several hundred musical instruments of African derivation on the island. At least [End Page 69] 800,000 Africans had been enslaved and taken to Cuba during its first four centuries of European colonization, and their cultural impact could be seen and heard in every corner of the country. Ortiz gave pride of place to a set of drums called batá, since their rhythms played an essential role in the reconstruction of an African religious culture in Cuba. Batá performances are part of a larger ritual complex of drumming, dancing, and singing often called bembé that is organized for the veneration of African divinities called orishas.

The ceremony profiled in this essay is known by a variety of names that represent different communities and different kinds of colloquial usage. While the word bembé has been generalized here to encompass all Lucumi drum fiestas, it is often used more restrictively. Most people that I have met in New York and in Cuba referred to the ceremony as a tambor (drum), although I’ve heard tambor batá and bembé, as well. The differences in terminology can sometimes refer to different kinds of drums used and rhythms played. If participants are more precise, bembé can refer to a ceremony with specific bembé drums that are conical and open at the bottom in the “conga” style as opposed to the hourglass-shaped, double-headed batá. Bembé-type drums may also call the orishas, though the structure of the ceremony is less formal and the technique less learned than that of the batá rite. People might refer to a ceremony with batá at this level of discourse by calling it toque de batá (batá rhythm). John Amira and Stephen Cornelius (1992, 21) recognize the lax usage among participants but prefer a distinction between bembé, which ought to be celebrated with bembé drums, and guémileré, which is performed with the batá drums. Each sets up different patterns of praise for the orishas and evokes different expectations for the unfolding of the ceremonial events. This essay examines the role of the bembé—that is, batá drumming, antiphonal singing, and expressive dancing—in embodying an African spirituality in the Americas.

Batá: The Royal Drums of Shango

Batá drumming has its origins among the Yoruba people of present-day southwestern Nigeria and eastern Benin. Musicologist Akin Euba (2003, 54) cites Yoruba oral historians who speculate that batá were introduced into Yorubaland from the north some five hundred years ago (see also Thieme 1969, 183–186). Euba (2003) describes the batá as “a set of conically shaped, double-headed, fixed-pitch membrane drums, usually consisting of four instruments . . . ìyáàlu, omele abo, kúdi and omele ako...


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