The Artistry of Afro-Cuban Batá Drumming: Aesthetics, Transmission, Bonding, and Creativity by Kenneth Schweitzer (review)
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The Artistry of Afro-Cuban Batá Drumming: Aesthetics, Transmission, Bonding, and Creativity. By Kenneth Schweitzer. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2013. Pp. xii + 272, musical examples, illustrations, photographs, appendices, glossary, notes, references, index.)

The Artistry of Afro-Cuban Batá Drumming distinguishes itself within the growing literature on batá performance and apprenticeships by delving into the “grammar” or underlying logic and processes at work when batá drummers play. Created by a longtime drummer and scholar, this book presents a participant-observer perspective on batá music and related aspects of Afro-Cuban religion and culture. It thoroughly explains batá as a musical liturgy, describes the process of transmiting performance skills among batá drummers, provides rich biographies of important but underdocumented batá drummers in Cuba, outlines trends in the evolution of batá tradition over time and in various locations, and contributes detailed notations of batá rhythms together with astute analysis. The author writes in a reasonably approachable academic style that seeks to reach a diverse audience of working musicians, university students, music aficionados, and ethnomusicology scholars.

In the introduction, the author locates the book in relation to two major avenues that have been explored by most scholars of Afro-Cuban batá. One avenue emphasizes musical transcriptions with little analysis or contextual background information. The other avenue almost totally eschews musical notation and analysis to focus instead on the role of batá in ritual practice as the researcher explains how batá performance reflects and influences larger socio-historical events and trends. Schweitzer seeks the best of both worlds by using an approach that “blends musical transcriptions, musical analysis, interviews, ethnographic descriptions, and anecdotal experiences from [his] own experience as a ritual drummer” (p. 4). This opening section also describes the author’s journey into batá during more than 15 years of apprenticeship, learning, and playing with drummers in Cuba, the United States, and Mexico. In addition, the author explains important details about his specific approach in the book. Instead of focusing only on the act of trance possession induced by batá drumming (in combination with song and dance), The Artistry of Afro-Cuban Batá Drumming looks at a range of other “thematic acts” carried out by batá drummers within ceremonies. He argues that these other functions of batá—such as actually teaching the liturgy to apprentices—are equally important but too often overlooked because they are more subtle and therefore easily misinterpreted or missed altogether. [End Page 113]

In chapter 1, “The Lucumí Religion and Its Music,” the author interviews veteran batá drummers Ángel Bolaños and Armando Pedroso, as well as young master Rene Pedroso. He explains the fundamentals of Santería religious practices and the basic uses and principles of batá performance. As part of this discussion, the author calls attention to the interplay between following established tradition and developing a unique individual voice as a drummer. The chapter explains the structure and philosophical framework of batá performance and apprenticeship through short excerpts from interviews with Cuban masters augmented by extensive interpretation by the author.

Chapter 2, “Omo Añá: The Fraternity of Batá Drummers,” describes the drum brotherhood that maintains the musical performance, ritual practices, and mechanical care of batá. Here, the author discusses (1) the induction of new members, (2) creating new sets of consecrated drums, (3) drum maintenance, and (4) drumming ceremonies, or toques de santo, the main context for batá performance. Chapter 3, “Overview of the Batá Repertoire,” addresses the vast musical liturgy of batá and provides a means for comprehending how individual batá rhythms relate to the whole.

In chapter 4, “Learning the Basics: Experiential Learning,” the author discusses the process by which apprentices learn the batá drum liturgy. He explains how the first three rhythms that novices confront (Eleguá, Ogun, and Ochosi) contain technical challenges and philosophical keys that help dedicated students, in time, to understand and play the full repertoire. He describes this as the “interaction of mythological stories, musical sounds, and pedagogical techniques” (p. 115). Furthermore, he discusses the relationship between the three drums that make up the Afro-Cuban batá ensemble—okónkolo (small, high-pitched timekeeper), itótele (melodious, mid-size), and iyá (mother drum, largest, deep-toned lead...


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