- The Artistry of Afro-Cuban Batá Drumming: Aesthetics, Transmission, Bonding, and Creativity by Kenneth Schweitzer
The monograph Artistry of Afro-Cuban Batá Drumming is a welcome addition to the literature on Afro-Cuban music and religious practices. Author Kenneth Schweitzer rightly treats batá drumming as highly complex in terms of musicality and social significance. He strikes a balance unseen in related works that have tended to focus only on sociocultural aspects to the detriment of musical insight, or vice versa. Schweitzer intends to elucidate the "perspective of the musicians," and he follows through superbly as few [End Page 247] could do, drawing on expertise developed over many years of research, apprenticeship, and participation.
Schweitzer's writing deftly zooms in and out between "big picture," nomothetic analysis and ethnographic particularities. He moves away from the overemphasis on the all-drumming portions of Lucumí ritual (oro igbodu, also spelled oru del igbodu), using rich detail that will ring true for anyone familiar with such practices. Schweitzer convincingly argues the presence of a "continuum" of individual batá rhythms (toques) that move from the most specific (to accompany one Orisha, song, or dance) to the most generic (played for all or most Orishas). In this way, he achieves a more inclusive understanding of the ritual events themselves not only as drumming but also as song, dance, and fiesta.
Schweitzer expands and refines the work of previous authors, including Robert Friedman's "thematic acts," defined by Schweitzer as a model in which "various performer-defined themes of action, each with an independent purpose, develop concurrently" (30). To Friedman's four thematic acts—state of fiesta, song competitions, possession by the Orishas, and salutation—Schweitzer adds drumming competitions and teacher-student exchanges. He also synthesizes previous works to point out and resolve incongruous uses of terms like rhythmic "conversation."
Schweitzer's attention to musical minutiae through transcriptions is no small feat, serving as further evidence of the author's engagement with the rhythmic corpus. Occasionally, however, the musical analysis feels un-moored from human actors through problematic grammatical constructions. For example, "the iyá [lead drum] abandons the sparse figures he was inserting" and "the itótele [response drum] further heightens his improvisation" (186). Though done for metonymic convenience, as musicians might do, it disappears the players and the gender of the iyá (mother).
These are minor problems, though, in an otherwise humane take that offers many biographical vignettes. The drumming is even sometimes shown to be an extension of the drummers' personalities, as in the chapter dedicated to the percussionist Pancho Quinto. The musical analysis reveals a "trickster" aesthetic in Quinto's musicality, befitting his guardian Orisha, the trickster Eleguá. Thus, Schweitzer speaks to music's ability to communicate and define without actually speaking a word.
In addition to ethnomusicologists, Schweitzer writes for an audience of conservatory-trained percussionists, primarily Euro-American ones. That might partly explain the interest in the "first white man" initiated into batá in Cuba. Schweitzer admits it was unclear whether the Afro-Cuban drummers guiding that initiation had "grasped the gravity of the moment" (53). If the moment was unremarkable for the participants, then why is it important for the author and (probably) his audience? Though not without [End Page 248] value, the account is vexing considering its abrupt appearance without a concomitant presentation of the larger history of Cuban batá lineages, or any comment on nonbinary concepts of race in Cuba.
With no concluding chapter, some readers might be left wanting more connections to broader discourses in ethnomusicology and the Afro-Atlantic world. Influences mentioned in the introduction—Keil, Feld, Becker, and others—are not extensively refined or expanded on in subsequent chapters. In general, though, issues to critique were hard to find, as Schweitzer's work is the result of excellent ethnography and analysis. It is a must-read for anyone interested in Afro-diasporic musics in Latin America.