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The Cuban Batá Drums are the most popular ensemble to provide the accompaniment for the Lukumí religious ceremony known as a 'Tambor'. Lukumí is the name given to the culture inherited from the Yoruba-speaking people of Nigeria and Benin Republic, brought to Cuba mainly during the latter part of the slave trade.

The Batá play for the Orichas (Yoruba deities) and the Egun (ancestors) in the Lukumí religion, which is also called the 'Regla de Ocha' (Rule of the Orichas) and Santeria (originally intended as a dismissive description but now widely used), as a reference to the identification of Orichas with particular Catholic Saints.

Cuban Batá are played in sets of three, traditionally by three drummers, the drums horizontal with one hand on each end. Nowadays they are generally supported on the laps of seated players, but in the past for processional occasions they would also be worn standing, with a strap over the shoulder, as they are in Africa.

The smallest, called the Okonkolo, is principally the timekeeper, though floreos (rhythmic decorations) are used more or less depending on the context. The largest drum, the Iyá (mother), which has the greatest freedom to improvise, leads the ensemble and has 'conversations' with the middle drum, the Itotele.

In Africa, much of what is played between the two larger drums is an imitation of spoken Yoruba, a language with three tones. In Cuba some language phrases have survived, but most of the development of the repertoire has been on a musical basis rather than a linguistic one. A maraca known as Atcheré is sometimes added to accompany songs.

The Batá in Cuba in the earliest photographs were shaped like those in present-day Nigeria, tapering cylinders with a skin on each end. Now they tend to be made with the sides narrowing near the smaller end, forming a waist, and the head of the Iyá has increased in size.

The two main distinct playing traditions are from Matanzas and Havana. In Matanzas ropes are used between the skins to tension them, and then wrapped around the body of the drum. In Havana, thin leather strips are used instead.The Iyá and sometimes the Itotele have a dark tuning paste (fardela) on the larger head to change its pitch and vibration. The Iyá should also have a row of bells called Chaworó attached to the rim of each head, which jingle as the heads are struck.

To play for ceremonies, drums should have been constructed and prepared in a ritual way to contain Aña, the Oricha of the Batá. These drums are referred to as Fundamento and each must be carved from a single piece of wood and strung traditionally. Many Batá are made, however, which are not Fundamento, using metal bolts for tuning, and can be built with staves like a barrel. Traditionally Batá players have been male. In recent years there has been more acceptance of women learning to play Batá, but there are strict religious prohibitions against them playing Fundamento drums.

The drums play some toques (rhythms) specific to each Oricha, and some that can be used for songs for a variety of Orichas. As well as toques created for the Batá, the repertoire includes adapted rhythms, originally played on drums from other traditions such as Iyesá (a Yoruba sub-group) and Arará (a different language group from the west of the Yoruba in what used to be called Dahomey, now the Republic of Benin).

A Tambor starts with an Oro Seco, a part of the ceremony in which the drums play an instrumental salute to each Oricha in turn, facing the altar. Next there is the Oro Cantado, a cycle of songs to all the main Orichas in order, in front of the assembled initiates and visitors. This is followed by the Iban Balo, a more open celebration, when there is no set order for the Oricha song-cycles and maximum participation is encouraged.

 

Although for many years Batá music was seldom presented outside a religious setting, from the 1970s onwards fusions with Batá became more frequent. Batarumba, in which Batá toques are integrated into a Rumba ensemble, was pioneered by the group 'Afrocuba de Matanzas', and Afro-Cuban jazz group ‘Irakere’ introduced Batá into their performances. Some players mount all three drums on a stand and play them in combination.

The songs for the Orichas are in Lukumí, a collection of words that are no longer used conversationally, descended from an older form of the Yoruba language, but having lost the tonal distinctions. The songs have been passed down as an oral tradition and there are many differing versions, including omissions and distortions. Nevertheless it is remarkable how much has been preserved. As in all Afro-Cuban call and response singing, there is an improvising lead singer (in this case known as the Akpwón) and fixed choruses. The songs are to communicate with the Orichas, with praises and in some cases, taunts to provoke them to manifest themselves by possessing their initiates.

Changó, Oricha of thunder and virility, is the owner of drums, and is especially associated with the Batá. Each of the main Orichas has characteristic dance movements which initiates will reproduce, and stage choreographies will develop. For example, Ogun, associated with iron and warfare, will swing his (real or imaginary) machete, and Yemaya, Oricha of the sea, will imitate the motion of the waves and the whirlpool with her skirt.