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11/01/93
John Amira & Steven Cornelius, The Music of Santeria: Traditional Rhythms of the Batá Drums CD
Candita Batista y sus Tambores, Candita Batista y Sus Tambores Batá CD
Celia Cruz y La Sonora Matancera, Musica Santeria CD
Mongo Santamaria, Our Man in Havana CD
Mongo Santamaria, Afro Roots/Yambú CD
Francisco Aguabella w/Lazaro Galarraga, Oriza CD
Bill Summers w/Lazaro Galarraga, Iroko CD
Florencio Baro & Eri Okan, Afro Cuban Percussion CASS

Review: Afro-Cuban Folkloric Music, Part One: Lucumí Music

by David Peñalosa

To hear the roots of Salsa you must listen to the Afro-Cuban Són, Danzón and Rumba. The rhythmic roots of these musics, in turn, reside in the ritual drums and songs of the various African ethnic groups brought to Cuba to work as slaves. Some recordings of Afro-Cuban folkloric music could make you believe you’re in Africa itself, while others are clearly Afro-Hispanic hybrids. Being an avid collector of Afro-Cuban folkloric music myself, I offer my own reflections on those recordings of this genre available through Descarga.

The Music of Santeria: Traditional Rhythms of the Batá Drums Book and Compact Disc
As I have explained in the pages of the Descarga Newsletter in the past, Lucumí is the name commonly used to describe the descendants of Yoruba slaves in Cuba, their religion, language and music. The religion is also referred to as Santeria.

Batá are a set of three double-headed hour glass shaped ceremonial drums. They are used by the Yoruba people of Nigeria as well as their descendants in Cuba. The music of the Batá drums is probably the most complex folkloric music found in the Carribean.

John Amira and Steven Cornelius have written an informative book, detailing all aspects of the Batá. Included are photos demonstrating playing technique and written transcriptions of the entire Oru Igbodu.

The Oru Igbodu is a piece of liturgical music consisting of 21 rhythms, each rhythm contains one to seven movements. The rhythms are played in honor of the Orishas (Yoruba deities). Traditionally, the Oru Igbodu is played in front of an altar, and is unusual in that it is never accompanied by song or dance.
The transcription of the Oru Igbodu follows the performance on the CD exactly. This is the only available complete recording of this liturgical suite that I’m aware of.

There are basically three stylistic lineages of Batá drumming in Cuba today. One in Matanzas and the other two in Havana. All three lineages descended from the first Cuban consecrated set of Batá in the early 1800’s. One criticism I have of the transcriptions is that the source of each rhythm is rarely noted. Instead, the material is presented as the “New York Style”.

Candita Batista y Sus Tambores Batá
This reissue was probably recorded in the early 1960’s. I can remember when this was one of the only recordings of Batá drumming available. Today its significance is less than it once was. Still, Candita's voice is strong and attractive, and if you love this type of music you’ll most likely enjoy this recording.

Celia Cruz y La Sonora Matancera: Musica Santeria
Celia Cruz is certainly the Queen of Salsa, but few people know she is also a dynamic akpwona (lead singer of call and response songs in honor of the Orisha). This particular recording was made during a time (early 60’s again I'd guess)when mixing liturgical Orisha music with dance band instrumentation was in vogue. This is a practice one still finds today. However older recordings such as this one sound dated, even corny. As with a lot of “old-fashioned” music, it takes awhile for my ear to adjust and be able to appreciate the artistry that survives the test of time.

Once I have acquired a taste for some older music, it often impresses me as being some of the hippest stuff around. This is especially the case with older jazz and Cuban music. Celia’s voice is young and powerful here. My favorite cut is a song in which she calls for the Orisha Changó. This particular song consists only of Celia, a chorus and percussion. The intensity of Celia’s voice is unlike anything live heard from her since.

Mongo Santamaria: Our Man In Havana
This CD is actually a re-release of two different records: Bembé, consisting of folkloric drums and chants and Our Man In Havana which features Mongo’s dance band. The liner notes say that both recordings were made in Havana in early 1960. I always enjoy getting two records on CD for the price of one, but this is an odd match. The two genres are too dissimilar.

Be that as it may, it’s still a pleasure to hear Mongo with some of Cuba’s finest folkloric drummers and singers. The great Jesus Pérez can be heard here playing the the lead baté drum known as IIya Ilu. In addition, two soulful akpwons: Luis Santamaria and Merceditas Valdez grace this album, making these recordings of Lucumí music some of the best ever done. Add to this an explosive set of rumbas featuring the lead vocals of Carlos Embale and Mongo’s burning quinto drum and you will hear why this is a true classic! Other notable musicians on this CD are Willie Bobo and Yeyito on percussion and Niño Rivera on the tres guitar.

Mongo Santamaria: Afro Roots
Afro Roots is a reissued package consisting of Yambú (1958) and Mongo (1959) by Mongo Santamaria. The range on this collection goes from Lucumí drums and chants through rumba, folkloric són, and on to some earthy Afro-Cuban jazz. Included here is the first recording of Afro Blue. The song is usually attributed to John Coltrane, whose rendition made it a jazz classic. What is not widely known is that Mongo is the actual author of Afro Blue and this debut of that classic is based on an authentic 6/8 Afro-Cuban feel.

Francisco Aguabella, the master drummer from Matanzas, is featured prominently on Afro Roots. Besides being one of the great drummers in the many ensemble pieces, Aguabella’s own arrangements of Lucumí songs and rhythms are featured as well as the rare rhythm Bricamo. Aguabella is also credited as author of seven of the songs. Other legendary percussionists heard on Afro Roots are Armando Peraza, Willie Bobo, Pablo Mozo and Carlos Vidal. Some songs also include Al McKibbon (bass), Cal Tjader (vibes), ‘Chombo’ Silva (sax), Vince Guaraldi (piano), and Paul Horn (flute). You can’t go wrong with this one.

Tito Puente: Top Percussion
This CD was reviewed by yours truly in a past issue of the Descarga Newsletter. It was recorded within a year of Afro Roots and has excellent folkloric performances by Tito, Mongo, Francisco Aguabella, Willie Bobo and Julito Collazo.

Francisco Aguabella w/Lazaro Galarraga: Oriza
The great Cuban akpwon Lazaro Ros was asked by some of his American students: Who in the U.S. is the most knowledgeable of Lucumí songs? Ros answered with the name Lazaro Galarraga. Galarraga put out his own cassette tape of batá drums and songs, but its circulation wasn’t very wide. Now, with these two recent releases, Lazaro Galarraga’s wealth of talent and knowledge will be more accessible.

Oriza offers some rare songs as well as some well known favorites. What makes this recording unique is Francisco Aguabella’s renditions of rhythms such as Iyesa, Bembe, Guiro, Arara and Bakoso. Iyesa and Bakoso in particular are not well known.

Bill Summers w/Lazaro Galarraga: Iroko
Iroko is the name of Bill Summers eclectic group. Half of this CD contains the batá drums and their accompanying songs. For a number of years Summers has been involved in playing for Lucumí ceremonies in the Los Angeles area with Galarraga and Cuban drummers Pedro Orta and Nengue Hernandez; all of these musicians can be heard playing on the folkloric portion of Iroko.

The other half of this CD features music reminiscent of past ventures by Bill Summers such as Headhunters by Herbie Hancock and Summer’s Heat. The problem is that it’s a case of apples and oranges. If only he would have done some pieces that pulled the folkloric and funk elements together so that the overall effect of the recording would be that of something whole and complete. Instead, it comes off sounding like two different, distinct recordings, each to be judged within their own respected genres of their own merits.

Florencio Baro & Eri Okan: Afro Cuban Percussion
Florencio Baro was born in the Cuban province of Matanzas, and was enmeshed in the fabric of the Afro-Cuban traditions there. He arrived in Miami in the Mariel boat lift of 1980. Today his folkloric group Eri Okan performs for private parties and cultural events.

Side A of this cassette contains the style of Lucumí music known as Guiro, played on conga drums. There are songs for nine Orisha.
Side B features Baro playing some melodic drum solos which recite various folkloric traditions. It’s interesting but not astonishing.

One nice touch is the extensive bi-lingual liner notes.

Conjunto Folklorico Nacional de Cuba: Musica Yoruba
If you want to check out one CD of Batá drums and the sacred Lucumí songs in praise of the Orisha, I recommend this CD. This recording was already reviewed in Descarga Newsletter #8, so I won’t say much this time other than that this CD was produced with great care and features some of the true masters of Afro-Cuban folkloric music. Assembled here are drummers Jesus Perez, Mario Jairegui, Carlos Aldama and akpwons Lazaro Ros, Felipe Alfonso and Zenaida Armenteros.



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