“Caribbean drumming traditions and their African heritage” by Olavo Alén Rodríguez

Article Laméca

"Caribbean drumming traditions and their African heritage"

Olavo Alén Rodríguez (2005)
CIDMUC, La Havane


The cultural heritage delivered by Cuban music to the world of musical instruments may be considered as important on the whole, but perhaps the contribution of the Cuban tumbadoras- worldwide known as Conga drums- and the Bongos, to Jazz, Rock and Pop musics of the 20th century, stand as essencial elements that go beyond the mere contribution of a musical instrument, to enter the realm of complex performance behaviours that indicate new and different trends in the aestheticall appreciations of both, the musicians and the public.

Certanly it is not just a plain coincidence that both of the abovementioned Cuban musical instruments are drums. The African drum in the New World gave way to the birth of a new musical instrument : the American drum. This happened also in the Caribbean and particularly in Cuba.

This is perhaps the best moment to remember that musical instruments are not properly musical. They are sound producing instruments that allow musical human beings to make music. For example: if you sit at a piano and you are not gifted with a musical talent, the sounds coming from the piano won´t be recogniced as music. This indicates very clearly that musicallity is not properly in the musical instrument, but in the performer standing behind the instrument. All this is also valid for drum performances.

Humans have created different types of drums all over the world. We’ll find drums in practically each and every musical culture, since the use of percussion to make music, is perhaps one of the oldest musical behaviours among humans. The African continent has a very rich heritage of drums and drum performances. Drums in Africa are outstandingly important, so that if you asked me to characterize the music of the whole continent by mentioning only one musical instrument, I would say in a general way: Drum.

Europeans have always had very important drums in their musical cultures. The main drums in European musics however are played by using sticks. Probably due to the european obsession to homogenize timbre on each musical instrument created after the Middle Ages as an approach to improve sound quality. A piano may produce up to 88 diferent sounds that are different in pitch, but the same in their harmonic spectrum, which means they have the same timbre. This criterion of taking timbre homogenization as a quality principle inspired the Europeans to place the piano on a leading position whereas the clarinette had to wait until Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart introduced this instrument into the European orchestra in the late 18 century. The same criterion places the violin among the best of all european musical instruments, apparently because the timbre homogenization proccess took place not only in the violin itself, but also in other instruments of the same family as the viola, cello and contrabass. Timbre homogenization was achieved in these instruments by using a bow to rub the strings.

Timbre homogenization has never been used in Africa as a criterion to achieve quality in drum manufactoring. Quite the oposite, African drum performances tend to display a wide variety of timbres accomplished in only one musical instrument. It is the use of the bare hand, instead of a stick, during a drum performance, that allows the musician to obtain different timbres, just by changing the position of the hand at the moment of beating the drum.

Millions of Africans from hundreds of different ethniens settled the New World after the ¨discovery¨ by the Europeans. They were brought to work as slaves in order to turn the American jungle into a civilized place. But they also turned the Americas into a new home. Here they recreated their religions,many of their ways of life, their family relations and even certain ways of grouping themselves which resembled their lives back in Africa. Essentially important, were however, the remakes done by these Africans and their descendents of their aesthetic concepts and artistic forms, wherein music and dance played a predominant role.

Many traits of diverse musical cultures in America show evidence of African antecedents. One of the most obvious ones is the use of percusive musical instruments in their performances. In African and Afroamerican musical cultures drums are often used to create a polyrhythmical ¨matress¨ that serves as basis to heterophonical singing and dancing. This very African musical attitude lacks harmonic concepts at all, and therefore places the organization of music. (to which dance is closely related) on the polyrhythmical structure. Complexity is normally acheived here by the difficulty in placing a sound or beat in the polyrhythmic itself, and not necesarelly by a virtuose performance on the leading drum. Music making is more a collective attitude than an individual performance.

Another important feature of these polyrhythmical structures is that the performance of complex, segmented and variable rhythms, -on which the improvisation is based-, is normally localized on the lower pitch ranges. The constant, fixed and repetitive rhythms -which might be called “accompanying rhythms” under the European musical concepts – are found in the higher register. This distribution of pitch ranges among the diverse musical functions is exactly the opposite of the European conception, where the improvisation and the main melodie take place normally in the higher register, while the lower pitch ranges are reserved for the accompaniment.

We find still today, these musical concepts and behaviours which were born in Africa, in all the diverse forms of Afro-Cuban music. They are very easy to recognice in the Batá druming of the Santería, introduced in Cuba by the Yoruba ethnic groups. Santería is a Cuban religion born out of further development in our country of the Orisha religion brought over from Africa by Yoruba slaves . Bata drums were originally sacred musical instruments to worship the African Orishas, but today they have adquired a Cuban typology that diferenciates them from the original African ones.(Ex. 1)

But also the slaves taken from the areas of Africa where the Bantu-speaking nations lived, were very important to the birth of the Afro-Cuban musical culture. A remake process of their religion and of their musics also took place in Cuba where these slaves were generically known as Congos. Just like the Yorubas, they organized their religion – named Regla de Palo –around the temple homes of the godfathers or Tata-nganga. These slaves recreated in Cuba different sets of drums that were also used in Africa to celebrate their parties and religious ceremonies. Among them the most important ones are the Ngoma drums, the Makuta drums and the Yuka drums. All of them show exactly the same traits described above for the Bata drums of the Yorubas.

Even the drum sets recreated in Cuba by slaves coming from the ancient regions of Calabar and Dahomey, such as the Biancomeko drum ensemble of the Abakuá groups, or the Arará drums, they all have in common these same musical approaches and behaviours. That´s why I think they all very clearly belong to the same musical categorie : Afro-Cuban music. It really doesn´t matter if they have very different African antecedents. Of course if you go on a deeper observation, you will find that the drums are different, the rhythms are different, the songs and dances and even the languajes used for singing the songs are different. But the aesthetical concept guiding the making and later in the Americas the remaking of this typologie of music, is strictly the same.

Songs in Afrocuban music show a very simple musical structure. They normally consist of an alternation between a solist singer and a choir, that takes on the call and response princip. This feature grants the music an open, or endless musical structure, where the most important statements take place at the beginning.

All these facts reflect very well another more general or philosophical behaviour of the African people. The beginning or birth is a more important moment in live than the end or death. So these Afro-Cuban songs, reflecting the African phylosophie, make the more important statements at the beginning, then they continue with less and less important ones... until they have nothing else to say. The song is over. Nobody cares about its end.
The European way of approaching life is quite the opposite. They care much, maybe too much, about the end. This attitude has been reflected well in all their art forms. For example: if you miss the last five minutes of a Hollywood film or read a novel in a book lacking the last pages, you can’t say you saw the film, or that you read the novel.

The whole idea of the development of the coda concept in European classical music of the 18th, 19th and 20th century, also reflects this philosophical attitude. Even if you would probably forgive a good musician that makes a mistake during his performance, you would refuse to do so, if that happens at the very end of a music conceived under the European pattern.

Thinking on the importance of the end, the Europeans after the Middle Ages, developed closed musical structures. Binary structures like A-B (marchs, contradances, songs) ternary forms ABA’ (minuets, sonatas, symphonies); rondo structures ABA’CA’’; and others, they all have an end, and this is a very important moment within the whole musical structure. (Ex )

In the course of time, some of the basic principles began to change, primarely due to the new social, economical, political and cultural enviorement these Africans and their descendents found in the New World. New musical typologies were required to meet the needs of aesthetical comunication under these new circumstances. A new music arose without loosing its connections with their very diverse antecedents.
Many persons traveling to Cuba, have the impression that Cuban Rumba belongs to Afro-Cuban music. Perhaps the facts that Rumba is performed only by three drums or boxes and a small catá drum, and that these instruments support with a polyrhythmical structure the voice of a solist singer that alternates with a small choir, and of course guides the dance, have led them to erroneously label it as Afro-Cuban music. (Video- Rumba)

Historical facts show that Rumba did not exist in Africa before in Cuba and therefore it is not a remake of an African tradition. Rumba was born in Cuba even though we can observe in it some traits that have their antecedents in Africa. But we can also observe in it many traits that show evidence of strong European antecedent.

If we observe the language used in Rumba, it is Spanish. Furthermore the rumberos organize the texts of their songs, through the Spanish Décima – a ten stanza poem with a very specific Spanish rhyme pattern-. The rumberos even call decimar (to perform Decimas) the action of singing a Rumba.

The drums used for playing Rumba - the Conga drums - were born in the Rumba enviorement that originally took place in the slums and shanty towns of the western part of Cuba. The first objects used as musical instruments were the side of a wardrove, or an empty drawer turned upside down. Beating a bottle or a frying pan with a spoon was also common at the beginning. Later on, the polyrhythmic structure was acheived by beating with hands on crates of different sizes. In the course of time the crates were replaced by two barrel-shaped drums and soon after that, the number of such drums was increased to three. Each drum assumed a well defined role in the polyrhythm performance and they were given the generic name of Tumbadoras.

The Rumba faithfully preserved the polytimbric conceptions of drum performances inherited from Africa, but it shows very clearly the shift in performance of segmented rhythms toward the higher register of the instrumental ensemble, just as it is done in european musical cultures. In this sense Conga drums feature a behaviour closer to that of a piano performance than to that of an African drum ensemble.

The musical structure of the various types of Rumbas also reflects a fusion between European and African ways of creating and performing music. Today all Rumbas have two main sections or parts. The first part is always a close musical structure, where the singer exposes the motiv of the song. Commonly binary structures are used here. The second part shows it´s African antecedent through an alternance between the solist and a small choir in the form of call and response behaviour. These two parts are preceded by an introduction called Diana, and are often separated from each other by an instrumental bridge of virtuose carácter performed by the higher pitch drum. (Ex 3)

All these observations led me to the conclusion that the essential contribution made by the Africans to the New World and particularly to the Caribbean is not to be found in the remaining remnants that still survive in our region, despite their undeniable importance as genuine folklore. Rather the decisive aspects of the African contribution lie in the musical elements that were able to graft onto the emerging Caribbean culture, particularly at a time in history when the new forms of creating and performing music were taking shape in the artforms of the Caribbean people. (Ex. 4)



© Médiathèque Caraïbe / Conseil Général de la Guadeloupe, 2005