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Notes by Thomas Altmann

Tambor for Obatala

A live recording of a Santería ceremony in Havana, Cuba, featuring the sacred batá drums along with traditional Lukumí songs, rooted in the religion of the West-African Yoruba people.

Yoruba Religion

Of all African-derived cults and religions that have survived the centuries of slavery and oppression in the Americas, the religion of the Yoruba tribes from Nigeria is probably the best documented in literature today. It is also the most distinctive, having maintained a complex system of elaborate rituals, a liturgical treasure of percussion music along with hundreds and thousands of songs, and a wealth of myths, all of which mean an open keyhole for the studies of the observing outsider and the stock-in-trade of the priest and practitioner. While the form of Yoruba religion practiced in Brazil is called Candomblé, it is referred to as Regla de Ocha in Cuba, although the (originally denigrating) Spanish term "Santería" seems to be generally more in use. Practitioners of this Cuban line of Yoruba religion are known as Lukumí.

As a rule, African religions in Latin-American countries have undergone a compulsory marriage of convenience with Catholicism as a reaction to the decree for Christianization of the African slaves, thus resulting in a formal Syncretism.

Yoruba religion is backed up by the oracular wisdom that is handed down in the oral "scripture" of Ifá. The final goal of the faithful is the alignment with the laws of nature and ones own destiny, which is sealed in ones personal Orí, literally the head, which is also an object of worship.

In its evidently practical trait, Yoruba religion implies the use of herbalism for medicinal and magical purposes.

Yoruba religion centers around trading and balancing the universal energy called aché. The aché is the creative vital force that animates everything on earth. The exchange of aché is particularly cultivated with spiritual entities (ara orun) that dwell in a transcendent but ever-present reality of our world (orun, lit.: "heaven"). The ara orun incorporate the Egun (souls of the deceased ancestors) as well as certain divine spirits, referred to as Orisha(s).

Although Yoruba religion is definitely monotheistic, God (Olodumare, Olorun) is not addressed nearly as much in liturgy, prayer, divination and sacrifice as His/Her agents, the Orishas. The Orishas can be looked upon as emanations of Olodumare, and as such they personify separate aspects of divine power, portions of aché, and represent individual energy patterns. One of the most important Orishas is Obatala.


As many of the Orishas, Obatala incorporates in itself a multitude of distinct entities called aspects, caminos (roads, paths) or avatars (alluding to Hinduism) of the Orisha. A Yoruban patakí (sacred legend) tells us that in the beginning of time, there had been only one Orisha on earth. This was Obatala. But one day he was crushed with a huge stone by his vicious servant, falling apart into hundreds of pieces. Orunmila (the Orisha of the oracle of Ifá) succeeded in collecting and gathering the majority of these pieces and called it Orishanla (the "Great Orisha"), while all the remaining pieces became individual Obatalas in their own right.

Obatala is a very old deity, said to be venerated by the indigenous inhabitants of the city-state of Ile Ife. Obatala is the divinity that created the earth, separating the dry land from the waters of Olokun, Lord of the Ocean. He is also in charge of forming the child’s body in the mother’s womb. He is responsible for lending the human tongue the gift of articulation. Obatala is the owner of all heads. He is a very "linear" Orisha, representing the clarity of thought. However, according to a legend, he once enjoyed a decent quantity of palm wine during a rest from his work, which thereupon led to the creation of cripples, dwarfs, albinos and all creatures with physical defects in his state of drunkenness, causing Olodumare to entrust Oddudua with completing the creation of the world.

While Oddudua is sometimes treated as a single aspect of Obatala in Cuba, this Orisha had originally been the corresponding creator deity of an immigrant people which flocked to Ile Ife under a leader known by the same name (Oddudua), dispersing and mixing with its original inhabitants and thus founding what is known as the Yoruba people today.

Obatala means "King of the White Cloth". He is the one who has covered humans with clothes. He is also the "Lord of the Silvery White". Obatala generally represents purity, peace and mercy and is generally visualized as a wise old man. However, there are certain aspects of Obatala, like Ayaguna or Osagriña, who are definitely "warrior Orishas". Ayaguna is even a youthful hero.

The gender of Obatala is equally disputable. While some say that Obatala is androgynous, others regard him/her respectively as male or female. The most common understanding is that some aspects of Obatala are male and some are female. Each of the individual aspects of Obatala is syncretized with a particular Catholic Saint, a relict from the times of slavery and suppression, where the African deities had to be disguised as Saints under the eyes of the authority for sheer self-protection.

 A Religious Feast: Toque de Santo (Tambor)

At the core of Orisha worship in the New World is the evoking of trance possession in the initiated devotees (priests) of particular Orishas, referred to as santeros/as, olocha(s) or olorisha(s). This state of possession is spiritually understood as trans-personalization, i.e. the medium is no longer seen as the possessed person, but as the Orisha itself, temporarily manifested in a human body. This "distillation" process of trans-personalization is most usually brought about in ceremonies called tambor or toque de santo, by means of a liturgy that includes ritual dance, antiphonal singing and percussion music. Such a ceremony may either be held for the initiation of a neophyte (iyawó), or in honor of an Orisha and/or the olorisha at the Orisha’s Saint’s day, or the olorisha’s religious birthday ( the day of his or her initiation), or — more generally — as a form of offering (ebó) to that Orisha: The Orisha is thus invited to come down for a visit, have a good time dancing, drinking and eating their favourite ritual meals, being praised and asked for advice and future benevolence.

The Musical Liturgy

The antiphonal singing features the trading of call-and-response interaction between a hired lead soloist (akpwón) and a chorus, which is usually the community of the attending practitioners and participating guests. The sacred songs come from a partly centuries-old repertory of Yoruba origin, sung in ancient Yoruba language with specific Creole modifications that occurred gradually during the continued religious use, separated from the African homeland.

The instruments that are used, are predominantly and traditionally percussion instruments. The prominent percussion instruments in Yoruba and Lukumí Orisha worship are the batá drums, as presented on this recording. These are traversally held, bi-membranophonic drums in the shape of an asymmetrical hourglass, played in Cuba individually in a set of three by a trio of highly specialized drummers, with bare hands. The biggest drum (iyá) is played by the lead drummer, sitting in the middle of the trio, followed by the player of the medium-sized drum (itotele) to his left, and supported by the rhythms of the small drum (okonkolo) from the drummer to his right. Batá drums are traditionally used for religious ceremonies that call for a deep religious foundation (fundamento) of the drums and their drummers, both of which have to pass a complex initiation process, centered around a spirit called Añá, which is settled inside the drums. Meeting lesser religious requirements, or simply for economic reasons, an ensemble of Bembé drums, chekeres (güíros) or un-consecrated batá drums (aberíkula) may be booked for the respective occasion.

The music that is played by the batá, cannot be reductively defined as mere "rhythms". It is made up of so-called toques, pieces of drum music with overlapping rhythmic periods, polyrhythmic structures, changes in meter, rhythm and tempo, as well as drum conversations, combining to form suites of articulated drum phrases that often reflect spoken Yoruba language, making use of tone modulation via stroke technique. Selection, sequence and musical execution of the toques batá happens all but randomly. Each song for a certain Orisha requires a particular toque for special situations, depending on its position in the liturgical order.

A tambor or toque de santo that employs fundamento drums (batá-añá), is divided in four sections: the oru seco (oru igbodú), the oru cantado (oru eya-aranla), the güemilere (iban-baló), and the cierre.

Both the oru seco and the oru cantado are invoking the entirety of all Orishas in a fixed order. This order may vary according to the religious lineage, but is always starting with the three guerreros: Eleggua, Ogún and Ochosi. The last (or second-but-last, before Oddudua, as on this recording) is always the Orisha that the ceremony is held for, in this case Obatala. The oru seco is played seco (Span.: "dry"), i.e. without singing, by the batá drums alone, in front of the shrine in the altar room. The oru cantado comprises of a sequence of songs, accompanied by the drums, and is usually performed in the living-room. The guemilere is the main part of the ceremony, taking place in the patio (iban-baló). Here is where the Orishas are most likely to mount their mediums in trance possession, dancing to their favourite tunes. The cierre is the closing ritual, announced by a short sequence of selected toques and cantos (songs), significantly for Eleggua, the Orisha that supervises any entrance and exit.

The ringing sound that is heard along with the drumming, is produced by the chaworó, belts of bells and jingles that are strung around the iyá drum at its both extremes, and resonating with every stroke. What can also be heard on some tracks of this recording, is the adyá, the ritual bell (agogó) of Obatala, which is rhythmically manipulated by a priest, but does not primarily partake in the rhythmic arrangement of the toques batá.

Also note how the pitch of the hide-strung wooden drums changes over the duration of the ceremony, which lasted about four hours and has been selectively cut down and summarized to 80 minutes for this CD.

Tambor for Obatala

Tracks 1 — 4 of this CD represent the oru seco, here in the following order: Eleggua, Ogún, Ochosi, Obaloke, Inle, Osun, Babalú-Ayé, Osain, Echún, Oricha Oko, Ibeyí, Dada, Oggué, Aggayú, Changó, Obba, Yegua, Oyá, Yemayá, Ochún, Orunmila, Obatala, Oddudua.

The ensemble has chosen to play the Rumba Iyesá as the final section for Osain, Meta-Meta in place of the last two sections of Titi Laro for Changó, and Tui-Tui for Oyá; Obatala is addressed with Rezo Obatala, Iyesá and Rumba Obatala (Wardo).

Excerpts of the oru cantado are presented then with cantos (songs) and toques for the Orishas: Eleggua (track #5), Ochosi (#6), Osain (#7), Changó (#8), Obba (#9), and Orunmila (#10).

Excerpts from the güemilere are featuring songs and toques for Obatala, as a matter of course (tracks #11, #13 and #14), but here also for the Orisha of war and iron, Ogún (track #12); the Orisha of the sea and motherhood, Yemayá (#15), and the Orisha of fire, dance and music, Changó (#16).

In place of the cierre (closing), the so-called salida is featured with songs for Eleggua and Olokun, the violent Orisha of the depths of the ocean. The final wipe out and farewell is again signaled by the batá drums alone.

The lead singer (akpwón) on this recording is known by the name Peteco; the batá drum ensemble features Momo and Roberto ("los Mambises") on iyá and itotele, respectively, as well as Michel on okonkolo.

The recording was made in January, 2001 in La Habana, Cuba by Lawrence Millard.

Track list:

  1. oru seco, part I (5’53)
  2. oru seco, part II (7’10)
  3. oru seco, part III (4’06)
  4. oru seco, part IV (3’52)
  5. oru cantado: songs for Eleggua (4’34)
  6. oru cantado: songs for Ochosi (4’53)
  7. oru cantado: songs for Osain (2’37)
  8. oru cantado: songs for Changó (1’34)
  9. oru cantado: songs for Obba (0’27)
  10. oru cantado: songs for Orunmila (3’20)
  11. güemilere: songs for Obatala [I] (3’33)
  12. güemilere: songs for Ogún (5’06)
  13. güemilere: songs for Obatala [II] (17’09)
  14. güemilere: song "Elerí efá" for Obatala (1’41)
  15. güemilere: songs for Yemayá (6’59)
  16. güemilere: songs for Changó (4’21)
  17. cierre: salida (2’33)

Recommended literature:

John Amira, Steven Cornelius: The Music of Santería (White Cliffs Media, Crown Point IN 1992)

Natalia Bolívar Aróstegui: Los Orishas en Cuba (fPM, La Habana 1994)

George Brandon: Santeria from Africa to the New World. The Dead Sell Memories (Indiana Univ. Press 1997)

Raul Canizares: Walking with the Night. The Afro-Cuban World of Santeria (Destiny Books, Rochester 1993)

E. Bolayi Idowu: Olódùmarè. God in Yoruba Belief (A&B, New York 1994)

John Mason: Orin Orìsà. Songs for Selected Heads (YTA, New York 1992)

Joseph M. Murphy: Santería. African Spirits in America (Beacon Press, Boston 1993)

Thomas Altmann is a professional percussionist in Hamburg, Germany, and author of the book Cantos LucumÌ a los Orichas. You can visit him at

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