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The name Obiní Batá means, in linguistic terms of strictly Yoruba cultural origins, “women that play the Batá drums.” In Cuba, these drums are part of a group formed by three instruments of different sizes. The largest one is called Iyá, which means mother, and it's the one that carries oratorio rhythm of the compositions, while the Itótele, the intermediate drum, and the Okónkolo, the smallest one, carry the sounds that are more stable and repetitive.

Batá drums originated in Sub-Saharan Africa, in the territory that now is part of Nigeria, where they were used by tribes to send messages to each other, and were also used in liturgy to play and sing to Changó, the deity that represents music. Cuban Batá drums were originally made in the city of Regla during the first half of the 19th century by two Africans of Yoruba heritage, with the Spanish names of Ño Filomeno García and Ño Juan el Cojo, who in their native continent had been religiously consecrated to their instruments and had been liturgically baptized with the name Anabi.

These sets of sacred drums must be built with solid wood in a clepsidrica shape, like an hourglass, with rigorously exact measurements, and percussed over two leather patches from a male goat and made taut with strings of leather. Inside the drum lives a deity (orisha) by the name of Añá, who is approached with religious deference. The drums can only be played by their owners, or by Olú Batá or Omó Añá, which are the names given to people who are consecrated to play these instruments.

To the principal drum (Iyá), a series of small bells are added to both ends. These are called Chaguaró and make their sound when the percussionist in charge of the group, called the Kpuátaki, plays the drum. All of this activity must be carried out exclusively by men, rigorously selected, who in Cuba play specific beats for each deity or saint in the pantheon.

Following the construction of the first set of drums, other sets were made, always to be used with sacred intent. In Cuba, with the passing of time popular music interpreters were persuaded by the deep richness of sound emitted by these instruments, and eventually non-sacred ones were made, built with planks of wood and tensed by steel bolts, similar to those employed on congas and other drums.

These instruments were rapidly incorporated by orchestras and groups that play folk music, but their players continued to be male, until a small group of women that formed part of the National Folkloric Ensemble learned to play them, and in 1993 formed the group Obiní Batá, becoming the first women in Cuba, and probably the entire world, to play these percussion instruments professionally.

Obiní Batá was originally formed by Deborah C. Méndez Frontela, Mirta Ocanto González, and Eva Despaigne Trujillo, and they played, sang, and danced the music. At the present time this unique and spectacular group is directed by the founding member Eva Despaigne Trujillo, who is accompanied by five women that, in addition to their singing and dancing, play the Batá drums, and also rumba cajones, tumbadoras, congas, the chequere, maracas, claves, bells, bongos, guayo, etc. Their popular music repertory, rich and diverse, has kept them at the vanguard of Cuban music.

For all these reasons and their history, I recommend that you take advantage of the musical spectacle that is offered by these women, unique in the world, artistically gathered in the Obiní Batá Ensemble.

Profesor Enrique G. Zayas Bringa
La Habana, junio de 2005.

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