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Review of Obiní Batá Cuba

Obiní Batá Cuba, approximately 64 minutes long, features a group of women who have challenged the prohibition of women playing batá drums, as emphasized in the brief but cogent liner notes by Cuban musicologist Enrique Zayas. Their name, Obiná Batá, is a Yoruba phrase meaning “Women of the Batá” – a signal to the male batá world that change is on the way. The group was founded in 1993 by Eva Despaigne Trujillo, Deborah C. Méndez Frontela, and Mirta Ocanto González. Of the original members, only Eva Trujillo remains in the group’s current configuration, which now includes six members, all of whom sing, dance, and play percussion (batá, conga, bell, shekere, and clave), as well as another woman who is primarily a dancer. In an interview that concludes the DVD, co-founder Eva Trujillo states that she graduated from the Escuela Nacional de Arte in folkloric and modern dance, and joined the Conjunto Folklórico Nacional de Cuba as a lead dancer. It was there, she said, that she learned percussion, and in 1991 she confronted the male batá drummers in the group about women being prohibited from playing these drums, and asked for lessons on the batá drums. Her reasoning was that “batá drums form a fundamental part of Cuba’s cultural heritage, just like congas, maracas, and claves, so the [batá] drums should belong to all Cubans.”

Obiní Batá give a breathless, riveting performance at the Yoruba Cultural Institute in June 2003. Their batá invocations for seven of the main orichas in what they call the “Orishas Suite” are well executed. The dancers for Eleguá and Ochún are appropriately playful and flirtatious; the dancers for Yemayá and Oyá are powerful and complex. The “Orishas Suite” is followed by skillful rumba renditions of popular tunes by such favorites as Celina González, Gloria Estefan, and Pablo Milanés. Their choreography is smooth and professional, and the blending of percussion and voice is seamless; the group has clearly rehearsed exhaustively.

Two aspects set this performance apart from typical folkloric performances. First, what the group has chosen to wear. The musicians are dressed in black leotards with transparent black tulle miniskirts and black high heels, accessorized with silver metal belts. In a typical Afro-Cuban folkloric performance, the musicians would wear white, in honor of the idea (if not the reality) of the religious initiation necessary to play consecrated batá drums. (The reference to the religious context is understood, even if the musicians are not “sworn to the drum”) By wearing black, the women disassociate themselves from the religious context, and align themselves with the Cuban tourist industry, an impression heightened by the miniskirts and high heels. In addition, the batá drums played by Obiní Batá are clearly “factory-made,” with steel tuning lugs and rims, another reminder that we are outside of a religious context.

Second, the strangely impassive audience. They sit quietly while the young women perform their carefully rehearsed repertoire at the Yoruba Cultural Institute, clapping politely at the end of each piece. Only twice – during the rhythmically intense “meta” section played for Yemayá and during an exciting rhythmic invocation to Oyá meant to evoke her whirlwinds – does the audience erupt with spontaneous applause in recognition of the superhuman effort involved in executing these complex. In a typical folkloric performance context, the audience would be freer, joining in the chorus parts in some of the songs, swaying back and forth for certain rhythms, showing a unity of performative intent. Obiní Batá may have deliberately enacted this separation from typical folkloric and religious contexts as a way of diminishing the perception of a threat to the male batá establishment.

[This] excellent DVD [was] made on a miniscule budget provided by the team themselves, and the audio quality is exceptional (the drums and vocals were recorded separately, to provide a “better-than-live” balance), especially when heard on stereo speakers. I would make the following observations. . .the occasionally restricted camera angles for “Obiní Batá Cuba” sometimes prevent the viewer from seeing the dancers, especially during the “Orishas Suite.” In addition, although the liner notes are available on-line and from the DVDs themselves, I would have appreciated a small already printed booklet of liner notes (which was not possible due to budget concerns). But these criticisms are small in the context of the very good work represented by . . .“Obiní Batá Cuba: Conjunto Feminino de Percusión, Canto y Danza.”

Katherine Hagedorn---Pomona College

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