« Program: Ancient Text Messages: Batá Drums in a Changing World


Kenneth Schweitzer Talks to Ned Sublette

I met Dr. Kenneth Schweitzer in 2010 when I was in residence at Washington College in Chestertown, MD, where he is presently (February 2016) chair of the music department. Ken is a specialist in what to me is the great classical music of West Africa in the Americas: the sacred repertoire of the batá drums in Cuba, now being played in ceremonies globally by hard-working professional master drummers. We taught a course together in spring 2011 at Washington College, where I had the pleasure of hearing him play and give wonderfully lucid lecture-demos about this most important instrument. His book, The Artistry of Afro-Cuban Batá Drumming, came out in 2013. It’s not for beginners, but it’s an advanced-level must. We sat down for a conversation in the media center at Washington College’s Miller Library, Nov. 4, 2015.


Ned Sublette: How did you get started on this path?

Kenneth Schweitzer: I started as a classical player. But around ’93 or so, hanging out in New York City, I heard some beautiful Latin jazz and came across some great drummers. When I got to college for my master’s work, all I wanted to do was find Cuban musicians, meet them, play with them. And then around 1998, I ran into Pancho Quinto, the legendary rumbero and batalero, when he was on tour in the United States with Canadian saxophonist Jane Bunnett. We developed a good friendship, and within a year I went to visit him in Havana, and I’ve been going back every year or two since. I worked with him until he passed in 2005, and I’ve connected with a lot of other artists as well.

Can you tell me what it was like studying with Pancho Quinto?

Oh, Pancho Quinto was a lot of fun. He was patient, he was a jokester. He insisted that I get to his house by 10 a.m., and if I was there at 10:05 he’d give me what-for, and then we’d get started. He had a playful way of teaching. He’d play jokes on me musically, he’d goof around with the people he had there with us who were helping us in our lessons, and he was excitable and always really excited by the progress I would make, which made me want to go back all the time. When we’d get done, it’d usually be around lunchtime, and I’d sit with him and his family for lunch. We’d work together like this seven days a week, from 10 a.m. until after lunch at 2, for two to four weeks at a time.

What did he teach you?

A lot of batá rhythms are written in books by now, and a lot of people know them, but he taught me how to use the rhythms, how to make them more malleable, how to make them more my own. There’s this tension in the tradition between knowing how to play something correctly but then also playing it like you want to, to feel what you’re playing. This is something I don’t think is talked about enough in ritual music and old traditions: when you’re learning a tradition handed down through a lineage, there’s the expectation that you’ll learn it properly, but there’s also an expectation that you’ll do something with it, something that’s your own. He was good at conveying that kind of material to me.

How did he communicate to you?

When you’re learning batá, you sit next to each other, so he sat with one drum, me with another. I went there knowing a lot of information, so I was able to play most of the rhythms, but when he wanted to teach me he would try to do something and wait for me to respond to it, and if I didn’t respond quite the way he wanted, he would try something again and maybe sing the response to me. He would flip things upside down sometimes; if I knew something really well, he’d give me a new way of thinking about it. He would do things at unexpected moments, which would force me to think twice as hard.

Pancho Quinto

Pancho Quinto

I ask because his legacy as a teacher is a very important one, and you touch on this in your book.

His legacy as a teacher is something that’s really near and dear to me. I realized when I was working with him that he was a special guy. While I worked with him I met other teachers, but I kept wanting to come back to him. There was something about working with him that just kept me interested.

After he had a stroke in 2003, I started thinking about talking about him more than simply learning what I wanted to learn. When I first started at this, I had minimal interest in documenting the lives of musicians; mostly, I wanted to talk about the music and how it’s played and what it means more broadly. But I decided around 2003, 2004, that I wanted to do a better job documenting Pancho Quinto’s musical career. After he passed in 2005, I made a real effort to try to find everything written about him that I could, and there wasn’t much. I tried to talk to his old friends and music, his best friends, people that have been on sessions with him, ask them to tell me stories about him, ask them to talk about him as a teacher, what his legacy might have been. I asked some of these questions while he was still alive, and I asked the same questions again after he had passed away, and people were much more free to speak about him after he had passed. Which is understandable: people have friendships, people are competitive, people are rivals, and they have to watch out for boundaries when they’re talking.

How do the drums communicate? There’s a lot of ways we can look at this question. There’s the kind of communication between teacher and student; Donald Harrison calls the process in jazz “playing under the wing,” where a jazz musician will be on stage with a more experienced player who will guide him and give him instructions, and this process happens in the teaching of batá, does it not?

It does. I find the way batá is taught traditionally to be fascinating. I had the pleasure of taking lessons with Pancho Quinto, and I took dozens or more with him. But most musicians in the tradition don’t take lessons. They listen, they absorb, and then they find themselves in the position where they’re going to drumming rituals, and they’re asked to play for short periods of time, and they are asked to play things that they probably know well, or that are easy and approachable. And when they do this the ensemble works with that person to push them along and to make them better and make them understand what’s going on.

Every time you play batá, you are faced with uncertainty. It’s an improvisatory tradition. Not that you can improvise and play whatever you want; it’s a dynamic improvisatory context. That is, you don’t know what’s going to be played in any given moment until it happens, and the context is being shaped constantly by what the purpose of the ritual is, and that changes from day to day; or [according to] what a dancer seems to be doing; or who is in the room, or what a singer wants to sing, or what any individual drummer wants to play. So relatively inexperienced drummers will sit down in a situation where they need to play, and the drummers then communicate to that person what needs to be communicated.

There are some verbal cues that can be given. You can teach the person who plays a small drum what would be played by saying the syllables ki or la or kling. Ki would be the larger head of the batá drum; la would be the smaller head; kling would be to play them together. A drummer might be playing the largest lead iyá drum and playing a rhythm, and while he plays his own rhythm, he might sing to the smallest drummer, the okónkolo player, he might go: la ki la, la ki kling / la ki la, la ki kling [demonstrates] while he plays his own rhythm, and in doing so he’s communicating what the other person should play.

Is there any lexical meaning to what the batá are saying? We’re going to be talking with Amanda Villepastour, who’s been looking at how the Cuban batá’s parent drum in Nigeria is used to relay linguistic messages there. What has happened to this tradition in Cuba?

That’s a good question. The batá tradition has evolved in two different locales. It’s originally from Nigeria, and it came from Cuba during the transatlantic slave trade, and for about 200 years they evolved in isolation from each other, responding to what pressures they have around them. So though they share the same root, and there are fundamental things that are the same about them, they’re also very different traditions today. I think the way they talk or communicate is one of those areas where they’ve really taken on a different character.

I don’t know much about the Nigerian style, but in Cuba the notion that batá drums are talking drums is a very real notion. Terms like talking, conversation, call and response, are common terms that batá drummers are using to describe what they’re doing. The first place my mind goes when I think about the batá as talking drums is: who are they talking to? The drums are talking to the orisha, and one of the orisha is Añá. Añá is an orisha that inhabits the drums. I have batá in the studio right now with me, but they don’t have Añá in them, they’re not consecrated.

There is a pantheon of orishas–maybe an infinite number, but in Cuba, generally, a couple of dozen are recognized and worshiped on a regular basis. Each orisha has its own series of rhythms, and in some cases orishas share rhythms so it can be complicated to know what rhythm is for what orisha. And drummers know all these rhythms, what they call toques, which is maybe more like a sequence of rhythms. And when drummers play these toques on drums like the ones I have here in the studio, which don’t have Aná in them, the orisha don’t really hear what’s going on. But when you put Aná in the drums, and the drums are consecrated and have an orisha that has been embedded in the drums through a variety of consecrations, they give the rhythms a voice. They allow the rhythms that the drummers played to be heard by the orisha, and when drummers play the right rhythm for a particular orisha, the orisha listen.

The drummers are calling to the orisha, they’re inviting the orisha, they’re worshiping the orisha, they’re praising the orisha, they’re ultimately asking the orisha to come to wherever they are and make their presence available. There’s a variety of ways they do that, but often they do it through possession. So this is the notion that drummers are speaking with the orisha. They’re sharing, they’re worshiping, they’re invoking, and they’re making reference to various aspects of orisha.

In Nigeria, I understand that the batá speak linguistic phrases. That may happen in Cuba, but what happens more often is that the batá mimic chanting phrases, and they follow the melodies of songs.

A set of Cuban batá drums. In the center is the iyá, or mother drum. To the left is the itotele, and on the right, the smallest of the three is the okónkolo.  Casa de las Religiones Populares, Santiago de Cuba, 2003. Photo: Ned Sublette


There’s a toque, or rhythm, for Babalu-Ayé, that follows the melodic contour of a song. The song would be: [Sings] bariba oggete ma / mole yansa a mole ya /bake bake bake / mole yansa a mole ya.

The batá are three two-headed drums. The largest one is the iyá. The larger, lower-sounding head, enu, [demonstrates] sounds like this. The smaller, higher one, chachá [demonstrates] sounds like this. So I’m going to play this melody on two of the six heads of the three drums: on the enu of the iyá and the enu of the itototele. And enu is the Yoruba word for mouth, so the idea that these heads are speaking is embedded in the description of the drums. [Sings and plays]

What were you just now demonstrating?

I was demonstrating how the enu heads of the two larger drums in the ensemble, the iyá and the itotele, coordinate to follow the contours of a well-known chant or melody that’s associated with the orisha Babalu-Ayé, so if you want to praise Babalu-Ayé, you can either sing that chant or you can play the drums, you’re basically doing the same thing regardless of what you choose. And they can be done at the same time, obviously. So it’s never going to sound like I just did, that’s only two of the six drum heads, but those are the speaking heads of the drums: the enu of the iyá and the enu of the itotele. They coordinate using four different pitches, and I hope you could hear those pitches in our recording. They create that contour, and the other four heads come together to create an ostinato or metronome, a timeline for the chants to work inside.

And this is two musicians playing that melody that you just played, because of course this is the enu of two different drums. So how are they communicating while they’re playing?

They just know. When one starts in, the other knows what it is and jumps in.

How is the flow directed?

The flow gets directed from multiple sources. Different things are expected in different parts of the ceremony. Sometimes the drums play by themselves, sometimes they play with a singer. They play by themselves during the oru de igbodu, sometimes called the oru seco, in which case all the communication is taking place just between the drummers. Later in the ceremony during the fiesta, when there is more of the public available, there’s a lead singer, the akpwon. He or she is a professional who knows hundreds of songs and knows where to place them in the ceremony. So the singer guides a lot of what takes place, and when he or she starts to sing a song, the drummers respond to it, following the singer’s cues. They orient themselves and know where to come in against the song.

If the function of the drum is to speak to the orishas and invite them to come down, what happens when possession takes place?

A drumming ceremony can last a couple of hours, or it can last as many as four or five hours. It occupies a lot of time, and in that time, there may be a possession or there may be a couple or there may be none. Possessions, when they happen, they often manifest themselves fairly slowly, but not always–sometimes they happen rapidly and instantaneously. But a drummer can look at a crowd of people and start to get a sense of who might be ready to be possessed. Drummers will watch priests and priestesses in the religion dancing, and if they show some indication that they’re perhaps susceptible to possession, drummers will select rhythms, and the singer might select songs, to encourage possession. So you start interacting with the dancers or the singers in this way. And sometimes there’ll be a positive response and someone will indicate that they’re moving towards possession.

If that happens, the environment in the room starts to change. Everyone in the room starts to focus on a potential mount for an orisha. The drummers become hyperfocused, the singer becomes hyperfocused, everyone in the room starts to gather around. One of the things that’s essential at this point is that you don’t stop playing. And this is sometimes difficult, because you may be tired and you may wish to stop, but you don’t stop when there is a potential orisha possession. Often tempos speed up, and you may stay on a rhythm for a very long time. When there’s no possession impending, you might move from rhythm to rhythm, kind of in exploratory mode, but when an orisha may be coming you start to focus on a limited number of very important rhythms, and you can linger there for 10, 15, or 20 minutes, depending on what’s needed at that point, during which time the drummers are primarily focused on bringing possession. Once an orisha appears or possesses its mount, the drumming stops. The orisha prostrates on the floor and greets all the drums, the añá, all the senior santeros and santeras, and then that orisha may get up and dance, may request some songs that they want to dance to, or they may leave the room. So once the orisha comes, in many ways it calms down quite a bit. The orisha is simply a presence in the room that engages or disengages the music as he or she sees fit.

Are you talking about a person continuing to be possessed, or that once they leave the room there’s a kind of discharge of energy, or…?

Well, if an orisha leaves the room, it’s because they’re going to the throne room where they’re going to greet the throne, which has to happen. They may stay in there and visit with people who want to speak to the orisha, at which point advice might be given out, or blessings asked for, and so when they leave the room, their presence is still felt. There’s still an orisha in the ritual space, but we’re not responding directly to that energy.

The drums are communicating with the divine even as the musicians are communicating with each other. Each orisha has its own rhythms, but the rhythms overlap.

That’s right.

Let’s talk about the role of ñongo in all this. Could you explain what ñongo is and how it functions in communication?

If you want people to dance for extended periods of time, to be engaged, to sing lots of songs and to basically do a very generic kind of worship, ñongo is a perfect rhythm for that, and therefore it gets played a lot of the time.

Some of the rhythms the batá play are associated with one orisha, and some are associated with a couple of orisha, overlapping. I, maybe slightly controversially, say there are some that cover classes of orisha. Ñongo is one of a few toques that are considered generic, that have no association with any orisha, and they are perfect toques for the party. There are other rhythms, like chachalokuafún, that appear for a large portion of the ceremony, but this one rhythm, ñongo, gets played a lot. I don’t have any quantitative data about how much–a third of the time, or half the time, depends on what’s going on. And because it gets played so much, the drummers spend a lot of time developing it, coming up with new ways to interact, because drummers as creative beings want to explore what’s possible inside this rhythm.

It seems to me that every batá group has their own way of playing, a sort of a signature style. A crew of drummers works together over extended periods of time. The same drummers generally work together day in, day out, and the drummers in Cuba may be playing seven nights a week. I dare say they might even play more if they could. So they have a lot of time to get to know each other, and they develop a style.

On the one hand, you’ve got your own way of playing something; on the other, this is a codified rhythm. Since ñongo by its nature doesn’t follow a specific chant or convey any specific kind of meaning, the drummers instead focus on creating conversations, which are call-and-response passages shared between the iyá and the itotele. They play phrases on their enu heads, so the iyá drummer plays something and the itotele player responds, and the iyá drummer plays something totally different and the itotele player responds again. There are many stock calls and stock responses and some well-known variations, and then there are a lot of creative new ideas that have developed over time.

Is popular music affecting the way this music is played?

In my opinion, popular music is profoundly affecting the way this music is played. It’s changed rapidly over the last couple of decades. I had the opportunity to record some contemporary drummers and speak with them and try to figure out what they’re doing, because the old drummers listen to the new drummers and some of them can’t figure out what’s going on inside the music. They’re speaking too much, they’re talking too much, their conversations are too rapid, they’re overlapping each other in ways that makes them unintelligible to certain audiences. And I’ve been curious about what the source of all this is.

It seems to me that what’s going on now, and maybe what has always happened, is that the batá drummers of today, while they are bona fide ritual drummers who have devoted their life to being able to play batá in the ritual setting, they’re also commercial, professional musicians. They play rumba, they play jazz, they play timba, they play all different types of styles, and it’s inevitable that an artist who works within various genres is going to take ideas from one genre and insert them into the other. I think this is a natural phenomenon. So when I listen to modern versions of this rhythm ñongo, I hear elements of Cuban rumba, especially the modern rumba, I hear elements of jazz, and in speaking to various artists of the current day, they shared with me their feelings that they are doing it intentionally now. They’re very comfortable saying, like, “yeah, I did a thing on a timba gig last night and I wanted to apply that style of playing to what I do on batá.”

Pedrito Martinez

Pedrito Martínez

The artist that I’m really interested in for what he’s doing with timba and Latin jazz is Pedro Martínez. He gave me a beautiful four-hour interview where he explains exactly how he does it. And specifically what concepts he’s taking from one realm and putting into another realm. And it’s not rhythms, it’s concepts.

I met Pedro back in 1998 when he came to the United States. He was on the same tour with Pancho Quinto with Jane Bunnett, so we connected at the same time. I developed a friendship with Pedro and with Pancho Quinto at the same time. Also on the trip was Ernesto Gatell, a famous rumba singer. Pancho went back to Cuba, but as you know, Pedro stayed in the United States, and for his first four years here he and I interacted quite a bit. I took a lot of lessons with Pedro and he also explained to me what’s going on conceptually with his music, and we’re talking 15 years ago, he was sharing with me some ideas and I was personally blown away as a musician by what he was doing. He was showing me how he took batá ideas and incorporated them into popular music. He would take a rhythmic idea from batá and would play it on conga, but he wouldn’t do it in a way that you’d find recognizable. He’d flip it in clave, he’d offset it by a quarter note, and give it to you in a way that you wouldn’t recognize it, but he was very comfortable doing this because he’s an absolutely masterful musician.

Sounds like set theory!

Well, his mind works like that–analytical, meticulous, no stone unturned. He can articulate the clave with his mouth or with his foot while he flips these rhythms or offsets them, and I’ve seen him also turn them into half-note triplets, eighth-note triplets, 16th-note triplets, offsetting them and doing amazing things with it. I had a chance to reconnect with him a few times over the last three years, and finally got him to sit down for an interview, and I wanted him to tell me what he’s been doing for the last 15 years in terms of the conversations that he and I had had 15 years earlier, so I’m going to ask different questions than any other interviewer would, because they’re very personal questions to me, I was personally interested in his development and in his playing.

I asked him, is what you do most of the time as a professional musician, which is working with Latin jazz musicians and popular music groups–is that an influence on how you play batá? As a batá scholar, that’s the question that I really wanted to know. And he made no distinction between borrowing from batá and using it in popular music or borrowing from popular music and using it in batá. He intentionally lets flow in both directions, and he understands the value of tradition and knowing how it was taught to him, so the way that he plays conga is the same way he plays his batá.

Have you worked with Román Díaz?

I interviewed Román once, because I ran into him and asked him some questions about Pancho. I asked him to address a controversy which is that, there are people who really admire Pancho Quinto, but there seem to also be some people who said, like, he’s too free, he deviates too far from the form and maybe doesn’t know what he’s doing. This has been something I’ve heard, and I wanted someone to address it, and I know that Román was a student of Pancho Quinto. And Román had a beautiful answer to that, which was–it’s in my book–“the basis of Pancho’s teaching is maintaining a respect for his teachers all the time. It’s as though he was having a constant conversation with the Eggun, his late teachers, and all the batá drummers who have come before him, maintaining always not just the respect, but the direct connection to the people that taught him. He was always looking for a way to develop himself and what they taught, but he maintained a constant link to those people.”

When I asked if Pancho was too creative or whether he took too many liberties with his playing, Román responded, “Pancho had first-hand knowledge and experience of the people you could say were the original knowledge base. What explains that kind of criticism or misunderstanding is that Pancho was using a concept that was oriented toward the rhythmic line of the singer and the dancer and that was his personal way of expressing himself, very particular to him. It’s possible that nobody understood what he was doing, but it’s not because he was ever lost or didn’t know what was going on.” And I talked to Pedro about his teachers, and Pancho was of course one of Pedro’s teachers, though not his primary teacher, so I asked Pedro what he learned from different teachers. I know he worked with Regino Jiménez and many others. Pedro’s the kind of guy who tries to get as many influences and perspectives as possible. But from Pancho Quinto, he learned about creativity and individuality.

Could we talk for a minute about the Abbilona recordings?

This is a great set of recordings. Somewhere in the late 1990s they recorded 16 discs in just a couple of sessions. As they were released, they quickly fell into the hands of lots of drummers in Cuba, in the United States, and I’ve also been to Mexico City several times, and I’ve worked with the very large drumming and santería community there, and to a person they’ve got the entire Abbilona collection and they also have the later set of recordings that they released. The Abbilona recordings have become a go-to source for many of today’s drummers. Prior to the Abbilona recordings, they had other recordings at their disposal, like the Muñequitos did on Ito Iban Echu, and some other wonderful early recordings, like Ilu Añá. But Abbilona was such an ambitious adventure, they recorded so much, and it was a very creative venture. And they did a lot of things that in my research I saw that they did with ñongo. And they took ñongo to a new place. If you analyze recordings of the mid-’90s and the early ’90s and then you analyze the Abbilona recordings, you can see a tremendous change. So I became curious about who was on those recordings and who did them and what their perspective was, and the folks that were on this recording were a family that most people know as Los Chinitos.

They made it so compelling to buy them. They’re well recorded, high quality, and it made sense: they made each disc to be for a specific orisha, and there’s lots of singers out there who want to learn songs, and the songs are laid out there for you, and the style was an emerging style of playing ñongo, and there’s lots of drummers that want to be at the cutting edge of what’s going on musically, so it was a great study for a drummer. But I want to get back to Los Chinitos…

You may know guaguancó, yambú, and columbia, but back in the late 1970s and ‘80s, there was a movement in Havana where rumba players started to push the genre forward, and a style emerged in the streets and in the barrios called guarapachangueo. The leading figures in guarapachangueo include Pancho Quinto, whom I’ve already talked about, and also, some brothers, the López family. They’re known better as Los Chinitos, as they say, because they have a little Chinese in the face. They live in the neighborhood of San Miguel de Padrón.

They developed a highly improvised version of guaguancó–very free, very fluid, sort of a departure from the rules that defined guaguancó for the last several decades. And it was an upstart, but it has become in Havana the dominant style of rumba that you now hear with contemporary groups like Yoruba Andabo or Los Rumberos de Cuba. This style started with the López brothers, in coordination with a bunch of other great drummers from the time, so this Abbilona project that were talking about was a project done by the López brothers. They were the core of it. I spoke with a couple of the brothers, Pedro and Bertico, and we chatted for a while, but I dropped on them, I said, you know, what you guys did with ñongo on that album, is it connected at all to what you did with guarapachangueo a couple of decades ago? And I think their first response was, what? They weren’t making the connection. But they made it after a while, said, “yeah, you know, I think were doing the same thing. The kind of liberties and freedom and looseness that we apply to the rumba genre we were also applying to the batá genre.”


And we hear this in Abbilona?

We hear this on the Abbilona recordings.

How does it manifest itself?

The artists that were recorded before then–and I can only go by recorded artists–followed a structure of call and response. The iyá player would play something and the itotele player would play something in response. And it was often fairly predictable what they played. There’s variations, and there’s plenty of room to pick and choose how you’re going to respond, but most listeners, you listen to the Ito Iban Echu album and you listen to the Muñequitos play ñongo and on first listening, maybe second listening, you can basically understand what they’re doing. But the Abbilona recording started to put the calls in entirely different places then were expected, and instead of doing a call and response and a call and response, the iyá player would leave the standard pattern for long periods of time–maybe for, instead of just one bar, maybe leave it for 13 bars or 14 bars. They would abandon the base, they would abandon the framework, and the itotele player would also abandon the framework, and they’d be doing this very free sort of interwoven conversational improvisation that on first and second and third listenings I couldn’t figure out what was going on.

I’ve looked at it more closely and I find that it has a very clear structure, but the structure is not anything I had heard previously or analyzed previously. They would play these extended call-and-response things, and then they would come out and go back to something a little more familiar, and after playing something familiar for a while, they would then again deviate from standard, dropping notes where least expected then, and that became the cue that they were leaving the standard base, by dropping a note where you wouldn’t expect it, exactly where it doesn’t belong, and the whole ensemble would deviate.

And this in turn has spread via the diffusion of the recordings worldwide.

These recordings are everywhere, and this is what people are listening to, and it’s still an important knowledge base a decade later. It’s one of the easiest recordings to get your hands on. When I went to Mexico City, to just meet some drummers, and to go to ceremonies with them and to see how things are being done in Mexico City, I’d go back to their houses and they’d say hey, let’s listen on the computer and compare recordings that we have and be very social about it, and the first thing they would pull up would be the Abbilona recordings.

So is there a New York style, Havana style, a Miami style, a Mexico City style, is it all flowing in an open circuit that communicates among itself?

There’s a Havana style and a Matanzas style, and the Havana style is the dominant style in the United States, especially on the East Coast, maybe Matanzas has more influence on the West Coast. But other than saying that, what goes on in New York, or goes on in Miami, goes on in Cuba, or goes on in Mexico City, is more or less the same. What changes from place to place is not how knowledgeable the drummers are but the practitioners, the audiences–how engaged they are in singing, and choral responses, and in engaging and energizing the drummers. If you don’t have a very energetic congregation it’s going to change how the drummers play and what they do, so it feels different in different places but it’s not really a stylistic thing.

I always said this was the problem with bringing timba to the United States, because, my experience of timba in Cuba, before it was called that, was that this very engaged and very critical audience of teenagers who want to dance, is pushing the band as it’s playing. When you see a timba band play at La Tropical in Havana, it’s really an open circuit. The band is pushing the dancers, the dancers are pulling energy out of the band, and you don’t have that kind of dancing public in Miami. After 25 years now, I secretly think that timba’s about to have an international boom that was sort of denied when it was happening in Cuba because of the discrimination against Cuban musicians. The bands still exist, they still sound great. But it has taken this long to develop even a small public that can really respond to this crazy stuff they’re doing and egg them on a little bit.

Yeah, I think we’re talking about the same thing here. You can’t have the styles of music without having an audience that is engaged in the right way. I’ve seen akpwon stop a ceremony because no one was singing, and basically saying, “If you don’t sing, this isn’t going to work.” I’ve seen them stop and start again after having said this to everyone, and I’ve also seen them stop, pack up, and go home.

You’ve seen this in Cuba?

Yeah, in Cuba. More likely it would happen in Cuba, I think. The drummers are more patient in the United States because they know that people don’t know a lot. But in Cuba there’s little more expectation that you know and participate, and if they’re not participating, you know, it’s not a concert.

I think the interesting story here is that our concept of all of this continues to change. The theology is changing as we go along, as we move into the 21st century. This axis of tradition versus modernity–the whole thing is about connection with the past, with the ancestors, and yet we keep modernizing our attitude toward our concept of what it is, what language we talk about it in, and even the way the drums are played.

I agree. As the vision modernizes, the more you know about the mythology, the more you can explore that mythology with your music. For example, Changó was a great king of Oyó. He’s associated with thunder and with fire, and his colors are white and red for these reasons. He’s also the owner of the batá, and you can connect the thunderous nature of a big drum as it makes the noises of thunder. If the drummer plays music for Changó, and he focuses on the high cracking sounds that he can create on the high-pitched chachá heads, if he can really think about, “well, this is Changó and this is lightning and thunder, and I’m going to smack that head and try to imitate what thunder might sound like”–so long as you’ve got that on your mind, and you’re working that idea within the rhythmic framework, then you can explore. The more you know about the mythology the more you can explore and still remain true to what’s going on in the music.

This is a very interesting thing you just brought up, which is the notion of onomatopoeia, or imitative sounds. Explain this to me and see if I’ve got it right: while you’re playing the batá three things are going on at once. There’s a rhythmic grid, a basic groove, which is locked into a clave: there’s a more lexical kind of conversation that’s happening with the enu of the iyá and the itotele. But there’s also sound. I remember hearing you imitate on batá the sound of Ogún, walking through the forest.

Yes. Ogún lives in the forest, and he’s a warrior, and when you play his rhythm, if you’re thinking what it might be what like to be marching, to be insistent, you think about soldiers on the battlefield, they have to walk into battle, they march and they’re insistent, so it’s got a driving aspect to it. You can’t relax while you’re playing his rhythm. Ogún has dominion over iron, and over all technology. He’s a patron of the blacksmith. So when you’re playing the drum, if you can make your high drum sound something like banging an anvil, then you’re embodying Ogún.

Thank you, Dr. Schweitzer . . .