Home 9 Volume 2 9 Güiros and Batá Drums: Two Instrumental Groups of Cuban Santería


Victoria Eli Rodríguez



SONGS, DANCES, and their corresponding instrumental components are essential to the rituals of African-based religions in Latin America and the Caribbean. Among the various instrumental groups of Cuban Santería, two distinct types are the most widespread and valued among practitioners and believers: güiros—the externally struck idiophones also known as agbe or chekeré—and batá drums. (See Juan Mesa Díaz, “The Religious System of Ocha/Ifá”; and María Elena Vinueza, “Music in Festive Celebrations of the Regla de Ocha,” in this volume.)

The güiro, cabaça, agbe age açon, chekeré, or piano de cuia is used frequently not only in Santería but also in Candomblé, in the cult of Changó, and in Vodú. Consequently, its natural habitat is Brazil and the Antilles, but we shall concern ourselves here only with its presence and musical practice in Cuba.

This güiro is an idiophone of indirect percussion. Its hollow vessel is made from the gourd or cucurbitaceous fruit of vines of the genus Lagenaria, which is covered with a network of percussive objects that can be seeds, beads, or both. These function as strikers on the outer walls of the resonant vessel, creating a profusion of sound when the instrument is shaken, or when its lower end, an area not covered by the netting, is struck (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Caja, the lowest and largest instrument of a güiro ensemble, held by the performer and instrument maker Juan Drake (Matanzas, 1981). Photo by Carlos Manuel Fernández, courtesy of the Centro de Investigación y Desarrollo de la Música Cubana (CIDMUC), La Habana.

Güiro, agbe, ebwe, aggüe, and chequeré are the terms most commonly used in Cuba to refer to this instrument, which is a shaker, or rattle. (The scraper defined under the term güiro in Marcuse’s Musical Instruments: A comprehensive dictionary [1964: 218], The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians [Blades 1980: VII, 825], and The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments  [Schechter and Blades 1984: II, 86–87] is a different instrument made of the same material.) Among the various designations for the instrument that concerns us here, the most common and widely used is güiro, especially by the practitioners of Santería, who are the main carriers of this ritual and musical tradition. Occasionally, they also refer to it as agbe or aggüe. Moreover, the term chequeré (chekeré) is widespread among sectors of the population that are not linked to Santería, especially when the instrument is used in the context of popular music.

Güiro is a noun that was used to refer to both the güiro plant and the gourd that is its fruit, and was later applied to the musical instruments made from the gourd. In his towering work, Los instrumentos de la música afrocubana, Fernando Ortiz observes that the word agbe is used among Yoruba and Ibo peoples to mean the fruit of a long, peduncular member of cucurbitaceous plants or, simply, a calabash. Shekeré is also a term used by the Yoruba for instruments of this type, as well as for a drum made of a specific calabash, reflecting an obvious onomatopoeia in the phoneme (Ortiz 1952–55: II, 123).

The term sekeré, most disseminated in Nigerian territory, implies the joining of two meanings. On the one hand, seré—a gourd with a long, slender neck, according to Abraham’s Dictionary of Modern Yoruba (1958: 282)—refers to the fruit from which the instrument is made; on the other hand, as indicated by Ortiz, the repetition and continuity of sound implied phonetically in the term sekeré (further reinforced when Samuel Crowther called it shekkerreh in his Vocabulary of the Yoruba Language [1843, cited in Ortiz 1952–55: II, 137]) refers to the uninterrupted reiteration that characterizes the sound of the instrument.

Likewise, abwe is a contraction of abá and awe. Abá refers to a woven fabric, mesh, or intricate netting (A Dictionary of the Yoruba Language 1950: II, 1); awe implies part of a fruit or nut (ibid. 1950: II, 49). Their contraction, abwe, one of the terms retained on the island, coincides with its meaning in Cuba: “a fruit covered by a net.”

From this group of terms and their phonetic variants, which were imposed on Africans and their descendants by the new social environment, Cubans preserved the terms agbe, abwe, aggüe, and aggüé. All these are creole derivations of the original agbe and igbá. Although güiro is the common name used for these instruments in Cuba, its synonyms display a clear similarity to terms used in Africa.

Güiros are played generally in groups of three instruments of different dimensions, register (low, middle, and high), and function (Fig. 2). From largest to smallest and correspondingly low to high register, their combinations are named as follows:

Cajamula, and cachimbo;
cajamula, and omelé;
cajasegundo, and cachimbo;
cajados golpes, and salidor;
cajados golpes, and un golpe;
cajasegundo, and un golpe;
cajasegundo, and uno;
cajados, and uno;
tresdos, and uno;
cajamarcador, and repicador.

The names assigned to the same register and function can be exchanged between these combinations. Omelé is the only term of African antecedents; the remaining designations are in Spanish.

Fig. 2: Güiro ensemble from La Habana. Photo by Francisco Escariz, courtesy of Cuba’s Ministry of Culture and Juan Manuel Villar Paredes.

The use of the term caja (box) for the largest and lowest güiro (Fig. 1) is quite generalized, and serves also to name the largest and lowest drum in various membranophone ensembles. The terms that define the function and register of medium-size and small güiro also coincide with those used for membranophones: mula (mule), dos golpes (two strokes), and marcador (marker) are used for the drum performing the functions of the middle timbric register; cachimbo, omelé (the name of a small African drum), repicador (ringer), and salidor (starter) can apply equally to the functions of the smallest and highest drum in membranophone ensembles. This terminological exchange is one of many manifestations of the interplay of influences between instrumental ensembles of African and European provenance, and the resulting synthesis that took place in Cuba.

By extension, the ceremonies in which these instruments are used are called güiros, as are domestic festivities devoid of ritual significance. The terms bakosó and wemilere also are used occasionally to designate a fiesta de güiro. All the terms designating the celebrations themselves have been practically replaced by the more widespread name of fiesta de bembé.

In addition, the term güiro is commonplace for idiophones used in ensembles of Cuban popular music, such as maracas and the güiro or guayo, which are respectively shaken and scraped (Marcuse 1964: 218; Blades 1980: VII, 825; Schechter and Blades 1984: II, 86–87). The common element between maracas, the güiro or guayo, and the güiro used in Santería is the allusion to the gourd used in their construction and to the plant on which it grows.

The construction of the güiro is a specialized craft. Our interviews with instrument makers throughout the island revealed a striking diversity of methods; consequently, we shall describe here only the most widespread.

The plant from which the gourd is harvested is a creeping vine that can be found growing wild in the countryside or grown domestically from seeds. The construction process begins with the selection of the güiro if growing in the wild, or with the care taken of it while it grows to the desired size. In this case it is protected so that the shell will neither split, rot, nor be attacked by insects.

When the gourd is halfway to maturity (neither too soft nor too dry), it is chosen according to the different dimensions needed for each of the three instrumental pitch levels, then separated from the stalk with a handsaw or hacksaw, leaving a circular opening that the makers and players call boca (mouth). The pulp and seeds are extracted through this opening. This process requires great skill. Special care must be taken to prevent cuts in the shell of the gourd, because if any part of it is damaged it may split during the construction process or from the actions of striking and shaking when played. In addition, the desired smoothness of the surface may suffer. Makers therefore use a spoon to empty the gourd, or a manito (little hand) similar to a rounded hook, occasionally a common wire, or simply the hand. No tool or object that might perforate or reduce the thickness of the shell should be used.

Once emptied, the gourd must be dried outdoors, in the shade. The amount of time this takes depends on how mature it is; nevertheless, many informants claim that after twenty-one days it will be dried and “cured.” Oiling it inside and out with palm oil so that it “spits out all the water” contributes to this process (Ortiz 1952–55: II, 128, corroborated by our interviews in Havana and Matanzas). According to Ortiz, once the güiro was emptied, it was dipped in hot water; ash and hot water were then poured into the interior to facilitate the process of scraping it clean (loc. cit.). This practice, however, has fallen into disuse. For those we interviewed, leaving the gourd to dry naturally in the open air is sufficient. Once dry, any residue remaining in the interior can be removed easily. An empirical method to determine whether the drying process is complete is to scratch the shell with a fingernail; if the güiro is ready, the mark will remain in the already hardened surface.

The shell’s degree of hardness is very important to the sound quality of the instrument. The shell must be resilient enough to survive the percussive treatment to which it will be subjected in performance, and this is only possible with a hard and well-dried shell. At this point, the güiro can be smoothed with sandpaper to make its surface regular if the maker so desires. More frequently, however, the güiro is left in its “natural” state.

Two small holes are pierced beside the boca to allow the introduction of a cord by which the güiro can be grasped. Some makers also pierce another small hole through the bottom of the instrument, called culo (butt), that lends resistance when struck in performance.

Once the gourd has been prepared, the maker weaves the mesh or net, together with the stringed beads or seeds (strikers), to “cover” or “dress” the instrument. The mesh is woven with thread or pita-fiber fishing-line, with fine hemp, or some other variety of cord that does not fray easily, because the seeds rubbing against the thread can break it. Some experiments have been made with nylon, but these have not been extensive.

The strikers woven into the net are quite diverse. The most commonly used seeds are different varieties of jack bean, such as mate (preferred for its sound quality, strength, and availability), and the varieties called cayajabo, and gray or yellow guacalote. Soapberry, Job’s tears, flamboyant, gilla nuts, and oxeye also are used in what becomes a display of Cuban flora (jaboncillo, Santa Juana, flamboyán, poas, and ojos de buey). The seeds must be thoroughly dried, and they must be skillfully perforated to prevent them from splitting. To this end, a fine iron punch is heated until red-hot, or, in current practice, a gimlet or hand drill is used.

Ortiz indicates that, in the construction of the traditional agbe, large and hard glass beads (called “Glorias” or “Marías” in Cuba) were used (1952–55: II, 130). The use of these glass beads still lives in the memory of some informants, but they have been substituted because they are no longer sold in Cuban stores. To the use of seeds, plastic beads have been added. Some craftsmen routinely combine various types of different-colored seeds together with plastic strikers to enhance the decoration of the instrument. The use of reptile vertebrae or caracoles (cowrie shells), which is frequent in Africa, is uncommon in Cuba. It is also possible to find the insertion of one or another type of jingle or small bell, but mate and guacalote jack-bean seeds are by far the most common type of strikers used.

The weaving of the mesh is done directly on the body of the güiro, which remains suspended during this process. There are different styles of netting, distinguishable by either their simplicity or complexity. The oldest method of weaving, described by Ortiz, is also one of the most complex and entails the following steps. Each bead is strung on two threads at a time; the threads are knotted on each side before and after passing through the hole in the bead. To weave the netting, the maker begins by placing a collar of cord around the neck of the güiro. At intervals of approximately an inch he then ties strands doubled back in such a way that each of them forms a loop, which is tied to the collar. From this point, he works his way down the strands. Two strands are separated at a right angle; the left-hand strand of each pair goes toward the right-hand strand of the neighboring loop, and the two are tied together. A bead is strung and the two strands are tied again. Once the bead is secured, the two strands are separated again as they were before, and each, with the following neighboring loops, proceeds to another knotting. Thus all the strands looped into the collar continue interweaving and forming the mesh, with the beads held tightly between the knots. When the maker arrives at the lower part of the güiro, where the diameter is reduced, he reduces the size of the mesh. At a suitable point, another cord, called faja (girdle), is inserted and all the ends are firmly tied to it. The result of this process is a loose but permanent netting from which the güiro “cannot escape” (Ortiz 1952–55: II, 129).

A simpler form of netting consists of threading strands fastened to the upper collar, once this is in place. The end of the line may be waxed to make it easier to pass through the seeds or beads. The weaving begins by knotting the cords into triangles; a seed is put on one of the cords, and, after it is strung, a knot is made using the cord from the opposite side. This process creates diamond-shaped figures that continue until they cover the surface of the instrument. Once the weaving is concluded at the lower end, it is finished off with an open web through which passes another girdle. This lower border can be tightened or left loose, influencing the güiro’s resonance.

A third way of lining güiros consists of making knots between cords passing through the beads, but without fixing the beads in place with any knots. This obviously gives the beads greater mobility, though the resulting netting may be somewhat irregular. A variant method utilizes a small rattan hoop covered with cloth. The cords are attached to this, and then the weaving proceeds in one of the ways previously described. At the end, the netting is finished off with another small rattan hoop, also covered with cloth.

All of these procedures are in use today, but the first is the most rigorous and effective. If the quality of the gourd and the type of seeds are decisive elements to achieve the desired sound, so are the knots. The sound will be clearer and more precise in weaves whose strikers remain trapped between knots at both ends.

No pattern or template is used to weave the mesh. The amount of line, seeds, and knots depends on the size of the güiro. The netting should be neither too loose nor too tight for the beads to strike the surface freely when the instrument is played.

In Cuba, güiros are woven from neck to butt (de cuello a culo). This does not occur in several regions of Africa, where the strikers are limited to a central strip or band around the instrument’s greatest circumference. This strip hangs from threads tied to the neck, and, after the cowries are strung on them, they are knotted at the bottom, without forming the netting described above.

The bottom of the güiro (culo) also requires special treatment because it is an area that receives frequent strokes from the player’s hand and has to be reinforced. Sometimes this involves only crossed strips of adhesive tape, or the reinforcement of a little pillow made of cloth, leather, or a thin strip of inner tube. Other times a small amount of cotton or circles of fine cardboard are arranged on the bottom, affixed with garrapata (shoemaker’s glue), powdered adhesive, laundry starch, or some other appropriate substance. This forro (padding) keeps the bottom of the güiro from breaking.

The addition of colored ribbons or strips alluding to the orichas (the spiritual entities of Cuban Santería) contributes to the güiro’s ornamentation. These are inserted into the upper and lower necklets and dispersed throughout the mesh, in which they appear as a few small fastenings. Generally, these are small pieces of cloth that are worked completely into the mesh and seeds, and do not hang from the instrument.

The construction of this type of güiro does not involve the insertion of objects into the instrument’s interior. Nevertheless, such instruments, also called güiros by their players, can be seen in the Cuban province of Camagüey (fieldwork, Camagüey, 1989). These differ both morphologically and in construction from the güiros considered here, but they have a similar musical and social function. They are made from an oval gourd and the weaving of a net becomes superfluous because ball bearings, pebbles, seeds, or other small percussive objects are placed inside, with the mouth sealed by a piece of cork to keep the strikers from falling out. This type of güiro is viewed as a local variant of simple construction. It is related to other rattles, such as maracas, although it has no handle by which to grasp it.

The procedure for making webbed güiros of external concussion is the same for all three of the instruments that make up a set; the only differences among them arise from the three different dimensions required by the aesthetic principle of performing different functions in the low, middle, and high registers. The length of netting and the quantity of seeds used depend on the size of the instruments. In some specimens, the selection of larger seeds for the largest güiro adds to the intensity of the instrument’s sound, as does the placing of larger seeds towards the middle of the vessel and smaller ones at the upper and lower ends. Experience governs the selection of gourds, whose sound must establish an ideal contrast between the three timbric registers (low, middle, and high) while fulfilling practical requirements for performance.

It is important to point out that the güiros presently used in Cuba no longer have the large dimensions that Fernando Ortiz reported in the early 1950s, namely 6o centimeters in length and 22 in diameter for the largest instrument; 57 and 18, respectively, for the medium one; and 44 and 11 centimeters for the smallest (Ortiz 1952–55: 11, 132). No present-day güiros exhibit such proportions. This is evidence of a gradual decrease in the dimensions of those instruments of African provenance that became totally assimilated and integrated into Cuban culture.

The following comparative tables show the dimensions, given in millimeters, of six sets of instruments observed during field research in the city of La Habana and in the provinces of La Habana and Matanzas.

The following comparative tables show the dimensions, given in millimeters, of six sets of instruments observed during field research in the city of La Habana and in the provinces of La Habana and Matanzas.


  Small güiros
Sets 1 2 3 4 5 6
Length 320 350 340 375 405 340
Neck perimeter 188 376 219 138 188 182
Central perimeter 610 840 500 500 488 500


    Medium güiros
Sets 1 2 3 4 5 6
Length 440 360 420 365 470 350
Neck perimeter 232 376 251 157 200 345
Central perimeter 450 885 660 570 475 875
Large güiros
Sets 1 2 3 4 5 6
Length 340 470 350 455 345 400
Neck perimeter 314 376 314 345 219 326
Central perimeter 990 960 820 1050 645 970

The length and central perimeter are essential parameters. Length distinguishes güiros among themselves but, as the table reveals, in set 1, for example, only 20 millimeters distinguish the smallest güiro from the largest and, in set 5, the largest güiro is shorter than the smallest. The essential contrast of registers, however, depends on the instruments’ internal dimensions, namely the vibratory capacity of the resonator, which is the gourd itself. This is the factor that determines differences between the low, middle, and high timbric registers, or planos tímbricos, of the set.

The extreme dryness and hardness of the shell; the type, size, and quantity of strikers; and the degree of looseness of the netting also define the timbral specificity achieved in güiros. For this reason, every set can present subtle differences. The resilience of these instruments is an interesting aspect of their construction. Instruments can attain the age of 50 years or more if properly cared for and with an occasional renovation of the netting.

Both hands are engaged in playing the güiro, and the performers remain standing. The instrument is held by the upper part or neck, and the player frequently secures it by winding the cord near the “mouth” around his thumb. The most widespread form of playing is to hold the güiro by the neck with the right hand; more rarely, the instrument is held by introducing fingers into the mouth, or boca. Without exerting excessive pressure, the player begins a shaking motion, while the cupped left hand is used to strike the bottom of the instrument (Fig. 3). It is possible also to reverse the function of each hand.

Fig. 3: Left hand of a player striking the bottom of a güiro owned by Benito Aldama (Matanzas, 1981). Photo by Carlos Manuel Fernández, courtesy of the Centro de Investigación y Desarrollo de la Música Cubana (CIDMUC), La Habana.

The alternation of striking and shaking, recognized as the most distinctive manner of playing güiros, seems to have taken hold in Havana in the early twentieth century, stemming from the teachings of a Lucumí musician of Yoruba descent named Adofó (Ortiz 1952–55: II, 126). According to Ortiz, this strategy was a way of substituting for the toque of drums, when the playing of “African drums” was prohibited. We tried to corroborate this explanation but our efforts proved unsuccessful because not even our oldest informants could trace it in their memories.

Another observation equally difficult to corroborate and also attributed to Don Fernando (as Ortiz is reverently remembered) describes a performance of three güiros in which the musicians were seated, not standing, with the instruments resting on their legs and the boca free and facing upward while the players struck them from the sides. According to Ortiz, this was a way of playing peculiar to Africans of Makua origin and their descendants who were living in a sugar refinery near Zulueta, now the Province of Villa Clara, in the first decade of the twentieth century (1952–55: II, 140). Nothing similar can be found at the present time in this or any other part of the country.

True virtuosos can be found among Cuban güiro players. In particular, the performances of cajeros (lowest güiro players) are distinguished by feats of acrobatics. Performance practices are transmitted empirically within the groups that cultivate and preserve the tradition. Some resources involve holding the instrument with one hand by the upper neck or the looped handle, and striking it with the other hand on the bottom or “butt” (culo), in a manner called dando (“giving it to it, or spanking it”); or holding the instrument with both hands, one above and one below, and shaking it to produce a jamaqueo (swaying) or malleo (swinging) of the mesh, in the manner of a tremolo. Occasionally, a player would throw the instrument into the air, starting with a slight spinning movement and then catching it again with both hands, that is, tirando y rotando (throwing and rotating).

Each instrument in a set carries a specific function whose toques are nearly exclusive to each particular type of güiro. The alternation of shaking and stroking is common to all, but occurs most regularly in the smallest instrument. The middle-size güiro is played both by shaking and striking, and by swaying or  swinging. The caja, or lowest and largest instrument, abounds in flourishes, and, to the shaking-striking toque adds frequently the swaying-swinging tremolo, to the extent that these identify the habitual way of playing the caja. Throwing and rotating also are nearly exclusive to the largest instrument.

Another important aspect of performance is the placement of the instruments. The caja invariably is placed at the center, with the smallest güiro usually on the left and the middle-size instrument on the right. However, in our observation of different Santería events we noted an exchange of positions between the smallest and middle-size güiro players, although they were members of the same ensemble, as was the case with the Güiros de San Cristóbal de Regla group in Havana (1987 and 1988). Similarly, the placement of the güiro players with respect to the tumbadoras and the iron idiophones of Santería—generically known as campana (bell) and comprising guataca (hoeblade) or cencerro (cowbell)—is not always the same, as was also the case with the Güiros de San Cristóbal de Regla. Although several permutations are possible, with the güiros at the center, or to the extreme left or right of various ways of positioning the membranophones and idiophones, the three güiro players are invariably placed together, leading to a close interplay among themselves and between them and the other instrumental groups.

The toque is nearly continuous during Santería ceremonies. Because there are few pauses, the performers find it necessary to rotate functions, substituting for one another especially on those instruments that are the most exhausting to play, such as the caja and tumbadoras.

At the present time, the ensemble of güiros displays a marked regularity in the qualitative distribution of the three “sound bands” (franjas sonoras) assigned each instrument, and retains it regardless of the number of other idiophones or membranophones also participating in the performance. In accordance with the aesthetic principle to which all the participating instruments adhere, three timbric bands (franjas tímbricas) become clearly delineated. One corresponds to the güiro trio, whose makeup is invariable; the membranophones occupy the sound-space of the second timbric band; and the third corresponds to the iron idiophones. The membranophones are represented by one or two tumbadoras, most frequently two. The use of three tumbadoras in Santería is more recent and was observed in some sections of Havana, and in the central Cuban province of Ciego de Ávila. The use of a metal idiophone—especially the guataca or cencerro, struck with a metal rod—is most frequent but, within this timbric band, there are also quantitative variations, as more than one bell may be used (indistinctly guatacas or cencerros, or a combination of both), although this is not common.

The three timbric bands, each identified by instruments of the same timbric quality, are themselves further divided into three different registers (low, middle, and high “zones” or registers), each carrying a well-defined communicative function. These behave generally in the manner described below.

The toque opens with the percussion of guataca, whose regularly repeated rhythmic pattern carries the fundamental timeline for the entire group (Recorded Exs. 1, 2, 3). The güiros, distributed into high, middle, and low registers, as well as the distinctive performance techniques peculiar to each and their corresponding discursive functions, confer upon each register a specific syntactical meaning intimately aligned with the ritual-festive function of the entire ensemble.

The opening guataca is followed by the smallest and highest güiro (cachimbo, omelé, salidor, un golpe, or uno). This güiro plays short, simple, and sustained rhythmic patterns. Its various names suggest aspects of its morphology—small size, or omelé—and musical function (salidor, or starter; one, or “the first” güiro to enter). Its rhythmic pattern is extremely repetitive, stressing the metric pulse in the repetition of a single stroke on the base of the instrument (un golpe, or “one stroke”) (Recorded Ex. 1).

The mula, dos golpes, segundo, or dos occupies the middle level. Its name highlights the moment in which it joins the other instruments, or order in which it appears. It “enters second,” the players say, and develops a more elaborate rhythmic discourse than the previous güiro (Recorded Ex. 2). Both levels— middle and high—carry “referential functions” within the timbric band or layer of sound occupied by the güiro (León 1986: 125). In another timbric band, that of the iron idiophones, the guataca or the cencerro also fulfills a referential function. These instruments perform rhythmic patterns of a stable and repetitive nature whose function is to stabilize the ensemble. By ordering the temporal dimension of the musical discourse, they become referential in relation to the improvisatory function of the caja (lowest güiro) and the lowest-pitched tumbadora (drum).

The low registral level of the caja joins the ensemble immediately after the medium-size güiro. It assumes an improvisatory role, freewheeling and close to the prosodic discourse of the low-register “talking drums” in membranophone ensembles of strong African antecedents. Beginning with basic rhythmic configurations, the caja player improvises increasingly complex rhythmic designs that resort to the performance techniques of swaying and rotating, flaunting his virtuosity by throwing the instrument into the air without losing the governing sense of metric and rhythmic order (Recorded Ex. 3). The basic technique of shaking the instrument, in combination with other performance possibilities, generates a rich gamut of possible variants by which the cajero elaborates on the referential base laid down by the bell and the two smaller güiros.

The interaction between music and dance, characteristic of ritual and secular forms of African origin, also propels and enriches the cajero’s delivery, or toque. The performance reaches climactic points when participants in the ritual become possessed, and, conversely, the interpretive skills of the cajero and the singer are crucial in inducing possession.

When a single membranophone participates in the group, it joins the toque almost simultaneously with the caja or shortly after it. In general, this low-pitched tumbadora also develops an improvisatory discourse, and a certain degree of correspondence is established between the complexity of its toque and that of the cajero. If two tumbadoras are used, the membranophonic timbric band generates a further division into low and high registral levels. The high-pitched tumbadora enters after the caja or together with it. Because its basic rhythmic pattern generally denotes stability and repetition, the high-pitched tumbadora functions as temporal reference for the low-pitched, improvisatory tumbadora. Nevertheless, in performance, the players display a tendency to incorporate other rhythmic patterns of a more improvisational nature. Furthermore, in secular events such as rumba, the improvisational role is assumed by the high-pitched tumbadora in a progressive mutation that subverts the African aesthetic principle of assigning the maintenance of temporal order to the high and medium registers, and the improvisational, prosodic role to the low register. When two tumbadoras join the Santería ensemble, the low-pitched drum enters immediately after its high-pitched companion, and is the last to join the group. As mentioned above, it carries an improvisatory function corresponding to that of the largest güiro.

The toque de güiros or instrumental discourse that the güiro ensemble elaborates, does not lend itself to the rhythmic variations needed to switch from one set of rhythmic structures to another during the performance of the various songs dedicated to the orichas. These rhythmic changes, known as vuelta or viro, are infrequent in güiros. Instead, they occur most often in performances involving batá drums (toques de batá). The structure and rhythmic elaborations of the güiro ensemble are simpler by nature. Sometimes, only one or two different toques accompany all the songs of the oru.

During Santería ceremonies, the güiro ensemble essentially accompanies the songs and dances dedicated to each oricha (Recorded Ex. 4). The oru, a ceremonial cycle of toques and songs, is performed according to the prescribed ritual order. Güiros also are used to accompany the well-known cantos de puya or “goading songs,” whose texts carry fundamental importance because they seek to summon, taunt, and provoke the oricha into presenting himself/ herself at the celebration by “descending upon” or possessing a devotee. In either case, the instrumental component of the ritual is inextricably bound to the singing. Notwithstanding its essentially accompanying role, the instrumental component is a dynamic, communicative manifestation that can propel as well as stop the dancing while stimulating the receptive psychological states of the believers.

The güiro ensemble participates in commemoration ceremonies, offerings, purification ceremonies, and funerals. In all of these, its function is to accompany the singing and dancing. It is commonly perceived as an ensemble of festive and entertaining character, a feature that is usually emphasized.

Another significant function of güiros is the role they play in rumba and conga ensembles. In these, a single güiro marks the metric pulse during the performance, in a manner similar to the former roles of other shakers, such as the acheré or atcheré (a rattle) and chachá (a cylindrical rattle made of metal and adorned with ribbons whose provenance Ortiz traced to Haiti [1952–55: II, 315, 317]). Something similar occurs in bembé ensembles, whose ritual rattle occasionally is replaced by a güiro, or a güiro is added to the complete group. It is not possible to specify with certainty which of the three güiros might be employed when this process of substitution or timbric alternative is at work; the use of one or another appears to depend on circumstances.

The inclusion of a güiro is also frequent in some ensembles of Cuban son. The intention in this case is to enrich the general sonority by adding another timbre to the group. Both its function and performance are very simple in this case. The güiro simply marks the metric pulse by means of successive striking and shaking, and only occasionally the player engages in swinging and swaying (jamaqueo and malleo). In short, the güiro does not assume the defining role of other instruments in the son ensemble.

The toque de güiros and the güiro ensemble are frequently encountered in the practice of Cuban Santería. Their importance in the ritual is second only to the batá drums. Though they lack the sacred status of batá drums, güiros are highly valued by practitioners because, under their influence, “the gods can respond by possessing those elected to be ‘mounted’” (León 1960). Neither initiates nor consecrated performers are required for the performance of güiros because the spiritual force of the oricha does not inhabit these instruments, that is, they do not possess fundamento ritual, as do the batá drums. However, and according to the testimony of some informants, this was the case in earlier times. Güiros were “consecrated,” or fundamentados, dedicated to a saint, “fed, just like the drum, and animals were sacrificed to them.” This practice is still preserved among some carriers of the tradition.

Instruments are customarily baptized during the construction process. After the three güiro gourds are emptied of their seeds, and before the weaving of the outer net begins, the gourds must be purified. Herbs are used for this purpose along with the leaves of the cotton plant, almond, soursop, and romerillo. These leaves are shredded into the water to be used for washing. After soaking in a pot with water for some time, the herbs and leaves are removed, and holy water, honey, cascarilla (powdered eggshell), Guinea pepper, and palm oil are added to the baptismal water. Then the mixture is poured over the surface of the güiros, which are also rubbed with the remaining herbs and with soap. Castile soap was previously used, but now yellow soap (for laundering) is preferred; “scented” soap may not be used. After the güiros have been cleansed, a chicken is sacrificed and its blood is sprinkled over all three instruments. They should remain undisturbed for three days, and then washed with coconut or fresh water. Only after this process is completed may the weaving of the mesh begin. This baptism gives the güiro power for its sound; otherwise, it is not going “to sound right.” This ceremony is performed only once and requires the presence of three or four santeros. The person most qualified to perform the ceremony is the one in whose house-temple the güiros will be kept.

The foregoing description presents parallelisms with ceremonies to which some drums are submitted when they are consecrated. Whether the same status is conferred upon the güiros is a decision made by the owner of the set in accordance with his religious beliefs. The emphasis that older informants place on the initiation of the instruments leads to the assumption that it was a regular practice at a time when the use of güiros was widespread, especially in rural areas, and when the presence of the sacred batá drums was an exception.

The players and singers may or may not have been initiated into the religion, but they must demonstrate mastery and knowledge of the musical practices of Santería. Although these instruments are played exclusively by men, Ortiz (1952–55: II, 136) adduces the authority of André Schaeffner to point out that, in the area then occupied by French West Africa, these instruments carried an association with women because they were used in puberty rites of young girls. As Ortiz also asserts, no precedent exists in Cuba to contradict the association of güiros with male performance.

Highly recognized Cuban santeros agree that güiros can be used both in festivals honoring a saint (fiestas de santo) and in ceremonies marking a death. Toques belonging to Eggun can take place during the liturgical funeral, in what is known as levantamiento del plato, or in memorial services dedicated to Oyá. In the most orthodox religious practice, this ceremony is considered the almost exclusive domain of batá drums. However, at times when believers did not have access to these drums because of either the high cost of their participation or the limited geographic area to which they were confined, they resorted to güiros, which then assumed some of the ritual functions of batá drums. The ceremonies for the dead still preserve a certain degree of privacy and may be limited to family members and persons closely related to the deceased.

Güiros may be called upon to perform at initiation ceremonies, or día del medio. On this occasion, the adept receives those who come to greet and honor him or her. While this occurs, güiros may provide entertainment and add to the festive mood of the event. These toques are generally well attended by believers. Before the festivities begin, the güiros are presented to the fundamento of the house, or sacred site, and are given rum. The rum is sprayed symbolically onto the güiros and drums as prerequisite for a propitious event. In some celebrations of African antecedents, especially those of Yoruba provenance, the ceremony begins with the dedication of an oru to the orichas, with the singers and players performing before the “altar” and assuming the choral responses in the traditional alternation of solo–chorus characteristic of the singing. At the end of the oru, the members of the group position themselves in the part of the house where the celebration will take place. They stand in the back of the designated area, facing those in attendance in order to achieve the best possible communication among the different groups participating in the celebration.

The use of güiros in Cuban traditional music is a practice of unquestionable African origin. They are linked particularly to the culture of the Lucumí, a meta-ethnic term that embraced a striking number of ethnic groups of Yoruba origin. The size of the Lucumí population in Cuba grew rapidly during the second half of the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth, especially between 1820 and 1840, when, as the slave trade assumed an illegal character, the demand for slave labor increased due to the thriving production of sugar, other commodities, and a vigorous social life.

The Lucumí constituted a very large group in the west-central region of Cuba; in terms of percentages of ethnic composition, they were the second-largest group after the so-called Kongo peoples on the island. According to our oldest references, the presence of güiros in Cuba was circumscribed to an area comprising the old province of La Habana and Matanzas, where there was a maximum concentration of Lucumí peoples and, consequently, where musical practices of Yoruba provenance were most deeply rooted.

Although it is impossible to specify when these instruments began to be used in Cuba, we can determine that they were known in the nineteenth century, according to the testimony of our older informants. Benito Aldama, for instance, told us of having learned of their construction and use from his mother, who was a Lucumí slave. On May 6, 1886, the newspaper El País published the following report:

Recently, at our request, our colleague Armenio n. Litz [anagram for the Havana pianist Lino n. Martínez] wrote an excellent article on this matter, after several defenders of the need to reclaim our customs joined the ranks of our difficult campaign. Lately, la Caridad del Cerro has crowned the work with its new orchestra [referring to the orchestra directed by Raimundo Valenzuela], which demanded that this stupid instrument—first consisting of some movable beads on a güiro gourd, later replaced by a kitchen grater, and now represented by a güiro cimarrón [wild]—be sent back to guinea.

This fragment, collected by Zoila Lapique Becali for her still unpublished second volume of Música colonial cubana which gathers references to music in press reports from colonial Cuba (see Lapique Becali 1979), confirms that these idiophones were known in the nineteenth century. It can be inferred from the description that the instrument was either a netted maraca or an agbe. Whichever instrument was meant, the revulsion provoked by its inclusion in Cuban musical ensembles is evident. At the same time, the derogatory allusion to “sending the instrument back to Guinea” expresses the then generalized contempt for all that might be linked to African culture.

The oldest known güiro ensembles still active in Cuban religious practice are El Niño de Atocha from Limonar in Matanzas, founded in 1922, and the aggüe from Nueva Paz, La Habana, formed in 1936 (Fig. 2). From these “centers” and others in the country, the groups would gravitate toward nearby locations or to places farther east and west, responding to the great demand for musicians who could play at ritual festivities in the cities and in rural areas.

Certain conditions favored the wider dispersion of a large number of güiro groups over batá drum ensembles. Among these were the widespread availability of the gourd and the instrument’s relatively simple manufacture, together with the lesser degree of ceremonial complexity required for the consecration of the güiro, in cases when they were submitted to consecratory rites. In addition, the lower cost of contracting güiro players for ceremonies became a factor despite the greater ritual significance of the batá drums. Another explanation offered for the greater profusion of güiros was the prohibition of drumming, or toques de tambor, particularly enforced during the governments of José Miguel Gómez (1909–13) and Mario García Menocal (1913–21), among others, in response to alleged incidents of public disorder, or with the intention of “whitening” Cuban culture. Although these arguments and ensuing restrictions were real, the fact that these practices were intimately linked to the expression of popular religiosity by the most humble sectors of the population can account for the greater incidence of güiro groups and the confinement of batá drums to the most orthodox religious ceremonies when this was possible.

In the early twenty-first century, the güiro ensemble has reached beyond what we might consider its initial frontiers in the provinces of La Habana and Matanzas, and ensembles of this kind can be found in other provinces. Its path may have been linked to an intensification of internal migrations in the 1930s and 1940s that spread the practice of Santería to the easternmost provinces (the former territories of Camagüey and Oriente), creating propitious conditions for the formation of groups capable of suiting the needs of ritual practices.



Batá drums are the sacred instruments of Cuban Santería. The ensemble consists of three doubleheaded membranophones of direct percussion whose clepsydra or hourglass-shaped body is made of wood. The two adjustable membranes of each drum are of different diameters; they are held in place by hoops and tightened by belts or by strips of leather or hemp that go from one drumhead to the other in the form of the letter “N.” This tension system is held together and tied to the body of the drum by transverse bands that encircle the central area of the resonating chamber, covering the body of the instrument (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4: Batá drums of Ricardo “Fantomas” Suárez (Matanzas, 1981). Photo by Carlos Manuel Fernández, courtesy of the Centro de Investigación y Desarrollo de la Música Cubana (CIDMUC), La Habana (Recorded Ex. 7).

In Cuba, the word batá is a generic term for the three drums that make up the ensemble, and it is common to refer to them as “the batá” both in the plural or in the singular. In the latter case, the term identifies any of the three instruments independently of its size and register, although each drum also has a specific name.

Batá is a polysemous term of Yoruba origin. The most relevant meaning in the present context refers to a drum used by the devotees of Changó, the virile oricha of lightning and thunder, and Egungun (A Dictionary of the Yoruba Language 1950: 54), or to the drum for Ori Changó (Abraham 1958: 98). These membranophones carry a distinct association with rituals dedicated to the aforementioned spiritual entities in Africa. In Cuba, they have retained their ritual use in the most orthodox sense, but not their limitation to these spirits-gods because, although their relationship to Changó is recognized, they are used in different forms of Santería worship and played for all the orichas.

The composite term ilú batá, also generic, is still preserved among practitioners of Cuban Santería. The strict meaning of this term in Yoruba is “batá drum.” According to Abraham, ilú means “any drum” (1958: 35); in Cuba, however, the restriction of the batá to orthodox ritual practices of Santería has been transferred also to ilú, a term that now identifies these drums exclusively. In Anagó, Lydia Cabrera uses ilú to mean simply “drum” (1970: 165). According to Natalia Bolívar, however, ilú batá carries the more specific connotation of “ensemble of consecrated drums” (sacramentados) (1990: 181).

Another generic name for the batá is añá, which identifies the drum with the oricha who inhabits it, and, by extension, gives the drum its name. There are also those who establish a homonymy between añá as “drum” and as its fundamento, or consecrated status. In the words of one elderly informant, Armando Palmer Barroso (b. 1900 in Regla, Havana) whom we interviewed in 1986, the combination batá añá can be understood to mean “consecrated drum.”

The specific terminology that designates each drum is fairly homogeneous throughout Cuba and preserves its affiliation with the original Yoruba. The smallest drum is called kónkolo, okónkolo, omelé, or omó; the medium-size instrument is called itótele; and the largest is called iyá Konkó means “little” (A Dictionary of the Yoruba Language 1950: 142), and kónkolo and okónkolo refer to objects of small size, in this case to “the smallest” of the batá. It is possible to relate the term omelé with other words in the Lucumí vocabulary, such as omodí, which means “boy,” “child,” or “youngster”; omodí is used for “little” (Cabrera 1970: 263). The name of the smallest drum could derive also from omo, referring to a child, and le, meaning “strong” (Ortiz 1952–55: IV, 212). In all cases, these terms coincide in denoting the smaller size of this drum in relation to the other two. Furthermore, batá drums are called emelé abo and emelé okó in Nigeria, terms to which the Yoruba Lucumí designations are related. The term emelé surfaces also in other drum ensembles of Nigerian provenance, as in the sets called iyebú, apintí, and batá kotó (Laoyé 1961: 20).

Several components of the word itótele allude to the order in which this instrument generally enters during a performance. The prefix i expresses action; the verb to means “to set in order” (A Dictionary of the Yoruba Language 1950: 224); and tele means to “follow, come after” (ibid. 1950: 221). This connotation of order or succession corresponds to the entrance of the itótele behind the iyá, the largest and lowest-pitched drum, once the toque has begun.

Iyá is also a Yoruba term that means “mother.” This name carries further an allusion to ancestral matriarchal social orders that accorded respect and veneration to women. According to religious criteria this drum is the mother, because other drums are born from the ritual fundamento or sacred presence within it. Nonetheless, as Don Fernando rightly noted, in spite of the connotations suggested by its name, every reference to the drum is couched in masculine language: it is called el iyá, using the masculine article, and the group of three is called los tres batá, also taking the plural masculine article (Ortiz 1952–55: IV, 304).

Although the aforementioned designations are the most widespread in Cuba, it is also possible to find in some localities the terms caja (box) or mayor (largest) in refererence to the iyá; segundo (second) when referring to the itótele; and umelé for the smallest drum. It is not unusual to hear the word caja for low-pitched instruments, as discussed above in reference to the güiros, and this applies also to membranophones; the term mayor is obviously derived from the dimensions of the instrument. As does itótele, the word segundo designates the order in which the instrument enters in performance, after the iyá and complementing the rhythm proposed by the larger drum. Umelé is clearly a phonetic variant of omelé.

Other terms of Yoruba origin are used for parts or attachments to the batá drums. These include the words auó to refer to the leather or the drumheads, and enú to indicate the larger membrane, also called boca (Spanish for mouth). The smaller drumhead is called chachá or culata (butt). A string of jingles or small cast bells called chaguoro or chaworó is placed around the enú and chachá of the iyá. In Yoruba, these words mean “jingle bells” or “small metallic bells,” and they have been retained in Cuba without Spanish counterparts.

Olú batá is one of the terms used in Cuba to designate the ritually consecrated players, although, according to various sources, the Yoruba term is alúbatá (A Dictionary of the Yoruba Language 1950: 36; Abraham 1958: 98). The prefix a makes the verb lu into a noun; therefore, their combined form, alúbatá, denotes the instrument’s player. The Cuban olú batá arises from a simple phonetic change, a common occurrence. Natalia Bolívar recorded olúbatá as the “owner” of the drum, and alúbatá as its player (1990: 181).

The term omo añá (son of the añá) also is used to refer to consecrated drummers, although many other terms from the Lucumí vocabulary of yesteryear gradually have been lost, or “hispanicized.” A batá player also may be called a batalero. Despite this loss, considerable orthodoxy exists among practitioners of this ritual tradition regarding the use of terminology of African provenance inherited from the culture of origin.

As in the case of many other instruments of Cuban traditional/popular music, the construction of batá drums is a specialized craft. The selection and preparation of materials, as well as the final results achieved, are the legacy of a long empirical tradition that, not devoid of arguable innovations, has transmitted down to the present time the craft involved in creating this beautiful instrument.

The preparation of the resonating body, the drumheads, and the tensor thongs are essential phases in the path that the artisans must traverse. When ritual drums are involved, these phases are subject to religious requirements. The preferred wood for the body is cedar. Mahogany, oak, avocado, and almond are used to a lesser extent. Mahogany, although it gives the instrument a highly valued sound, is heavier and harder than cedar, and thus takes second place to it. The other alternatives are lighter in weight, but their sound does not meet the timbric standards of cedar and mahogany. In addition, these other woods do not fulfill completely the ritual requirements for those who carry the tradition of the craft and the religion, although drum makers resort to them when necessary.

Respected makers maintain that all three drums of one ensemble must be made from the trunk of a single tree. However, in many cases this is nearly impossible; for this reason the main emphasis is placed on using wood of good quality. In the past, the bodies of batá drums were made from a single piece of wood, and this still is the preferred method, although at present they also are made of barrel staves. Ortiz’s assertion that a “real” ilú, that is, a drum of fundamento, never had been made with staves in Cuba (1952–55: IV, 256) presently has lost the absolute veracity it carried in the past. In fact, craftsmen no longer reject the use of barrel staves for ritual drums. Some believe that this method can be used; they adduce as argument that it facilitates construction, claiming that it does not affect the instrument’s timbric quality. Consequently, it is possible to find drums of both types.

To make the bodies of a set of instruments from a single length of wood, three sections of a tree trunk are selected and sawed according to the desired dimensions for each drum. Next, the delineation of the exterior shape begins, and the interior is hollowed out, provided the wood is well dried, or cured. Covering the entire surface of the wood with palm oil was a traditional way of curing the wood; at present, when palm oil is unavailable, the wood is left to dry naturally. The nearly sculptural task of shaping the drum both inside and out was formerly performed entirely by hand. Even today this tradition is maintained, but informants indicate that, occasionally, the exterior shape of the drum is achieved using a lathe, which greatly simplifies this part of the process.

Before the work on the exterior can begin, the center and corners of the length of wood are bored through. This facilitates the process of cleaning or drilling out the interior, which is done later. After the initial drilling, the drum maker proceeds to give the instrument its characteristic hourglass shape. If an older method is used, this is done with a hatchet, a machete, and a turning knife; the last of these smooths the wood before sanding.

The drum’s hourglass shape requires careful attention to the unequal dimensions of the openings, the bowls, and the narrowing of the body just about a third of the length from the chachá, or butt end. The narrowest part of the body is known as cintura, or waist; its measurements depend on the size of each drum. The narrow external waist corresponds to the interior garganta, or throat, the narrowing that will be described below.

Once the exterior has been carved, the difficult process of hollowing out the interior begins. Drills, gouges, and a carving tool called trincha, all with well-sharpened points, are used for this part of the work. The gouge is struck with a mallet on its upper end or handle, continuing downward until the interior is hollowed out. Once this is done, the final shape of the interior cavity is slowly arrived at, using the trincha as a carving tool. One of the most important aspects of internal construction is the precise way the garganta, or throat, is carved. According to experienced makers, the sound quality of the batá depends on the body’s throat. The dimensions for each drum are different and follow an ancient tradition governed by empirical knowledge.

Because the three ilú are of different sizes, each one has a different throat and a different waist. The throat of the iyá, or largest drum, should be about the size of the tamborero’s fist, with the thumb outside, folded over the other fingers. The throat of the itótele or medium-size drum should be equivalent to the clenched fist, with the thumb folded under the closed fingers. The small ilú or omelé has a throat through which a tightly squeezed human hand cannot pass unless the five fingers are stretched out and joined at their tips, or at the fleshy part of their ungual phalanges (Ortiz 1952–55: iv, 261).

The finishing process of the instrument is not limited to its outer surface. The interior also should be very smooth, and for this reason once it is hollowed out it is usually sanded. The drum can be left without painting or varnishing; a little shellac and alcohol may be sufficient to seal the pores of the wood. At present, varnishing the drums to give them a shiny appearance is more frequent. Another option is to paint them with brown oil paint and then apply varnish. The oldest and most experienced makers disapprove of this last variant, maintaining that painted wood loses its natural timbric qualities. A considerable number of drums that belonged to the invaluable collection of Don Fernando Ortiz and are now in Havana’s Museo Nacional de la Música, are “clean wood” drums. In other words, they preserve the natural color of aged wood, which confirms this ancient tradition.

We turn to the construction of the more controversial batá drums with barrel staves, or duelas, namely those that circumvent the tradition of making a drum from a single piece of wood. Two respected tamboreros (drummers) and makers from the Province of Matanzas have expressed their opinions with respect to the controversial method of using staves. Ricardo Suárez, known as “Fantomas,” considered the one-piece drum to be better than a drum made of staves, because the latter can come apart if it falls or suffers a blow, whereas nothing will happen to a one-piece drum subjected to the same treatment. Amado Díaz Alfonso, known as “Guantica” (1908–89), working in the city of Matanzas, told us in 1981 that he used to build the traditional one-piece drums, but he also made them of staves. In working on the latter, he paid a great deal of attention to the cutting and processing of the staves, and applied a type of glue that prevented breaking, either from blows or from climatic changes. The use of staves is fairly widespread among carpenters who produce instruments for amateur folk groups and for professional musicians who are not concerned with ritual requirements. Today, however, such drums are found also in ceremonial toques of Santería.

To begin construction with staves, the wood is cut into planks. In this case, the preferred wood is also cedar. Occasionally the other types of wood already mentioned are used. Pine, which is easy to obtain, may be added to these, but its timbric quality is not satisfactory. The length of the staves depends on the dimensions of each drum: their width is approximately 65 mm, and the thickness is 10 mm. Opinions differ about the number of staves required for each. Whereas Amado Díaz Alfonso estimated that the iyá could use from 20 to 25 staves, the itótele 15, and the okónkolo 12, José Moa, an artisan at the Fábrica de Instrumentos Musicales de Cuba we interviewed in 1988, considered that between 15 and 20 staves were appropriate for the iyá, and that the itótele and okónkolo would each require 12 staves. As with the general measurements of the drums, differences of opinion stem from the empiricism that governs the construction of traditional instruments.

Once the staves are finished and before the gluing begins, the staves are assembled “dry,” or arranged side by side to make sure they fit together and their measurements coincide. First each stave is glued separately, and then all are glued together until the circle is closed. Three or four metal hoops are arranged on the body to make sure that the staves adhere to each other, and it is left to dry for a period of no less than 24 hours. To aid in the reinforcement of the body, some makers put metal hoops in its interior. These are affixed by nails in the form of crosspieces. To make sure that the body is completely sealed, the interior is coated with glue or oil paint, covering all the cracks and joints. All instruments are painted in order to achieve a desirable finish.

Once the body is made, whether from one piece or from staves, the maker installs the membranes and creates the drum’s tension system. This stage is called forrar (to line), the most widely used word, enjicar (to tie up), or encabezar (to “head”) the drum. The most frequently used material for drumheads is goatskin (which carries symbolic value in some religions of African antecedents), although a few variations are possible. One of these is deerskin, which is very difficult to obtain but approximates the quality of the skins of certain African fauna, especially antelope skin (Ortiz 1952–55: IV, 266), although very few artisans mention such an association. According to Amado Díaz Alfonso and Alejandro Publes, interviewed in 1985–86, deerskin is used if available because that is how the old ilú used to be made. The most orthodox tradition prescribes the use of skin from male goats for both drumheads.

The preparation of the batá drumhead is essentially no different from that of other membranophones. After the skin has been tanned, circles are cut according to the diameter of each of the drum’s openings, providing an excess of about 200 mm that allows the head to be fastened on. Besides preparing the skins, the tensor thongs—called tiraderas (harness), bajantes (lengthwise pieces), or correas (belts)—must be cut. These thongs can be made of strips of leather or of hemp. In the first case, a bit of dampened skin, preferably from a bull or an ox because of its strength, is cut into circles about 200 or 300 mm in diameter. Then, using a cobbler’s knife, the maker starts cutting a strip nearly 15 mm wide, working toward the center in the form of a spiral, always taking care to maintain the uniform width of the strip. The size of the circle should make it possible to obtain strips two or three meters long, a suitable length for completing the stringing. These strips are then stretched so that they may acquire the longitudinal form necessary to function as tensors. For this, they are dampened and stretched on a frame made for the purpose or between the bars of a window, so that the strips initially cut into a spiral may become true straight belts. The process of preparing the tensors from leather has been replaced by the use of hemp, especially by drum makers from Matanzas. This obviates the entire procedure described above. This practice has been known since approximately 1930 and is attributed to Carlos Alfonso, a famed olú batá from that province.

Besides skins and tensors, hoops made of rattan or strong, flexible wood are needed. After being cut to a width of about 25 mm, these are fitted onto the ends of the drum. Once placed around the openings, the ends of each hoop are joined with strong, flexible wire. They usually are covered then with ribbons or colored cloths alluding to the orichas; the ribbons also serve to reinforce the hoops.

Nothing could be less simple than the process of constructing a fully-lined drum. The work begins at the drum’s larger head (the mouth), where the corresponding drumhead, slightly dampened, is placed. The membrane is stretched over the opening so that afterward it will remain firmly fastened by the hoop. The chachá (smaller head) is attached in the same way. Once this is done, a series of equidistant holes, about 10 mm in diameter, are marked and cut with a punch in the outer strip of skin that remains leftover. Seven to nine of these are made on the larger head of the iyá, five on the itótele, and four on the okónkolo. Once the holes are made in the skin, it is folded above the hoop or frame and stretched forcefully upward. The same operation is repeated, making new perforations coinciding with the previous ones on the now folded skin. The skin held by the hoop is tightened with a wire and a few fine stitches. To make the fit more secure, a wire or strip of leather was formerly put on the waist of the drum and cords or fine wires were knotted onto it; starting from this girdle at the waist, the cords or wires were then threaded through the openings in the drumhead to help hold it fast and aid in the placement of the tensors. At present, makers try to cut the skin avoiding the extra amount that makes the later work more difficult. The same method of installing the drumhead is used for the smaller head, or chachá.

After both drum openings are covered, the maker installs the tension system. A wire is strung on the end of one of the thongs after the manner of a needle, and at the other end it is passed through an opening in the chachá, where it remains attached. A small eyelet or loop is made and the entire length of the strip is passed through it, forming a bow that remains held in place by the eyelet. The belt that will tie the drum to the drummer’s legs during performances passes through this bow. This first hole, where the tension system begins, is called the punto de arranque, or takeoff point. From here the strip is passed through the corresponding holes in the drumhead covering the boca, continuing from one end of the drum to the other, with the laces pulled tight until the process is completed. Once both drumheads are tightened with this primary tension system, the small stitches across the top of the drumhead, and the wire or the provisional lacing that started at the waist, are removed. The drum is allowed to rest for a day so that the leather might dry and the belts can be pulled tighter to increase the tension. Several days are needed for the leather to dry completely, after which the weaving of what is commonly called the cadeneta (chain stitching) will begin.

The cadeneta is another system of thongs, but put on transversely with respect to the longitudinal axis of the drum. This stitching is woven from the chachá’s end, circling the sound box a few times and joining the longitudinal thongs by pairs. Beginning from another takeoff point, a few thongs are interlaced with others, and this weaving process is completed when it reaches the waist of the drum and is tied off.

Installing the faja (girdle) is the last stage in making the tension system. Using long belts, a girdle is created around the waist. This is successively wound around the drum, starting from the place where the chain stitching ends, close to the waist, and from there it extends to near the boca. The girdle holds the longitudinal thongs and part of the chain stitching tight against the body of the drum and helps increase the tension; once the wrapping is completed, the final section is tied to the waist and pulled hard so that all the thongs and both drumheads stay well tightened. The leftover leather from the drumheads is cut almost at the edge of the holes for the thongs. Once it has dried, the small edge of the drumhead takes a curved or flaring form around the chachá and the enú. When the body is made of staves, the process followed for lining the drum is similar. There is also no substantial difference if the belts are made of hemp, although the cord undoubtedly makes the weaving process easier.

Sets of batá drums also exist with a tension system of hoops and keys (with hardware, as it is commonly called). The construction of this system and its installation follows the same procedure as that used for tumbadoras, bongóes, bombos, and other membranophones for which this is the usual tension system. Once the metal fittings are in place at both ends of the drum, the girdle is wound with skin or hemp so that the outer appearance of this variant form approximates that of handcrafted batá drums. The use of these drums for toques de fundamento, or sacred toques, is uncommon; the ease with which they can be tuned, however, makes them very much in demand in other settings.

At this point the construction of the instrument may be considered finished. However, for the ritual toques, the idá or fardela must be prepared. This substance is applied to the heads of the iyá and itótele drums. Idá and fardela are names for a plaster or resinous substance made with various ingredients, among them tree resins, blood, honey, wax, red river fish (pezrubia), vegetable oil, cod-liver oil, and even guava jelly and Cuban laundry soap, commonly called “yellow soap,” together with secret ingredients. This paste is not cooked directly, but in a bain-marie or double boiler. The fardela must cover the surface of the drumhead to the center, but with the center and the edge left uncovered. The paste is applied by describing circles on the head. The thickness of the fardela and the surface it covers have a direct effect on the timbre of the instrument.

Finally, small cast bells and jingles (chaguoro or chaworó) are placed around the heads, the enú and chachá of the iyá. Formerly, these also were put frequently on the itótele, but at present they rarely are seen on this instrument. Made in a blacksmith’s shop, these small bells and jingles are fitted onto a leather strip that is affixed to the heads, but only at the time of the toque.

The following tables show the dimensions in millimeters of various sets of drums as well as other aspects of interest. Because of the ritual significance of these instruments, it was not always possible to obtain the measurements of all the sets preserved. A majority of sets were measured by their owners, from whom we received generous help and full cooperation.

Drums of the Cabildo Changó Tedún
(City of Havana)
Iyá Itótele Okónkolo
Length 800 680 580
Diameter of enú 320 250 160
Diameter of chachá 200 160 170

Drums of Juan Romay Ruta
(Güines, La Habana)
Iyá Itótele Okónkolo
Length 650 620 450
Diameter of enú 290 220 175
Diameter of chachá 140 155 155

Batá Drums of Ricardo “Fantomas” Suárez
(Matanzas) (See Fig. 3, Recorded Ex. 7)
Iyá Itótele Okónkolo
Length 675 545 445
Diameter of enú 320 240 190
Diameter of chachá 170 150 150

Drums of Amado Díaz Alfonso, “Guantica”
(Matanzas) (Recorded Ex. 5)
Iyá Itótele Okónkolo
Length 585 510 380
Diameter of enú 320 230 178
Diameter of chachá 178 130 130

When we compare the dimensions of these sets, attention is drawn to the present-day tendency to build smaller drums, taking the large size of those of the Havana Cabildo Changó Tedún described by Ortiz as a point of reference (1952–55: IV, 217). The drums belonging to Amado Díaz Alfonso are noteworthy for their small size. In no uncertain terms he expressed to us his belief that the batá should be small to facilitate performance. According to Ricardo Suárez (“Fantomas”), the dimensions of his instruments should meet his needs as a player. Because he was a man of considerable height, his batá drums are larger, but he also made smaller drums in the tradition of Matanzas.

Although the dimensions have a direct effect on the instruments’ acoustical properties, other features of the construction contribute to the desired blending of sound between the three instruments. One of these is the present tendency to emphasize the difference between the diameters of the instruments’ two heads, in contrast to the relatively smaller difference that characterized the older drums. Another significant fact is the close similarity in size between the diameters of the “butt” (chachá) of the iyá (largest drum) and the “mouth” (enú) of the okónkolo (smallest drum) to the extent that, during the toque, the sound of these different types of heads from two different drums is remarkably similar. Something of this nature also occurs between the “butts” of the medium and smallest drum, or chachá of the itótele and okónkolo, whose measurements are in many cases identical or very similar.

Two geographic areas represent different criteria for the construction of batá drums: the city itself and Province of La Habana (both part of the former province of the same name), and Matanzas. In the first two areas the use of leather thongs as tensors is maintained, and the instruments are of greater size. In Matanzas, on the other hand, the use of hemp for the tension system is common, as is a preference for drums of smaller dimensions.

The desired tuning and tension of the batá drums are obtained by tightening or pulling on the heads by means of the tensor thongs. If these are leather, they should be moistened previously, as should the chain stitch and girdle. The drums can be tuned during performance by striking downward on the hoop that holds the head on the drum with a wooden mallet, called iggui in Yoruba. This procedure is commonly observed during performances, when the batá “rise” or “fall,” meaning that they get out of tune.

In the most common performance position, the player is seated and the drum is placed horizontally across his legs. The drummer uses a belt or hemp cord which is fastened to a handle at one end of the instrument, passed under his legs, and tied to another handle at the opposite end of the drum. This tying down process secures the position of the drum, preventing it from rolling or falling off the player’s lap, and also makes it easier to play. According to the most widespread tradition, the instrument is placed in such a way that the enú, or mouth, is situated on the drummer’s right and the chachá (butt) on his left. This position is reversed in the case of left-handed players. During performance, the iyá always occupies the central position between the other two drums. The okónkolo is situated to its right, and the itótele to its left, in an invariable arrangement (see Fig. 4).

In ceremonies honoring Eggun, namely toques memorializing the dead, players have been observed standing, with the instrument hanging from the neck by the fastening strips. This position also was used in former times for processional performances that involved displacement. These toques traslaticios would take place when cabildos, or societies of mutual aid and recreation, would take to the streets. In these cases there is no variation in the position of the drumheads in relation to the performer or the arrangement of the set of drums.

The double-headed batá generally are played with bare hands. Among drummers in Matanzas, however, it is possible to observe the use of a strip or piece of leather whose form is similar to the outline of an open hand, which is used to play the chachá of the itótele. Occasionally it is also used for the okónkolo. This object is called a chancleta (slipper) or suela (shoe sole); its purpose is to alleviate the pain of striking the heads barehanded during the prolonged playing required for the different ritual events. Some drummers express a definite preference for this method of playing. As a result, the batá are played either barehanded or using such a buffer.

The small bells, or chaworó (chaguoro) of the iyá, and sometimes of the itótele, sound as a result of the drummers’ movements and from striking each drumhead, adding to the timbric effect of the entire ensemble. The jingles usually are made to sound by themselves when the iyá is shaken at climactic moments in ceremonies dedicated to Yemayá and Ochún. In the tradition of Matanzas, these accessories are not used in funeral rites in order to lend greater solemnity to the event.

The complex performance techniques involve striking the two drumheads either in alternation or simultaneously. Different timbric effects and pitch levels are produced by using different combinations and variations of three basic types of strokes common to all membranophones: abierto (open), tapado (cupped), and presionado (pressed). The playing essentially falls to the four fingers, leaving out the thumb. The fingers, together or separated, and curved or straight, strike the center or near the edge of the drumhead, with the palm or heel of the hand often providing some support on the head or on the edge of the drum. When playing with the hand in a hollowed position, the force of the drumming is produced at the edge of the fingers, at the heel of the hand, and around its edges, as a consequence of the shape of the hand. In this case, the area nearest the center of the drumhead will vibrate.

On the itótele and okónkolo the “cupped” technique is used on the “butt,” or chachá, which permits the membrane to vibrate freely. The open and pressed techniques are used only on the “mouth,” or enú, together with the cupped strokes. An idiosyncratic stroke is achieved with the index finger on the edge of the “butt” of the iyá, producing a sound that alternates with the different toques on the iyá’s “mouth.” The most diverse drumming techniques converge in the strokes on both heads of the iyá, whose demanding role requires a combination of all the resources described above.

During the alternation of strokes on both heads of his instrument, the player keeps his hands very close to each drumhead, and the drumming is perceived as a particular type of rebound as each hand leaves the head. Occasionally, while one hand is drumming, the other is in contact with the other drumhead, applying a slight pressure on it that is followed by a rebounding effect. This action can pass almost unnoticed by those observing the performance. This particular method of pressing and releasing the drumhead opposite the one being struck, or allowing the hand to rebound from it, is commonly called relleno (filling).

The combination of different strokes is decisive in obtaining the different timbric qualities and pitch levels that characterize the batá ensemble and each individual drum. As is the case with other membranophones, the higher pitch levels are obtained by striking toward the edge of the head, while lower pitch levels are obtained by striking near the center. In the special case of the iyá, the timbric quality of the drum is modified by the presence of the fardela on the mouth of the drum (the plaster or resinous substance applied to the head), which serves to dampen its vibrations like a mute and emphasizes its low register.

The different frequency levels obtained from the six heads of these three drums result in three registral levels or ranges related to each other, wherein the lowest sounds of each drum are produced on the mouth, and the highest on the butt, regardless of the type of stroke used on them. The relationship among the three drums adheres to the syntactical and aesthetic criterion of elaborating the musical discourse on three registral bands, each fulfilling communicative functions distributed among the low, middle, and high registers.

Tests based on principles of European equal temperament led to the conclusion that the batá drums were tuned to the pitch “A” prior to performance (Ortiz 1592–55: IV, 238; 1965: 374), and that the drums produced seven “pitches” and a noise (Ortiz 1965: 374–75). This criterion, based as it was on attempts to explain one system of communication according to the principles of another, should be discarded completely. In performance, these drums engender a whole system of sound relationships whose specific functions transcend any concept of fixed or absolute pitch.

The art of playing the batá is taught empirically, as are most instruments linked to the oral tradition. An apprentice receives the benefit of the accumulated experience of others, utilizing for that purpose a drum devoid of fundamento. These unconsecrated drums are called aberikulá or judíos. If the drummer has been “sworn,” however, he can learn the art by practicing on the ritual instruments. Because the okónkolo is the least demanding in terms of performance, it is the first to be learned. It is followed by the itótele and finally the iyá, whose toque is the most complex. During the learning process, the pupil places the drum across his legs; the teacher stands behind him and taps the apprentice’s shoulders, using his hands to correspond to the enú and chachá strokes. This leads to simultaneous drumming as the teacher’s percussive movements on the student’s shoulders are replicated by him on the instrument. This teaching technique is used for the toques of all three drums.

The learning process also involves the repetition of syllabic combinations, such as jin-ka, kin-kan, kin-ta, kin-ki-ta, and ki-la. Rhythmically combined, these linguistic units serve as mnemonic devices to internalize the different pitch levels and discursive particulars of each toque. These are all resources that contribute to the transmission of a highly specialized type of artistic expression.

During a ceremony, substitution of players may take place to offset the strenuous demands on performers. This generally occurs at the end of a toque. Occasionally, and for reasons of extreme urgency, a player may be substituted without interrupting the performance. This is possible only in the case of the itótele and okónkolo, but not the iyá because of the complexity of its role in the ritual and its demanding technique. In this case, the drummer must wait until the conclusion of the toque before he can be replaced.

The different forms of synchrony and modes of performance on the ensemble’s six drumheads depend on the requirements of the various toques associated with the orichas to whom they are dedicated, and for which each drum adopts a different kind of rhythmic behavior. In addition to the three drums, the batá ensemble is joined usually by an idiophone, the acheré (a rattle), most often played by the singer.

The function of this ensemble in Cuban traditional/popular music is the invocation of orichas during the ceremonies of Santería (Recorded Exs. 5, 6, and 7). In the Oru de Igbodu, or ceremonial sequence in which each oricha is invoked by a toque, the batá perform without addition of other instruments. This sequence, which follows a preestablished ritual order, is also known as oru seco (dry). Other ritual functions include certain phases of funeral ceremonies dedicated to Eggun, the performance of songs and dances during the ritual celebration of the Oru de Eyá Aranlá and the Oru de Iban Balú, and funeral rites. In all these cases, a predetermined order of toques and songs is regulated by the requirements of the ritual.

Unlike other instrumental groups of strong African antecedents, the batá ensemble normally excludes the customary presence of a wooden or metal idiophone of direct percussion (like an iron bell) whose timbric quality stands in sharp contrast with the rest of the instruments and whose independent timbric band provides the metric-rhythmic guide that stabilizes or regulates the toque. On some occasions, the acheré might carry the function of marking this metric-rhythmic pulse, but under other circumstances its role may be limited to enriching the timbric composition of the group. The metric-rhythmic pulse or timeline is nevertheless present in the batá ensemble. It may be carried—perhaps with the greatest frequency—by the okónkolo or the itótele, although the iyá also can contribute to this function within its own timbric-rhythmic sound space. This highlights the close interconnection between performances on each drum, and a marked interdependence between the rhythmic combinations assigned to each of the three different registers represented by the batá.

Other functions, such as salidor (starter), llamador (caller), marcador (marker) or repicador (ringer) are associated frequently with the names of Cuban membranophones, to the point of identifying them. However, it would be misleading to assign these functions to any of the batá, or attempt to regularize their individual roles, because these functions are not exclusive to a particular drum.

According to the most orthodox tradition, all the orichas have their specific toque that characterizes them (Recorded Exs. 5, 6, and 7). The individuality of each toque determines the rhythmic combinations and the behavior of each batá. The rhythmic patterns performed on the six drumheads suggest the tonal inflections of the Yoruba language, combined in such a way as to constitute a single composite rhythmic texture whose components operate at the respective registral levels of each drum. The iyá in particular covers the widest range of strokes and timbric qualities in the performance of the most diverse and complex improvised rhythmic patterns. These improvisations are subject also to models established by tradition; in other words, they are not willed by criteria developed by the drummer. The improvisational models are diverse but each oricha has his or her own characteristic patterns.

The iyá performs oratorical, speech-like patterns within its lower sound space, conditioned by the belief among carriers of the tradition that, through his toque, the drummer can converse with the deities as he recreates prosodic inflections of the Yoruba language. In the sound space of the middle and high registers, occupied respectively by the itótele and the okónkolo, more stable and repetitive rhythmic designs are performed. A decrease in knowledge of the different toques for each oricha can be observed today among some performing groups. Such groups use the same toque to accompany songs dedicated to different orichas, and this signals a loss of the specificity and rigor of earlier times.

Although the order of succession of the three drums in performance is bound to the specific requirements of the toque for the oricha to whom it is dedicated, some forms of regular behavior can be inferred. The iyá commonly announces the rhythmic combination pertaining to the toque for a specific oricha. It delivers the initial “call,” that is, it brings the other drums to attention and makes way for the entrance of the itótele and okónkolo. Once the rhythm has been stabilized among the three drums, the iyá begins its improvisations, unfolding its prescribed melorhythmic discourse. If the batá accompany singing, it is the apkwón (singer) who performs the opening call. He may or may not hold an acheré in his hand, and may or may not mark the metric-rhythmic pulse by shaking it. In this case, the drums may enter simultaneously or successively, depending on the toque characterizing the specific oricha. Although the singer sets forth the song for the deity and assumes an indisputable importance in guiding the ceremonial event, the iyá maintains its leading role within the ensemble. In their performance, each of the batá maintains its rhythmic discourse within the ensemble’s overall timbric band, which runs parallel to that of the singing performed in solo-chorus alternation.

In ceremonies that involve singing and dancing as well as collective participation, the drummers build momentum when it is apparent that one of the believers or “children of the saint” has become susceptible to spirit possession. At this point, the players and singers increase the tempo and mediate in bringing about the state of ecstasy or frenzy into which the santeros pass. These changes in timing at climactic points in the ceremony occur spontaneously and partake from semiotic codes inherent in the ritual practice. The duration of each toque, or of the toque and the singing, is left to the judgment of the performers who adjust it to the events unfolding in the course of the ceremony.

Another significant element in the musical function and behavior of the three batá is the transformation in mid-performance of the rhythmic configurations performed up to that time, replacing them with others. In other words, the drummers perform a transition toward a different rhythmic locution, but always within the boundaries prescribed by tradition to invoke that particular oricha. According to Argeliers León,

The rhythmic patterns can change or undergo a transformation by a gradual variation ushered in by one of the drums, generally the iyá. As soon as the change is perceived, the other drums join in. This change passes through an intermediate stage and configures a new rhythmic design. This kind of rhythmic variation, proceeding through various steps until a new overall rhythmic configuration is reached, is called a vuelta or viro (“turn”) (1974: 44).

Mastering this transformative process is one of the difficulties that the drummer must overcome in order to endow his performance with expressive power. This holds for performances restricted to the batá, and also when the ensemble accompanies singing. Although the richness of the composite rhythmic discourse unfolded on the six heads of the batá set is vast, there exists among drummers a semiotic code proper to each of the musical functions performed on each drum capable of operating as a particular form of communication between the instruments, the singing, and the dancing that, through the toque, summons the presence of an oricha among believers in Santería.

Yoruba mythology recognizes the primordial relationship between the batá and Changó, the oricha of fire, lightning, thunder, war, the ilú batá, dance, music, and masculine prowess (Bolívar 1990: 108). Beautiful stories surround the mythical oricha, among them one that recounts how he came to own the sacred drums:

Changó, the son of Yemayá, had implored Obatalá (creator of the world and king of the Orichas) to give him the batá. When Obatalá refused, yemayá [motherhood and fertility], who wanted to satisfy her son’s desires, cleverly plotted to steal the secret of the yams [ñames, a variety of malanga] from Oricha oko [an agricultural deity], and ruin obatalá’s crops. Once she achieved her objective, she asked for the drums in their stead, in order to please Changó. Since then, he is their owner [of the drums] Lachatañeré 1961: 16).

Alongside legends and myths are the orthodox ritual principles that rule the link between batá drums and the practice of Santería in Cuba. Observance of religious rules begins from the very moment when it is decided to make a set of instruments; these apply to drum makers, players, and the believers who must render homage to them. The drums must traverse a ceremonial path before they can perform their ritual roles. For instance, songs and prayers restricted to the practitioners accompany the long process of making the drums. This ritual process begins when the three lengths of log destined to become the drums reach the hands of the drum maker. The initial rogations are accompanied by blessings with omiero (holy water containing herbs dedicated to the orichas) and by an exacting and painstaking purification rite ruled by the presence of Osain (Ortiz 1952–55: IV, 257).

Once the bodies of the three instruments have been built, the ceremonies continue with the washing of the drums and invocation of the orichas. The dilogún (cowrie shells used for divination), or the okpelé or opelé of the oracle of Ifá, are consulted. By these means, with the osainista (herbalist) and the babalawo (who occupies the highest rank in the hierarchy of Santería) serving as intermediaries, a determination is made of the signs and markings that each drum will display, along with the name of the batá ensemble and other ritual precepts that must be observed once the drums have been consecrated.

The widespread belief that Añá, the sacred force residing in the batá, protects and defends them and has the power to “make them speak,” intensifies the practice of special forms of worship dedicated to the drums. This magic power, lodged in diverse natural materials as prescribed by the oracle, is hidden in a small bag of leather or cloth, which may be attached to the inner wall of the drum or left loose. If it is loose, it creates a particular sound as it rattles against the walls of the drum or, occasionally, against the drumhead when the drum is played.

Once the protective añá for each drum is prepared and the corresponding markings made inside the instruments, the drums are offered food. As prescribed by tradition, the blood of sacrificed animals is poured over the drum’s protection and into its interior before the instrument can be lined permanently. This consecration ceremony occurs only during this particular phase of the construction and need not be repeated once the drums are finished. When it becomes necessary to replace the membranes or otherwise repair the batá, the objects found in its interior are taken out, reverently placed on a new white plate, and returned to their place in the body of the ilú before the new head is installed (Ortiz 1952–55: IV, 290).

Once a new set of drums is finished it must be presented to and recognized by an active set that is its padrino (godfather). According to religious beliefs, the ceremony of consecration or birth of the batá trio should be carried out by those who hold the powers of Añá and Osain. The force of the Ocha is bestowed on Osain because the herbs over which he rules give him the power that animates the stones lodged in consecrated drums. At the same time, Yoruba mythology recognizes that Osain lives with Changó and eats whatever Changó eats (Bolívar 1990: 160); therefore, Osain’s presence in the consecration of the batá is indispensable.

Ortiz described the recognition ceremony as follows:

In this rite a fully recognized set of batá must “recognize” the novice set that is yaguó. For this, the six drums of both batá trios, the old and the new, are “fed” according to the customary ritual. Afterwards the “recognition,” which has three phases, begins. First the senior olubatá perform on their own batá drums. Then the junior drummers, or the owners of the batá that are yaguó, play the old batá, while the olubatá of these play the new batá. Finally, the new drummers receive their own drums from the hands of their godfathers, and now they may always perform on them, because they will remain permanently consecrated and “recognized” (Ortiz 1952–55: iv, 291–92).

Other accounts refer to the recognition ceremony as “giving voice,” or as “transmission of sound” to the new set, with a few variations. It is important to stress that the essential act of apadrinar, or guiding the new set into being, remains a constant. The differences are of a ceremonial nature and can take several forms. In one of these variant ceremonies both sets of drums are placed in the igbodu, or “sanctuary” of the orichas. The older ones are in front of the orichas, and behind them are the novices. A complete oru seco, or invocation cycle using only the drums, is performed. The older set plays this oru with more force, while the novice set seconds it. Once finished, they go to the living room of the house-temple and perform an oru with singing. The players of the recently initiated drums kneel with their instruments before the older ones, always playing. Once the cycle is finished, the old batá are placed on a straw mat or put away, and the playing continues with the new ones.

Another variant of the ceremony begins with the performance of an Oru de Igbodu by the older drums in the area designated for the already initiated batá. The new instruments wait in the living room on a straw mat. Each drummer then takes his place, the senior players by the new set and the junior players by the old, ready to exchange places. When the exchange of performers takes place on the small drum, they sing to Elegguá; for the itótele, the divinity sung to is Oyá. Finally, for the exchange of places on the iyá, homage is rendered to Changó. Once the substitutions are completed, the new set is and remains in the hands of its own players, who continue the performance.

Consecrated drums must be stored suspended with the chachá (smaller head) uppermost, either covered or uncovered. They should not touch the ground; they can be placed on a straw mat only when they are being ritually fed.

Añá and Osain also must be consulted when drummers are selected. The drummers undergo rites in which the washing, or consecration of their hands, plays an important role. A “sworn” drummer occupies an implied place in the hierarchy of Santería because, through his performance, he has the power to communicate with the orichas and mediate in inducing possession among believers, that is, induce the “descent of the saint” (bajar el santo) without becoming possessed himself. It is also generally agreed that consecrated drummers are capable of divining which oricha has “settled” on a santero entering the performance, and therefore performing the transformative rhythmic transition between one set of rhythmic configurations and another, appropriate to greet this particular oricha. In exchange, the initiate greets the drum with ritual gestures and deposits an offering of money, according to what he or she can afford, in a small gourd bowl placed in front of the iyá.

The drummer also must observe a series of norms of personal and social conduct that correspond to his place in the hierarchical order. For instance, he must abstain from all sexual contact before a performance and from playing while intoxicated. Sometimes the drummers submit to rogaciones de cabeza (the lodging of the saint in their heads) so that they may carry out their mission properly, as well as a cleansing and blessings with omiero before playing. Feeding the drums just before the beginning of a ritual event is also one of their duties and privileges. Religious beliefs and tradition ban contact between the drums and women, who only are permitted to pay their respects by means of ritual greeting and dancing.

During ceremonies, except for funeral rites, each of the three drums is covered usually with a banté, commonly called a bandel. This type of apron, characteristic of Changó, is made of cloth of various colors, but with red generally predominating. The size of these accessories varies according to the size of the drum. They are profusely adorned with fringed borders, stones, and cowrie shells representing abstract or figurative images alluding to the orichas. These are fitted tightly at the front of each instrument, circling it at the waist by means of strips knotted in small loops. This decoration adds to the group’s attractiveness, and it is a matter of pride for drummers and believers to be using instruments that have rich and lovely bandeles (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5: Bandel to “dress” one of the batá drums from the set owned by Ricardo “Fantomas” Suárez (Matanzas, 1981). Photo by Carlos Manuel Fernández, courtesy of the Centro de Investigación y Desarrollo de la Música Cubana (CIDMUC), La Habana.

The sacred nature of these drums and ritual orthodoxy demand that they be used only in strictly religious toques. These may be ceremonies of commemoration dedicated to a saint or oricha; offerings in fulfillment of a promise; funeral rites; and initiations of a new believer, or iyawo. As in the case of other instrumental groups, the batá perform a mediating role between orichas and believers, whether they perform alone or accompany singing and dancing. Themselves deified, they constitute important objects of worship in Cuban Santería.

The organological features that characterize batá drums in Cuba have been traced to instruments used by Yoruba peoples in Nigerian territory. The cabildos of Africans and their descendants, and the later societies and house-temples created by the Cuban population, are the gathering places where Yoruba traditions have been reconstructed and developed with the greatest coherence from the colonial period down to the present. Among the wide variety of artistic expressions stemming from Yoruba forms of worship, the construction and consecration of batá drums fulfill a ritual need of enormous relevance to believers. Furthermore, it is possible to designate the provinces of La Habana and Matanzas as focal points of dispersion of the tradition. In fact, the present practitioners in the central and eastern parts of the country consider themselves heirs to the traditions of La Habana or Matanzas, as the case may be. At the same time, it is extremely difficult to locate the earliest references to the presence of batá drums in Cuba. An ancient divergence of opinion exists among practitioners who award pride of place to either La Habana or Matanzas as the first province to have owned a set of consecrated batá.

Names of individuals recognized by the group as consecrated babalawos and drum makers, as well as famed performers and believers, are associated in the memory of informants with dates and locations not devoid of contradictions. These memories serve as a guiding thread in the comparison of available data. Any attempt to establish a genealogy of these sets is a complex task, despite the fact that, like a family tree, each set is “godfathered” by one that preceded it, or, as the believers put it, is “born” from it. History and legend go hand in hand and are often intertwined.

At the present time, available documentation makes it impossible to determine when these ritual drums reached Cuba. As noted above, the Yoruba presence increased during the nineteenth century and was especially significant in the provinces of La Habana and Matanzas. These individuals, uprooted from their original environment, reconstructed and adapted their religious practices in a new territory. The dissemination of this ritual and musical tradition in central and eastern Cuba coincided in nearly all cases with processes of internal migration. Although continual and gradual migration took place during the period of the Republic (1902), it became particularly noticeable after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution (1959). These processes took santeros from La Habana and Matanzas to provinces distant from their places of origin. Once settled, they sought and assumed the cost of engaging this type of drum ensemble. Later, and as the number of believers grew, new batá sets were built and consecrated, along with drummers capable of responding to the ritual demands of those who requested them.

In general terms, the number of consecrated sets, or juegos de fundamento, is relatively small. This situation has been the norm since the time when their use in the ceremonies of Santería became widespread. In this regard, Ortiz already had stated the following:

Accepting the most complete reports, only twenty-five sets of ilú have been made as batá in Cuba, four of which may well be considered doubtful or irregular. Of the authentic sets, eight are lost, their whereabouts unknown, and two are in the national museum or in a private collection. This leaves only eleven orthodox batá añá in use for the liturgy: four in Matanzas and the rest in la Habana, Regla, and Guanabacoa (1952–55: iv, 320).

It is not possible to attempt statistics in the late 1990s or even estimate the number belonging to museum collections. Nevertheless, it is possible to affirm that, since 1959, there has been an increase in the number of batá groups, driven by demographic growth, the mobility of the population, and a growing demand to satisfy the requirements of the ritual.

For many years, batá drums were heard only during the rituals of Santería. In 1936, however, Fernando Ortiz delivered a historic lecture at the old Campoamor Theater in Havana which he himself described as “liberating.” During this lecture and for the first time, these sacred instruments were brought out of their specific and very private environment. The musicians playing the ritual batá were Pablo Roche, iyá; Águedo Morales, itótele; and Jesús Pérez, okónkolo (Ortiz 1952–55: IV, 322). They performed on instruments built for Don Fernando himself. This memorable occasion became a point of reference in the history of these instruments, as it brought to the attention of a wider audience their organological characteristics, specific toques, and associated songs. From that time to the present, the batá have reached wide diffusion and displayed their potential in a number of contexts, both in Cuba and abroad.


Abraham, Roy Clive, editor 1958. Dictionary of modern Yoruba. London: University of London Press.

Amira, John, and Steven Cornelius 1992. The music of santería: Traditional rhythms of the batá drums. Crown Point, Indiana: White Cliffs Media Company.

Blades, James 1980. “Güiro” in The new Grove dictionary of music and musicians, 20 vols., edited by Stanley Sadie. London: Macmillan, vol. 7, 825.

Bolívar, Natalia 1990. Los orichas en Cuba. La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales.

Cabrera, Lydia 1970. Anagó. Miami: Editorial Chicherekú.

Centro de Investigación y Desarrollo de la Música Cubana, Olavo Alén Rodríguez, Director 1997. Instrumentos de la música foclórico-popular de Cuba, 2 vols., and Atlas by Victoria Eli Rodríguez, with Ana Victoria Casanova Oliva, Jesús Guanche Pérez, Zobeyda Ramos Venereo, Carmen María Sáenz Coopat, Laura Delia Vilar Álvarez, and María Elena Vinueza González. La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales—Empresa Geocuba, Ediciones Geo.

A dictionary of the Yoruba language, 2nd edition 1950. London: Oxford University Press. (Based on Samuel Crowther’s 1843 and 1852 dictionaries and on an English/Yoruba dictionary compiled and edited by E. J. Sowande [1911], edited? by C.W. Wakeman [Lagos, Nigeria: Church Missionary Society Bookshop, 1913].)

Lachatañeré, Rómulo 1961. “El sistema religioso de los lucumí y otras influencias africanas en Cuba,” Actas del folklore (La Habana) I/7.

Laoyé I., Timi de Ede 1961. “Los tambores yoruba,” Actas del folklore (La Habana) I/6.

Lapique Becali, Zoila 1979. Música colonial cubana, Tomo I (1812–1902). La Habana: Editorial Letras Cubanas.

León, Argeliers 1960. Del arsenal sonoro cubano. La Habana: Dirección General de Cultura—Ministerio de Educación (separata from the journal Artes plásticas).

_______________ 1974. Del canto y el tiempo. La Habana: Editorial Pueblo y Educación.

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_______________ 1986. “Continuidad cultural africana en América,” Anales del Caribe (La Habana, Casa de las Américas, Centro de Estudios del Caribe) 6: 115–30.

Marcuse, Sibyl 1964. Musical instruments: A comprehensive dictionary. New York: Doubleday.

Ortiz, Fernando 1952–55. Los instrumentos de la música afrocubana. La Habana: Publicaciones de la Dirección de Cultura del Ministerio de Educación, 5 vols.

_______________ 1965. La africanía de la música folklórica de Cuba. La Habana: Editora Universitaria.

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Courtesy of the Centro de Investigación y Desarrollo de la Música Cubana (CIDMUC), Olavo Alén Rodríguez, Director, unless otherwise indicated.

1. Guataca and cachimbo. This toque isolates a rhythmic configuration performed on the smallest and highest-pitched güiro. The guataca (hoeblade) provides the metric-rhythmic guide. The performances by the group San Cristóbal de Regla were recorded as part of Victoria Eli Rodríguez’s fieldwork in La Habana, September 1983.

2. Guataca and mula. This toque isolates a rhythmic configuration performed on the medium-size güiro. Group San Cristóbal de Regla, La Habana, September 1983.

3. Guataca and caja. This toque isolates some performance techniques and rhythmic configurations played on the largest and lowest güiro. Group San Cristóbal de Regla, La Habana, September 1983.

4. Toque de güiros and song for Yemayá. Group San Cristóbal de Regla, La Habana, September 1983.

5. Toque for Elegguá performed by the batá drum ensemble of Amado Díaz Alfonso (known as “Guantica”), recorded as part of Victoria Eli Rodríguez’s fieldwork in the city of Matanzas, November 1984.

6. Toque and song for Elegguá performed by the batá drum ensemble of Gilberto Herrera, recorded as part of Victoria Eli Rodríguez’s fieldwork in the city of La Habana, October 1989.

7. Toque for Oyá performed by the batá drum ensemble of Ricardo “Fantomas” Suárez, recorded in the city of Matanzas in 1977. Side A, band 10, “Oru de Igbodu” in Antología de la música afrocubana, vol. 2, produced by María Teresa Linares. La Habana, EGREM, LD-3995 (1981). Courtesy of María Teresa Linares.