African Culture in Cuba through Drums

Photo Feature by Elio Delgado

Tambores Arará

HAVANA TIMES, Oct. 17 — The Havana-based museums “Casa de Africa” and “Casa Nacional de la Musica” have organized an exhibition of musical instruments and ritual objects associated with a history of African cultures established in Cuba.  These exhibits are being opened on the occasion of the commemoration of 130th anniversary of the birth of Cuban ethno-musicologist Fernando Ortiz Fernandez.

The items on display were studied by Ortiz, especially the musical instruments since he was closely involved with them when he wrote his monumental work Los instrumentos de la musica afrocubana (Afro-Cuban Musical Instruments), published in five volumes between 1952 and 1954.

All of the objects have a common origin: collections created since the early twentieth century in the Museo Luis Montane museum at the University of Havana and the Museo Nacional.

In the early 1960’s, with the creation of the Instituto de Etnologia y Folclore, these collections were merged and enriched with new pieces collected during field work.

In 1985 the decision was made to divide the collection; musical instruments went to the Museo Nacional de la Musica and the ritual objects went to the Casa de Africa.

Twenty five years later, the exhibition that is taking place is the first step in a joint project between the two institutions to further the study and dissemination of this important cultural heritage of the Cuban nation.

El conjunto Biankomeko

The Biankomeko set

The Biankomeko set is linked to ceremonies that take place in Abakua societies, which emerged in the Carabali-originating councils of the 1830s in areas adjacent to ports in the provinces of Havana and Matanzas. These societies have remained active up into the present.

The Biankomeko consists of four drums.  The largest is called “Bonko Enchemilla” and the remaining three are called “Enkomos” (identified individually as “Obia-Apa,” “Kuchi Yerema” and “Biancome”), which make up parts of the “Un Ekon” and the “Un Erikundi” collections.

The drums make up a set that was confiscated by the police in 1902 and became part of the Museo Montane of the University of Havana the following year.  Shortly after, they went into the private collection of Fernando Ortiz, who in 1930 commissioned a craftsman to restore them for presentation at a conference.  In 1955 Ortiz donated them to the Museo Nacional.

Conjunto de Güiro

The Güiro collection

The Güiro (“Agbe” or “Chequere”) were present since the 19th century in Santeria rituals to accompany chants and dances in funeral ceremonies and those of initiations, gifts, cleansing and commemorations.

Originally appearing in the areas of Havana and Matanzas, later these were taken to the center and east of the island in the first few decades of the twentieth century. This instrument has remained in use and has extended into popular music.

For a long time, the set of instruments consisted of three “guiros” (gourds) and the metal part of a hoe; later a conga drum was added the 1930’s and another one years later. Each member of the set has its own name: “Mula” is the larger one; “Dos golpes,” the medium-sized one; and “Cachimbo Omele” and “Un golpe” are the smallest ones.

The three instruments constitute a set, though there are no references as to their original source.  They were part of the private collection of Fernando Ortiz, who donated them to the Museo Nacional in 1954.

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