The Queens of Cuban Folk Art Celebrate 30 Years

Obini Bata members are graduates from the University of Arts, as well as the National School of Art.  Photo: Taken from Facebook

By IPS Cuba

HAVANA TIMES – Women who play the drum to Yoruban singing and dancing is the translation of the Cuban group’s name who are breaking social conventions and stereotypes, but also defend the nature of folklore and popular traditions in Cuban culture.

According to Yoruban religious beliefs – Yoruba being one of the original cultural sources of the Caribbean island and a widespread practice-, women are forbidden from playing Iya, Itotele and Okonkolo (names of the Bata drums).

Nevertheless, a breakoff from the National Folkloric Group and led by Eva Despaigne, Obini Bata has been shining on the Cuban arts scene and abroad since 1993 up until the present day, playing these drums for a different purpose.

In this regard, Despaigne says that the group was founded with the “idea of taking on an identity-focused repertoire, including religious songs and authentic musical expressions in Cuba, such as the mambo, chachacha, folk songs, son and rumba, with an artistic – and not religious – view.”

Responsibly defending art

Over three decades, the group’s artistic work spans almost five generations of women. In the very beginning, the director remembers how “machismo and the false belief that we wouldn’t be able to hit the drums as hard, because we were women” prevailed.

The artist points out that “in fact, when people think the drums are being well played, they say: tocan macho (play man). Life has confirmed that this is a false belief; but we had to challenge it very often.”

They also faced the great challenge of proving the difference between the religious and artistic aspect of playing these instruments. “This encapsulates one of our greatest strengths as professionals and educators of values,” she says.

La Regla de Ocha or santeria is one of the most widespread religious practices in Cuba. Congo and arara, are other aspects of African heritage in the island’s culture, and these are also incorporated into the all-female group’s musical repertoire.

Professional critics recognize this serious research work that has gone into the project.

“The contribution and influence of the Bata drum in Cuban culture takes on a special interest for our group. It’s the raison d’etre of our work, and it’s important to spread the message based on this core idea, and what better way is there to do this than with art?” Despaigne says.

She adds: “we defend folk art with the duty that people learn and know where we come from and why, framing our work within the dramatization of folklore. We are especially interested in the production of a show. It’s a matter of bringing our roots onto the stage and giving a vibrant performance.”

The experienced director says that these were the guidelines seized from the artistic/aesthetic concept of a famous figure in Cuban dance, Ramiro Guerra. “While we defend folk art, in its entirety, we are also interested in showing other influences within popular and traditional arts. This universalizes the project and also breaks creative stereotypes,” she says.

Renewing the school

Formed by six women on stage, the director, a direction assistant and cultural promoter and a prop-man, it’s hard to find replacements for Obini Bata.

The director says that group members need an artistic background and comprehensive training “that we still don’t have in schools; we find dance students who study folklore in particular; but it’s very hard to find girls who play, sing and dance.”

With their sights set on training up future members, they hold two workshops per year with an inclusive focus: one in the summer, and another in the winter. The winter workshops will resume in November this year, after being put on hold because of the pandemic.

The women in the group teach singing, dance and percussion classes to children, teenagers and adults, with no age limit or educational requirement.

Some Cuban artists and artists from other countries have been trained in Obini Bata’s ranks, and are successful in their own or group projects. This is the case of Yuleidis Sosa, Brenda Navarrete and Yuko Fong, a Japanese woman who studied a degree in folkloric art in Cuba.

Despaigne also mentions Marisol Blanco, “one of the best-known folklore teachers in the world today,” and Amelia Mesa, a member of the band Afroamerica.

Celebrating 30 years of the group, Obini Bata invites you to its shows in the Cuban capital on Wednesdays, from 6-8 PM, at the Arte Habana cultural center; and on Sundays, from 10-12 PM, at the “Entre dos” space (on San Rafael Street, between Galiano and Amistad).

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times