Women Playing the Bata Drums?

Irina Echarry

The Obini Bata group.  Photo: trabajadores.cu
The Obini Bata group. Photo: trabajadores.cu

HAVANA TIMES, Dec. 10 – “Obini” means woman in the Yoruba language.  Correspondingly, Obiní Batá -a group of Cuban women who are breaking religious and cultural taboos- is the subject of the documentary “Una sonrisa para el tambor” (A Smile for the Drum), by director Damian Francisco Perez Tellez.

The film is one of the fine works being presented at the 31st edition of the Havana Film Festival in the “Made in Cuba” category.

Obiní Batá is the only folkloric company on the island made up solely of women.  They display their talent through singing, dancing, reciting and…what horror!… playing the hourglass-shaped batá drums!

Perez didn’t want to run any risk: he took the care to explain to the novice audience -through interviews with several specialists in Afro-Cuban culture- about the dilemma of batá drums.

Director Damian Fernandez Perez Tellez
Damian Fernandez
The Obini Bata group. Youtube video

One of the interviewees, Alfredo O’Farrill, noted that these drums were seen for the first time in a black township in colonial Havana.  In the beginning they were regular drums; but later, stemming from the need for communication between men and the Orishas (Gods), it was decided to make them sacred.

This transformation was no more than a ceremony in which a drum was introduced to an Orisha named Añá, who oversaw communication with the world of the dead.

Due to machismo and religious taboos, women -because of their “unreliable” nature, perhaps due to menstruation- were not allowed to play this type of drum.

However, not all batá drums are sacred.  But that didn’t matter; when people decide to prohibit something they go to extremes.

Then on one occasion, during a Father’s Day celebration in the early 1990s, members of the National Folkloric Group (Carmen Mendez and Armando Jaime) had a beautiful idea: Women could sing, dance and play to entertain men.  What’s more, they could play the drums – the batá drums.

A smile for the drum.
A smile for the drum.

Eva Despaigne -the founder and director of Obiní Batá, who had already spent 20 years with the National Folkloric Group- wanted to pursue the idea of Obiní Batá.  Although leaving the older group was a risky decision, Eva decided to take on the challenge.

She and five other women now give the instrument a sensuality that is not created by men, though they insist that Obiní was not created to compete with men or to disrespect what is sacred.  While many people turn their backs on them, predicting a short-lived existence for the group, Obiní is recovering the importance women held in African culture.

“If some day I had to quit playing my drum,” one of its members acknowledged, “it would be better to cease existing, because to me it is the greatest.  It’s like you’re playing the stars.”

However the female band director was less poetic at the end of the documentary.  Perhaps she’s more grounded, given her experiences.  She has had to battle to move this initiative forward and anticipates the future obstacles she will have to overcome for the group’s work to be valued and for many religious-minded people (and opportunists) to stop looking at them with contempt or as violators of sacred edicts.

Eva -as the first woman percussionist of Obiní Batá- expressed serenely, divinely and forcefully: “With us the Batá arises, it smiles.  And if someone were to say that Obiní Batá must cease to exist, that would be a great misfortune.”

3 thoughts on “Women Playing the Bata Drums?

  • “Due to machismo and religious taboos, women -because of their “unreliable” nature, perhaps due to menstruation- were not allowed to play this type of drum.”

    It’s very dangerous when you begin to observe African culture with the ideals and cultural folkways of Europeans. Europeans are patriarchal and tout the many perceived “shortcomings” of their women.

    Black people are matriarchal, and you cannot apply the same reasoning, logic, or thinking to an African folkways. Everything has its place in African culture. No matter where you go in the diaspora or on the continent, men almost always play the instruments while the women dance. Men dance as well, obviously, just as there are women who play instruments, obviously (look at Cape Verde, the US, and Brazil). But typically, men play instruments, and women are often the dancer.

    It doesn’t have to have some sinister, eurocentric, patriarchal, sexist basis for it. I see Tiffany uses the word “restrict”, because again, thisi is the european paradigm of male domination/restriction at place. Does anyone say that the women are restricting them men from singing?? Does anyone say the women are restricting the men from dancing?? No.

    But we assume the men must be restricting the women from playing the drums, right?

    In Cape Verde Batuko, the men do not play the drums. The women play them. The same can be found in other regions of Africa. Do we accuse those women of restricting the men? NO.

    Everyone has a place in African culture and because we choose for men to play the bata, that does not mean that it has anything to do with european patriarchy/sexism.

  • THIS is certainly an example of the human race rising to a new, more spiritually aware existence. Spiritually we are both masculine AND feminine. To restrict either gender from a spiritual action, such as playing the Bata drums is ridiculous and ignorant! We are entering a time of a higher, more pure vibration. I feel that the letting go of aspects of tradition that are resrtictive on anyone is part of that positive shift. The people (most often the men,no offense. Just fact….) are who created tradition. Can tradition not be changed by the people as we grow and our awareness shifts?
    Obini Bata…you are beautiful! I honor you for what you are doing! If others will stay out of ego and look at this from a place of spirit, they will see this too!
    Peace and Love – Tiffany


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