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.
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.
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.”