The Beat Generator

Ezequiel Torres's handcrafted bata drums reflect both an art and a calling

Dark clouds loom over Opa-locka, auguring a summer squall that will soak the clothes hanging on the line in Ezequiel Torres's back yard. But inside the house he shares with his girlfriend, it has already begun to thunder.

Clad in plaid shorts and a T-shirt that reveal the rangy build of a basketball player, Torres is sitting at the kitchen table, holding an hourglass-shape bata drum and thumping out a rumbling, repetitive beat on both ends -- a salute to Chango, the Afro-Cuban god of thunder and lightning.

An African king in his long-ago life on Earth, Chango is a favorite god among worshipers of Santeria, renowned as an avenger of evil and a macho ladies' man and acknowledged as the owner of the bata drums, which were brought by West African slaves to Cuba around 1800. "It's like the British with their royalty," Torres explains. "Everyone there is obsessed with someone, like Diana -- it's Diana this and Diana that. With us it's Chango and Chango and Chango forever."

Torres is part of a thriving underground music scene in Miami, a member of the omo ana, the sacred brotherhood of drummers who provide ritual music for the Afro-Cuban religious ceremonies that take place in homes across South Florida on most weekend afternoons. No ceremony can be held without the bata drums, which call to life the 22 deities -- known collectively by their Yoruba name orichas -- through a rigidly prescribed series of rhythms.

Otherwise sparsely furnished, Torres's living room is dominated by various percussion instruments, all of which he made in his back yard: chekeres, large gourds covered with elaborately beaded mesh; black lacquered boxes called cajones, which are sat on and beaten like drums; pairs of wooden claves sticks that are struck together to mark the rhythm; and four sets of bata. A large wooden mask, also crafted by Torres, hangs on a wall next to a group of similar masks from Africa.

When pressed, Torres can name two other people in Miami who know how to make bata drums. According to Stephen Stuempfle, the resident folklorist at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida, the 42-year-old Cuban immigrant is the most active in his profession locally. Stuempfle recently commissioned Torres to craft a variety of instruments, including a set of bata, for the museum's current exhibition, "Caribbean Percussion Traditions in Miami." Torres also served as a technical adviser to the show. (For a review of the exhibit, see page 57.)

One set of bata is hung away from the others, alone. Wrapped with leather instead of rope, these have an evocative, oddly ancient look to them, as if they're museum relics. These are Torres's bata fundamento -- consecrated drums used in the most sacred ceremonies. Musicians play the bata fundamento in private before altars to the orichas -- offerings of food, cash, and ceremonial objects. These rituals, which take place at midday, are closed to outsiders.

In a spacious room off the back patio of Willie Ramos's sprawling ranch house in Kendall, a six-year-old boy sits on an Oriental rug beneath an ornate canopy of red satin and animal-print fabric, playing with a plastic truck. This is Ramos's son, and today is the boy's dia del medio, the second day of the weeklong initiation into Santeria. His mother made the elaborate outfit he's wearing out of leopard-print cloth; his father sewed on the cowrie shells that form a dense circular pattern on the jacket. The boy's head has been shaved and painted with graphic symbols, and his ankles, emerging from the white long underwear he wears beneath his ceremonial garb, indicate that his body has been painted as well.

About two dozen Latin professionals, friends of the family, stop by to pay their respects. They place money in a cloth-lined receptacle on the floor, kiss the boy, then lie down on the carpet. The boy lies down in turn to greet them. The smallest visitor, a dark-eyed three-year-old girl dressed in a white pique dress, white shoes, and a white hat, was recently initiated herself.

Altars to various orichas stand in a corner of the room. Traditionally in Cuba tributes of this kind were constructed of simple gourd bowls decorated with beaded necklaces and surrounded by objects and food items commonly associated with the respective spirit. Gourds have given way to ceramic, wood, or metal on the island, but the offerings in Miami are positively lavish: large Chinese porcelain urns stuffed with satin and wrapped with elaborate beadwork and spangled trim. A glass-fronted cabinet holds an overflowing assortment of maracas, knives with beaded handles, dolls in fancy costumes, and other ceremonial objects.

Ezequiel Torres intends to ensure that one aspect of the religious practice remains the same. He sits on a stool in a corner of a tile-floored den that's separated from the boy's altar room by a white curtain, a bata drum held in place on his lap with a leather strap that runs under his legs. Two other local drummers, Philbert Armenteros and Coco Diaz, sit on either side of him. Each holds a drum of a distinctly different size. The bata are considered a family of three: the mother drum, iya, the largest and the leader; her companion, called itotele, the middle drum; and the baby, okonkolo. In addition, one end of each drum is larger in circumference that the other, giving each side a different tone when struck.

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