The Beat Generator

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

The songs the men play tell stories about the lives of the orichas: For a song for Ogun, the god of iron and war, they slap their bata hard and fast to create the heavy, plunk-plunk sound of a hammer hitting iron. One for Yemaya, the goddess of fertility and the sea, requires a more languid, open sound meant to mimic the movement of the ocean. The drummers play different rhythms simultaneously, with the mother drum carrying the most complex part.

"The thing is to not just hear it like a lot of noise," Torres says during a break, wiping the sweat off his face with a towel hanging around his neck. "You have to listen to the separate sounds. You can hear all the sounds of nature in this music."

When Torres begins chanting in Yoruba, the guests sing along, sporadically getting up to dance, dropping dollar bills into a bowl on the floor in front of the drums, falling into a different step as the drummers sound the call for each oricha.

All the while, the young initiate remains confined to his carpet in the other room, greeting visitors. Because adherents to Santeria are brought into the religion by choice rather than inheritance, it is not the norm for children to be initiated so young. But according to Ramos, an Afro-Caribbean scholar who is enrolled in the master's program in history at Florida International University, it is becoming more common: The initiation process, a period of extremely circumscribed behavior, is easier for children, who are free of the external demands of the adult world.

Ramos is an oba oriate, a director of ceremonies for Santeria initiations who often leads the chants that accompany the bata rhythms. Of the 40 or 50 local bata drummers qualified to play these sacrosanct rhythms, he says, Torres is the best. A date book the percussionist keeps next to the phone at home backs up this assertion; it's marked well in advance with bookings, not only in Miami but in Orlando, where members of the Puerto Rican population practice Santeria, and as far off as Houston, Chicago, and New Orleans. Each musician in a three-man ensemble can receive up to $100 per gig -- or much less, depending on the host's financial situation. The drummers also divvy up the cash worshipers drop into their bowl.

When he was growing up in the Havana neighborhood of El Pilar, Torres had little interest in Afro-Cuban religious practices, though they were taking place all around him. Natividad Casanovas, the eldest of his four sisters, recalls that their grandmother was always lighting candles or putting out a glass of water for the orichas. After the revolution their parents got involved too, even though such practices were officially discouraged by the Castro regime. "The political change brought a kind of tension to the house. We turned to the Yoruba culture looking for an outlet for those feelings," Casanovas explains. "This isn't a religion that makes promises for the afterlife. This religion is structured to help you solve your problems in this world. It's a means of support, especially for poor people, and for blacks like us, for humble people who don't have a prestigious name or a fortune to fall back on."

Torres himself didn't find the religion until he was sixteen and accompanied some friends to a toque, a Santeria ceremony. "The first time I heard a bata drum, I was electrified," he says. "It was a music that touched me so far inside that I decided right then that I was going to learn."

Torres's mother had a guitar, and his sisters all played instruments, sang, and danced, but his musical experience was limited to some piano and guitar he had played as a child. To learn the bata, he sought out the few elderly master drummers who lived in Havana. "You had to beg them to teach you, and you had to go back again and again and keep begging," he remembers. "That was how you proved you were really interested. My friends said, 'Why are you hanging out with those old people all the time?' But I knew. I knew they had something to teach me."

Torres automatically filled one of the traditional prerequisites for playing the bata: He was male. He also had talent.

"The bata has always been a conservative art, because it is so complicated," he says. "First you have to understand the differences in the sounds that come from the two sides of the drum. If you don't have a real ear for music, you can't do it."

Apprentices start with the rhythms of the smallest drum and, if they master that, gradually work their way up to the largest. Some drummers take years to learn the three drums; others never get beyond the first one. Torres had all the basics down in five months.

The essential rhythms -- what Torres calls the ABCs of the bata -- are the salutes to the 22 orichas, known as the oru del igbodu. "You have to know how to play to the orichas, starting with Eleggua and ending with Odudua," he explains. "If you can't do that, you can't play the bata. When you go out to play for the altar, there's no such thing as 'I don't remember' or 'I made a mistake.' You have to know the rhythms."

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