The Beat Generator

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

Ubiquitous throughout Cuba, the bata inevitably found their way into the country's popular music.

Back in the Fifties, Cuban pianist and orchestra leader Bebo Valdes composed music featuring bata rhythms and christened the style the batanga. Today Latin bands often incorporate bata drums for a Cuban touch, and they are played by non-Cubans -- and even women. Tito Puente brought a bata trio on-stage as a folkloric touch to a concert at New York's Carnegie Hall last month. Miami's own Nil Lara has included the bata in some of his compositions. Francisco Aguabella, probably the best-known bata drummer in the United States, has lived in Los Angeles since the Sixties, and besides performing at religious ceremonies, he has recorded and played live with luminaries like Eddie Palmieri and Poncho Sanchez. Cuban innovator Mongo Santamaria has included bata musicians on some of his Latin jazz albums.

"Our African legacy is something natural and totally inseparable from what's Cuban," Torres asserts. "We have elements of European music, but can you imagine how sad Cuban music would be without the complete participation of the African component? Cuban music is an indescribable mix of so many things. But I dare say that one of the principal elements in Cuban popular music is the bata."

The bata's versatility, Torres points out, dates back to its use in Africa. "It's kind of like with jazz," he says. "In Chicago they play one style, and then you go to New Orleans and they have another, and in New York another. That's similar to the way it was in Africa. And with the bata drum, we can interpret any of the different styles. The bata was divinely created for that."

Torres carved his first crude versions of bata drums by hand. "It wasn't enough for me to play," he remembers. "It gave me tremendous satisfaction to be able to take a piece of wood and try to make one." He also knew that it would otherwise be difficult to obtain his own set. Not many people in Havana were making them, and the cost was prohibitive. "I was lucky enough to be able to watch two or three people work, and to learn the way that you learn everything in this field," he says. "Drummaking, or any artistic expression in the oricha world, is so practical that it doesn't need to be explained. You watch without asking many questions, and you pay attention only to what you need to learn."

In the meantime Torres, who had already left school, had formed a band with some neighborhood friends: saxophone, piano, bass, drums, bata. Inevitably their practice sessions would inspire visits from the police. "They'd be knocking at the door saying, 'Okay, we know there's a Santeria ceremony in there,'" he laughs. "We'd tell them we were just a band, but they'd say, 'We know it's a ceremony -- we heard the bata.'" He shrugs. "That's the way it was in those days." The Cuban government has since become more tolerant of oricha worship, and staged versions of the rituals are popular tourist attractions, much as they were in the Fifties.

Torres's reputation as a drummer grew. In the late Seventies he taught percussion at both the national art school and at the national school for art teachers in Havana. He married, fathered two sons, and later divorced. When he had the chance to leave Cuba during the Mariel boatlift, he took it.

"I didn't think I had much of a future there," he says simply. "Cuba at the time wasn't a healthy environment for me."

Arriving in Miami with other refugees, he lived first in Homestead, then Kendall. In the struggle to get by, he took on odd jobs, mostly construction and carpentry, and pretty much stopped thinking about drumming until he got a job working the graveyard shift at a 7-Eleven, where he figured the hours would allow more time for his own work. Still, progress was slow -- until he decided to, as he puts it, "upgrade the technology."

After buying a lathe at Home Depot and discovering it was the wrong size, he went to a metalsmith who agreed to make him the equipment he needed. The cost: $300, which Torres paid off a little each week.

"I was so excited the first day, I made five of the little drums," he remembers, taking down the smallest drum from each of the three sets on his wall and standing them up side by side on the kitchen table.

"The bata drum is like a woman," he says, caressing the narrow midsection -- fittingly called the waist -- of one of the drums and straightening the ruffled goatskin that flares coquettishly around the top. "Some people might say it looks like a bottle, but no, it has the shape of a woman." He takes each drum under his arm in turn and marks out a few beats. They all sound different: hollower, fuller, slightly higher or lower.

The variations, the drummaker explains, have to do with small differences in size and shape, as well as the age and type of wood that was used. "Each one has its own personality," he says, likening their uniqueness to that of a concert violin. "The important thing is that you really know your instrument. And you have to want to preserve a tradition. It's really tedious work -- I can understand why some people wouldn't like it the way I do. It takes a lot of time, but you're expressing yourself, and it allows you to leave a legacy behind."

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