The Beat Generator

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

Drums that are to be used for ceremonial purposes must be composed of materials that were once alive -- specifically, wood and animal skins. Rope made from hemp is acceptable too. As symbols of spiritual unity, bata drums must also each be formed from a single piece of wood. Commercially manufactured knockoffs mass-produced by American companies like Latin Percussion, however, are fashioned from wooden slats. Molded fiberglass drums are also available.

This doesn't sit too well with Torres. "It isn't just a piece of wood with holes in either end. The bata is the means of communication between man and the saints. It is not like any other drum -- the orichas live inside it. This is an art that we Cubans inherited, and we know how to do it well," he says, scornfully adding that he has seen rope used in place of leather strips on the sacred fundamento drums, and drummers at religious ceremonies playing mass-produced drums with metal tuning lugs.

"I guess that's modern." He shakes his head. "Well, if you want, you can be so modern that you play a tape at a ceremony instead of real drums. You have to be careful. You have to have ethics. There are things that can't be changed." (In addition, Torres and many of his fellow practitioners prefer to call their syncretic faith oricha worship rather than to use the Spanish term Santeria -- literally "the way of the saints.")

As he was taught, Torres carves his drums only from trees that have fallen naturally. He knows how to tell whether the wood is solid or rotten inside just by looking at the bark. (He won't say how, nor will he reveal where he usually looks for the wood he uses.) Almond is most often used for bata drums, but Torres says he has found mahogany to be another good choice.

Several logs lie haphazardly in his back yard near the lathe, which he keeps covered with a plastic tarp. To start a drum, Torres uses an ax to hack the bark off a log. After cutting the wood to almost the right length -- ranging from about a foot for the okonkolo to about four feet for the iya -- he spins the log on the lathe while pressing against it with a carving tool. The roughly finished bodies, whose feminine forms mimic the shape of the head of the ax Chango is said to carry, he hangs from the ceiling in his small laundry room. When he feels the wood has sufficiently dried, he hollows out each drum by hand, sitting at a small picnic table with the wooden forms between his knees, chipping away with a hammer and chisel.

Goatskin is customary for the heads at either end of the drum and for the laces that wrap around the body, but cowhide is stronger. (Torres says he has had trouble getting tough enough leather in Miami; he finds it's overprocessed.) After soaking the leather in water in a plastic baby pool, he stretches it out on a large sheet of plywood, then fits it to one end of the drum with a rattan hoop before lacing it fast with leather or rope.

He strokes a smoothly varnished drum, part of a set he made to send to one of his sons. (Now college-age, both still live in Havana. A four-year-old daughter from another relationship lives with her mother in Miami). "It's not the body, it's the finish that you give something. Water's not going to get in there, nothing's going to get in there," he says, knocking the side of the drum. "I'm selling you an instrument that will last a lifetime."

A full set of Torres's bata drums costs between $1500 and $1800. He says four sets are currently in use in Miami, plus the drums bought by the Historical Museum. One client recently commissioned a set of ceremonial drums and sent them to Cuba.

Torres figures he's doing pretty well. He knows the drums are expensive relative to the income of most of his potential customers. There's more of a call for congas, chekeres, and cajones). With the money he earns from selling those added to what he makes from playing at the ceremonies, he gets by.

Once in a great while he takes on other jobs. He appeared on a 1995 Sony Discos CD by a friend from his old Havana neighborhood, a Miami-based guitarist known as Toledo; and last summer he traveled to Washington, D.C., for several performances with the Afro-Cuban folkloric group Ile-Ife, sponsored by the Smithsonian. The group is led by another of Torres's sisters, Neri Torres, a dancer who recently went on tour with Gloria Estefan.

But the percussionist prefers to stay near home, "maintaining the ancestral identity": making drums, rehearsing, and teaching several apprentices to play the bata. (Unlike his own teachers, Torres encourages them to keep coming back for lessons.)

He also cooks for his fellow musicians. "I'm just doing what my ancestors did," he asserts, dishing a serving of stewed goat and potatoes onto a plate. "Even though they came to Cuba as slaves, they were able to preserve their culture in the place where they found themselves. It didn't matter how well they were treated, or how badly. They were able to integrate themselves into the creation of a new society.

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