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.

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."

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."

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.

"To be a true drummer, you have to have the capacity to create an instrument. You have to be able to teach two or three other people to make a group," Torres goes on. "And if you leave the place where you are, you're still going to have that capacity. We as drummers can go anywhere. It doesn't matter if it's hot, if it's cold, or where it is. If there's a tree, we can make music. Where there's wood, you can be sure there's going to be music there.

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