By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
On one side of the room stand the drums of Africa. The fotomfrons from Ghana measure nearly five feet tall, parallel lines etched into their wooden bodies leading upward to long pegs that jut out like the petals of a flower. The pegs hold taut the strings that stretch the skin just so, to make the tones sound sweetly when the drummer's hands graze the skin. Beside the fotomfrons, the atumpans are short and squat, a narrow wooden base holding up the fat round belly that must give them a deep, resounding boom.
From Ghana, too, comes a trio of drums. There is the painted wooden sogo that starts off a conversation and then is answered by the kaganu, their dialogue cut through by the constant chatter of the kidi. Next to the Ghanaian drums, just as their kingdoms were once neighbors in West Africa, stand a family of jimbés from Guinea and Mali. Like their neighbors, these drums are tall cylinders, but instead of wooden pegs, cut-metal plates strain upward to give the jimbés their tone. Nearby is the ngoma from Uganda, the nebero from Ethiopia, the turu from Nigeria. Set back in a corner, the bambala from Western Congo looks out across the room through round, slit-eyed faces carved into a dark, hollow log.
On the opposite wall, the American descendants of these drums resemble their African ancestors but wear different colors, variant carvings, and changed shapes. In a family of three, the rada drums of Haiti echo still-remembered conversations from Ghana and Dahomey. On the garifuna from Belize, thick ropes tied around the pegs stretch the full length of the drum, as though the short strings used in West Africa had to grow to hold in place a skin made more rebellious by crossing the Atlantic. Short, smooth boxes called cajas made do in Cuba when drums were outlawed or could not be found.
Fernando Ortiz, a Cuban ethnographer who lived from 1881 through 1969, was among the first scholars to study African culture in the Americas. He invented the term Afro-Cuban as a way to recognize the vital presence of African culture on the island. In his most famous book, Cuban Counterpoint (1940), he wrote about a process he called “transculturation,” describing what happens when two very different cultures come together to create a third that is entirely new. His ethnographic masterpiece, the five-volume Instruments of Afro-Cuban Music, recounts in minute detail the history, function, and sound of the wide variety of instruments that survived the middle passage to the Caribbean.
A large portrait of Ortiz hanging near the entrance to the exhibition shows a portly white-haired man with thick spectacles seated in his study, nearly buried beneath a mountain of books, files, and bundles of papers. The heads of two batás peek out from among the papers. Ortiz would invite master drummers such as Trinidad Torregrosa, Raul Diaz, and Julio Collazo to play at his house, so that he could transcribe the words of the drums in European musical notation. The drummers wrote with their hands on the skins. The scholar wrote with pen and paper, recording the rituals and beliefs of Afro-Cubans in a series of works published between 1906 and his death more than 60 years later.
Just inside the door to the exhibition lay three batá drums built by Trinidad Torregrosa not for Ortiz but for Joseph H. Howard (1912-1994), an oral surgeon, amateur percussionist, and avid collector born in Venezuela to parents of African-American, South American, and East Indian origin. Howard referred to Ortiz's Instruments of Afro-Cuban Music to plot his collection. A portrait on the wall opposite Ortiz shows Howard, a hepcat in a knit turtleneck sweater, standing in front of the set of Torregrosa's batás with one hand cupped against the skin of the conga in front of him and the other raised, about to strike. His head is turned slightly to one side, his eyes closed as he surrenders to the rhythm. Drums -- the same drums on display at the museum -- surround him, lined up on shelves, hanging from pegs on the wall, and scattered about the floor.
Over the course of his long life, Howard collected more than 300 instruments from around the world, publishing his research in 1967 in the book Drums in the Americas. Howard had his own phrase for what Ortiz termed “transculturation,” calling the coming together of cultures both in his own family and in the family of drums the “fruit of the cross.”