Secrets Kept

Finally an exhibition you can dance to

Ritmos de Identidad” came to Miami via the Smithsonian, where the show was curated by Miguel Bretos. Steve Steumpfle of the Historical Museum adapted the show for Miami by providing more context for the instruments, including listening stations that feature recordings of local Caribbean percussionists and a rare audiotape interview of Ortiz from 1965. The Miami show also features material pertaining to Lydia Cabrera, Ortiz's onetime sister-in-law and fellow chronicler of folklore. Among the items on display is Cabrera's virtual encyclopedia of Afro-Cuban lore, The Mountain, as chaotic and wild an account as Ortiz's investigations are orderly and scientific. Where Ortiz catalogued and explained the secrets of the gods, Cabrera let herself get caught up in the intrigue and gossip among the divinities.

Seeing the drums neatly lined up, standing at attention, it's easy to forget how much Afro-Caribbean religion depends on mystery and to imagine that all the secrets have been revealed. In an essay titled “The Scholar and the Collector,” written for the first incarnation of the exhibition, which opened at the Los Angeles Craft and Folk Art Museum in the summer of 1999, Cuban writer Antonio Benitez-Rojo imagines that the silent instruments “all awaken at midnight” to play on their own. “If many days go by,” he writes in the voice of the drums, “and nobody invites us to speak, we speak ourselves, although we speak very softly.”

At the opening of the Los Angeles show, Julio Collazo discussed the speech of the drums. A master drummer and respected priest or babalao, Collazo spent his youth taking part in the sessions at Ortiz's study. Collazo was reluctant to relay even the most widely known information about Afro-Cuban rituals. He dodged questions about the way the drums invite the gods to descend into dancing bodies. Instead, this gray-haired elder disclosed, “[The Afro-Cuban informants] did not tell Ortiz everything.” Swaying back and forth in his chair, he recounted the many requests he receives to share his knowledge of the sacred. “People tell me: “Julio, you know so much, you should write a book,'” he said. Suddenly sitting still, he continued, “I could write many books, but I will not. And I will not tell you anything more than I already have, or else you will make a book out of me!”

The museum initiates a new generation into the mysteries of African percussion
Steve Satterwhite
The museum initiates a new generation into the mysteries of African percussion


On view through January 21, 2001; 305-375-1492
Historical Museum of Southern Florida, 101 W Flagler St.

The many books written by Howard and Ortiz only begin to tell the story of Africa in the Americas. The drums themselves have more to say, passed down from hand to hand, beginning in the sacred Yoruba city of Ife-Ile, then through Havana on the way to Miami, New York, and Los Angeles. “Ritmos de Identidad” offers as much of that story as you can see and hear without submitting yourself to the long apprenticeship and continuous trials by fire of the sacred traditions through which the secrets of Africa have been transmitted and, yes, transculturated here in the new world.

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