Major Percussion

Local residents often lament Miami's lack of culture: no stellar museum collections, a dearth of first-run, first-rate theater, frequent snubs by rock and pop stars who bypass us on their U.S. tours, and so on. But while many sit and bitch about our relative poverty in the fine arts as compared to other urban centers, Historical Museum of Southern Florida folklorist Stephen Stuempfle and a team of local consultants have intelligently mined our rich natural resources, and they've put together a fine exhibition that says a lot about what's really going on here.

Caribbean Percussion Traditions in Miami presents a stunning panorama of the instruments and artifacts that Miami's disparate Caribbean communities make use of in concerts, public festivals, and private religious ceremonies, allowing for a comprehensive look at some of the most important -- and largely unrecognized -- forms of popular art created in South Florida.

On a recent Saturday, a clamor came from the museum's small auditorium, where a man in a bright yellow satin suit with matching gloves marched in circles, blowing a tin horn. Four other musicians pounded metal drums wrapped in colored felt and feathery trim. The group was a Bahamian junkanoo band that usually performs outdoors at events like the Goombay Festival. Indoors, the heart-racing rhythms reverberated claustrophobically. The audience might just as well have been dancing down the street during Carnival. Seemingly oblivious to the close quarters, some shook metal rattles the band members had passed around.

That deafening performance was part of a daylong percussion festival held in conjunction with the exhibition. On a more typical day, the museum's first-floor galleries are relatively quiet, with competing strains of Cuban rumba, Haitian ra-ra, and Puerto Rican plena escaping softly from headphones and video monitors scattered throughout the beautifully installed display.

While the audio-visual aids contribute to one's understanding of the exhibition, they don't distract from its focus: the instruments themselves. Drums and other percussion instruments used in religious and secular music of South Florida residents from the Bahamas, Cuba, Guyana, Haiti, Puerto Rico, and Trinidad are displayed. A team of local experts -- mostly percussionists, but also priests, musicologists, and anthropologists -- assisted with the installation.

"In percussion traditions, particularly the Afro-Cuban religions and Haitian Vodou, the drums themselves are honored -- they're sacred and they're kind of put on a pedestal," says Stuempfle, the show's curator. "In a way the museum has that same effect, because a museum sanctifies or sanctions objects. By putting them in a museum, which in Western society is treated as a sanctuary or a special space, we're calling attention to these as valuable objects from valuable traditions."

Stuempfle was most concerned with accurately reflecting the different cultures. "We didn't want to present the drums in a vacuum," says the curator, who took two years to organize the exhibition. "It was important to show how they fit into community life."

Thus the Haitian section includes a display of rooms in the house of a manbo (priestess), designed by Carole Demesmin, a local manbo. A table holds ceremonial objects: a box of cigars, splendid sequin-covered bottles, painted tcha-tchas (maracas), a bottle of rum, a machete. On the floor, a veve, an intricate graphic symbol of a Vodou deity, has been drawn in white powder. A wooden armoire in the bedroom is an exquisite assemblage filled with small colored-glass bottles, beads, and satin fetishes. A white cotton priestess's dress hangs on the wall.

Another display refutes the notion that Puerto Rican music begins and ends with salsa. (The exhibition avoids salsa altogether, in favor of the African-rooted genres bomba and plena.) Panderos (a kind of tambourine) of various sizes, gYiros (gourds), hollow bamboo branches and barrels played with sticks, and the small cuatro guitar are arrayed, backed by a photo mural of the Broward group Los Pleneros del Borinquen. (Unfortunately, a video of the band was on the fritz during several visits to the show). Papier-mache masks resembling friendly devils and fanciful monsters, worn during street festivals, are clustered nearby.

Elsewhere three sacred Afro-Cuban bata drums are displayed with satin costumes trimmed with shiny braid and cowrie shells. These personify different deities, or orishas, during Santeria ceremonies. An adjoining altar is lavishly hung with yards of colored satin and animal-print fabric. Individual shrines, called soperas, are fashioned from ceramic terrines covered with satin in the colors of the respective gods. These are topped with elaborate metal crowns from which hang small charms in the shape of knives, hammers, hatchets, and other "tools" said to be used by the spirits.

What makes these sacred objects particularly notable is that they were made in Miami. Some, like the two-headed bata drums crafted by Ezequiel Torres (the subject of a feature story this week; see page 13), were commissioned for the show. Metalsmith Domingo Antonio Salas made the sparkling crowns and "tools" in his Allapattah workshop, as he has been doing for members of the Cuban community for the past 30 years.

In general, Stuempfle says, he sought out local crafstmen. He had the most difficult time finding drums for the display; working percussionists cannot easily give theirs up for months at a time. As a consequence, some of the instruments were specially made for the show and purchased for the museum's permanent collection. A minority of the objects were mass-produced, and that ends up creating some interesting juxtapositions: A commercially made conga drum with a shiny black fiberglass body and metal tuning lugs, for example, stands next to a homemade Haitian kongo drum (similar to the conga) made of unfinished hand-carved wood and a goatskin head complete with hair.

The aforementioned installations and others like them give the viewer a lot of context, and for the most part they're aesthetically rich as well as informative, not to mention appropriate for a museum devoted to history. But some displays that showcase the percussion instruments alone are striking. Where there is a minimum of explanation, the drums can simply be admired as objects of art.

One small room features three cajones -- boxlike instruments that are sat upon and slapped with the hands. Placed side by side, these beautiful black-lacquered rectangles stand as minimalist sculpture. Arranged similarly, the skins of three congas, worn and dirty from use, are evocative in the same way the best found objects can be. One large display features Trinidadian steel pans in varying sizes and finishes, which pan master Michael Kernahan makes in a warehouse near Miami International Airport. With their hammered surfaces and tubular shapes, they're like pieces of abstract sculpture.

Nearby are several drums that Miami-based Haitian artist Jan Sebon has painted with busy geometric patterns and Vodou spirit symbols. Their roughly carved sides, encircled at the top by uneven pegs used to stretch the skins, make them stand out in marked contrast to the smooth lines of the steel pans.

Goombay drums (metal containers with goatskin tops) and tom-toms (borrowed from trap sets for street parades) are used by junkanoo bands. These are the most colorful of the lot, and the most flamboyantly dressed, their psychedelic felt coverings trimmed with metallic beads and plastic jewels. Equally showy and fantastic are the costumes worn at Coconut Grove's Goombay Festival and the Martin Luther King Day parade in Perrine, including a huge light-blue headdress that features a portrait of the Statue of Liberty and a matching winged vest proclaiming "USA" on the chest.

One enlightening display highlights instruments played at Hindu weddings, religious ceremonies, and festivals by Trinidadians and Guyanese of East Indian descent. A two-headed dohlak drum bears similarities to the Cuban bata. The more unusual tassa drums are made from goatskin stretched over bowl-like clay shells. An embroidered sari, two women's pantsuits called shalwars, and a Hindu altar give some insight into the culture of these Miami residents.

The only downside to the show is that it's a little small. A single exhibition could be devoted to any one of these popular artistic traditions -- witness last year's "Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou" at the Miami Art Museum (called the Center for the Fine Arts at the time). But even in cramped quarters, "Caribbean Percussion Traditions in Miami" offers a chance to compare disparate Miami communities through their music, while observing the drums as worthy museum pieces.

Caribbean Percussion Traditions in Miami. Through October 26 at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida, 101 W Flagler St; 375-1492.


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