Secrets Kept

Drums line two walls at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida's exhibition “Ritmos de Identidad: Fernando Ortiz's Legacy and the Howard Family Collection of Percussion Instruments.” Drums fill the cases that sit in the middle of the room and cluster about the door. The sound of batá drums, the sacred instruments transported to the new world from Yorubaland in West Africa, patter and palaver through speakers set in all directions. Photographs of men with drums resting on their laps hang on the wall. Images of men and women, hands flying across drum skins, flicker across the screen of a flat television. Here, neatly arrayed, is the rhythmic history of Africa that the slave trade brought violently to the Americas hundreds of years ago.

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.”

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 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.