Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Writing on the Wall: Some Speculations on Islamic Talismans, Catholic Prayers, and the Preparation of Cuban Bata Drums for Orisha Worship

Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Writing on the Wall: Some Speculations on Islamic Talismans, Catholic Prayers, and the Preparation of Cuban Bata Drums for Orisha Worship

Article excerpt

This essay examines the use of script in the preparation and consecration of Cuban bata drums. (2) The writing of esoteric markings on the interior walls of these double-headed drums as a practice is not particularly secretive--many devotees outside the drumming fraternity are either aware that such a custom takes place or can at least imagine it being so. Nonetheless, the markings themselves remain one of the most guarded mysteries of the drumming fraternities in Cuba. Though the denotative meaning of most of these esoteric markings has seemingly been lost, this essay looks to how this writing, both the practice and its content, might index a north-of- Yorubaland provenance of Cuba's sacred bata drum complex. Fieldwork has demonstrated that this argument is supported among some of Cuba's bata drumming experts, notwithstanding the pervasive link made between the bata drums and Yoruba heritage among orisha worshippers in Cuba.

Claims made by Cuban drummers regarding historical links with the regions north of the Niger River are made independently of any reference to the esoteric markings inside of the drums: though they may be connected, and it is in part the thesis of this study that they may indeed be related. Cuban informants do not make any overt connections between non-Yoruba cultural groups and the script that appears inside the sacred Cuban bata drums. I speculate here, however, that these markings and the north-of-the-Niger origins of the bata may be connected, and that this "writing" on the interior of the drums is the result of an amalgamation of protective-medicine technologies at play in Yorubaland prior to and throughout the period of the trans-Atlantic separation. Furthermore, it seems appropriate to suggest that this also lends credence to the notion of a vibrant intercultural, trans-Niger dialogue that was not simply motivated by the trade in commodities and slaves, but also by religious and spiritual expertise. Though speculative in nature, I would suggest that, if my case is compelling, it should contribute greater confidence, albeit in small measure, in the claims of those Cuban bata experts who purport that in their antiquity the bata drums, or at least elements of their construction, traversed the Niger River into Yorubaland.

In terms of its implications for future research on Cuban bata drumming, this study is both preliminary and speculative, though not without potential fruit to bear. The central questions that motivated its structuring emerged from the seemingly congruent connections between particular Cuban claims of a Hausa provenance of bata drumming and those historical studies that also highlight a religious and cultural overlap between the Old Oyo polity and the Nupe and Hausa to the north of Old Oyo (e.g., Nadel [1942] 1973; Agiri 1975; see also the travel journals of Clapperton [1829/1966] and Lander and Lander [1832/1965]) My methodology, however, looks to an arena of religious expertise seemingly unrelated to writing or musical matters: medicine making. The essay asks two prefatory questions: Are there valid links to be made between the medicine-making technologies in Yorubaland antedating the trans-Atlantic separation, which would have been practiced by Yoruba Traditionalists and Islamic specialists, and those that emerge in Cuban orisha practice? And if so, given the close relationship between "medicine" experts in Cuba (i.e., Ifa diviners, Osanyin priests) and bata construction (Marcuzzi 2005, 429-477), are these technologies also to be considered "at play" to any degree with respect to the techniques of bata preparation today in Cuba? At this point, I am not going to begin any extensive account of the connection between medicine, writing, and the preparation of the bata drums, though it is my intention that the necessary associations will become transparent as this study unfolds.

Medicines in the Making

The economy of medicine making among orisha devotees both in Cuba and Nigeria has long been a competitive arena. …

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