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Possessed By Joy: A North American Drummer In Cuba

Eleggua shrines in Matanzas, Cuba. i i

Eleggua shrines in Matanzas, Cuba. Harris Eisenstadt for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Harris Eisenstadt for NPR
Eleggua shrines in Matanzas, Cuba.

Eleggua shrines in Matanzas, Cuba.

Harris Eisenstadt for NPR

In Afro-Cuban religious ceremonies, it's common for participants to become possessed by spirits. All sorts of people are possessed: older ladies and teenage boys, lifelong adherents and new initiates. Most are handled expertly by other ceremony participants, who flank the person being "mounted," make sure he or she doesn't injure anyone, usher the person out of the ceremonial room and help him or her out of a trance.

In the 11 days that I'd been in the small, bustling, crumbling city of Matanzas, I'd already seen several ceremonial possessions. During my last night in town, I witnessed my fifth Santería ceremony, where batá drummers accompany liturgical song and dance. It was the most dramatic one yet.

There had already been several brief possessions at this last toque for Yemayá, the deity associated with the ocean. Suddenly, a man in his early 20s was mounted. He began to spin in place quickly, like a 33 rpm Sufi dervish played at 45 rpm. He placed his wrists on his hips and pushed his elbows back like a duck. His eyes were wild as he let out loud, periodic cackles, directed primarily at the sacred drums as the rhythms increased in intensity to a frantic but deeply grooving pace. The laughter, I was told afterward, symbolized enjoyment, not menace.

When I left an hour later, I saw the young man who had been escorted out of the building long before. He was still cackling, eyes wide, deeply in trance.


In January, I took a two-week study trip to Cuba, supported by a research grant from SUNY Maritime, where I'm a humanities professor. I spent 11 days in Matanzas and three in Havana, studying Afro-Cuban folkloric music every day and attending traditional ceremonies or secular rumbas most nights. I don't speak much Spanish, so I was lucky to get some amazing contacts (including a translator and guide, Antonio Pérez) from two Americans with extensive experience in Cuba. One of those Americans, Los-Angeles-based drummer Chuck Silverman, has led research trips to Cuba for 25 years — he fielded literally dozens of my phone calls and generously offered counsel. I could not have done what I did without him.

Matanzas is about two hours east of Havana. Cuba's 11th most populous city, it has the feel of a big town. I stayed at three different casas particulares (privately owned bed and breakfasts) within walking distance of the neighborhood where I took most of my lessons and attended most ceremonies. Havana, by contrast, is unmistakably a big, sprawling city — full of traffic and bustle. I have been to other world capitals in less than working order — Cairo and Dakar come to mind — but Havana is its own version of heartbreaking. There's 500 years of history there (it was founded in 1515), crumbling under the weight of island isolation.

My story is not really about Havana or Matanzas, per se. It's about a North American jazz drummer and composer on an information- and inspiration-gathering trip to a place that felt much farther away than it actually is. I went to gather rhythms, songs and forms to write a new book of music for a new ensemble; I wasn't looking to become a drummer for Afro-Cuban ceremonies or rumbas. I was after a more personal, poetic assimilation of musical materials from Africa and its diaspora. Cuba was the perfect place to find what I was looking for.

AfroCuba is not a literal place. The term comes from Cuban scholar Fernando Ortiz, and perfectly encapsulates the country's inescapable African-ness. Below are five things I learned in AfroCuba.

5 Things I Learned In AfroCuba

  • 1. Sometimes it's better to stop recording.

    I saw many Afro-Cuban religious possessions during my time in Cuba, but I only filmed one. It happened at a ceremony honoring a dead member of the Palo religion. There were about 30 people in a very small room. The men were song-leaders and percussionists, while the women danced and sang. Check out how the woman's eyes in the video open and close repeatedly, and how her breathing is labored. I saw many people in possession look like this.

    It was just my second full day in Cuba, and I hadn't expected to attend a ceremony so soon. I had asked if it was OK to record and was told it was. Though it's fascinating to have even this brief document of an actual possession, the thought of documenting others seemed somehow voyeuristic. The woman is in an extremely vulnerable state — she's in a private place — and I was an outsider, fortunate just to be there. It became strangely liberating to not reach for my iPhone any time I saw someone go into trance. And, though it's hard to remember in our over-connected world, it really is OK to live our lives without documenting every second.

  • 2. Music can be deeply woven into the fabric of daily life.

    One Sunday afternoon in Matanzas, we ran into a parade. Santiago de Cuba had just beaten Matanzas in a professional baseball game, and the visiting fans were having a moving party through the losing team's city. (There were no adverse reactions from the locals; quite the opposite, actually.) The Santiago de Cuba fans were playing a kind of parade music called conga cocoyé, which comes from eastern Cuba. The instruments were fascinating: two big 26-inch bass drums that were very shallow, played with a mallet on one side and hand on the other; two long thin drums; a few hand-held brake drums (like heavy, round, metal doughnuts); other hunks of metal; and a corneta china (a double reed instrument that came to the island with Chinese laborers in the 19th century) that a few players passed around.

    The collective exuberance was incredible. This was not religious music — there were no possessions — and it was not music made by professionals. But it grooved deeply. There was such inspiring collegiality as players traded instruments back and forth, and there was a sense that music, though central to the event, was part of a larger cultural mechanism at work. Instrument playing, singing and dancing were just part of the celebration rather than its focal point. Over and over, I saw such total involvement in music events, both from music makers and from all other participants.

  • 3. Young musicians will always move traditions forward.

    Appropriately enough, the band Rumba Timba plays an ultra-contemporary mix of rumba and timba styles, with some Cuban reggaetón thrown in. The guys in Rumba Timba know the older forms well; they're also members of Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, probably Cuba's longest-running and best-known rumba group. They're not looking to abandon those traditions, and they might not even be meaning to explicitly move anything forward. But by listening to music from outside Cuba, new forms are built on top of older ones. Their show was a reminder that this is simply what young musicians everywhere do, consciously or not.

    And they were super-bad. Check the first video for some incredible choreographed dance moments involving a bunch of people with baseball bats and gestures. And check this second video of the amazing drumset player. (I have to use that term, really — look at everything that's part of his kit!) A Cuban drumset isn't a new innovation, but this guy was building on top of timba, just like timba built on salsa, just like Matanzas native Arsenio Rodriguez built the precursors of salsa from son montuno.

  • 4. Technology can make some things less secret, but some secrets are still off-limits.

    It was Jan. 5, Dia de Reyes (King's Day) in Matanzas, and the Abakuá, a secret society for men descended from slaves of the cross-river delta region of present-day Nigeria and Cameroon, was out in full force.

    I'd been to the Abakuá temple — called a poténcia — a week earlier, so I knew at least where we were going. But this ceremony was much bigger. We entered the poténcia through the anteroom, with its elaborate shrine to Ochún, to an outdoor space where initiates were playing Abakuá drums and singing. Plenty of rum was passed around as young men took over from each other on the various drums and bells with a sense of fraternity and good-natured stuff-strutting. I walked by the room for new initiates (only new and already-initiated are allowed in) and heard the massive, low rumble of the ekué, the friction drum that's an enormous, low-pitched relative of the Brazilian cuica. The sound represents the voice of the leopard, the animal deified by the Abakuá as a symbol of political authority and virility in battle.

    Which brings me to the accompanying video. Dia de Réyes is the main day of the year when Abakuá bring their secret worlds and practices into the open. There were drummers, two leopard-costumed creatures, men carrying jugs of rum on their heads, and a man with a ceremonial Abakuá drum with decorative peacock feathers (not meant to be played) who had the head of a rooster in his mouth. They all came out of the poténcia and paraded through the city for hours, accompanied by a large crowd.

    I was far from the only cell-phone-wielding video-taker. Cubans were documenting, as well — for what I was not sure, as there is so little broadband in the country to upload video. Perhaps it was simply an expression of taking part in something that has become more and more public. The Abakuá have been historically mistrusted and misrepresented in Cuban popular culture, which is changing. Some secrets, however, remain undocumented.

  • 5. If you want to be dramatic, you can always start slowly, then build.

    I was only in Havana for three days, barely enough time to get a feel for the city. But I had a phenomenal host and guide: Raul Gonzalez Brito, known as "Lali." A revered rumbero in his mid-60s, Lali was an integral part of some major Havana rumba groups of the 1970s, '80s and '90s. Walking one day in downtown Havana, we ran into a friend of his, a singer named Rubén Bulnes. Rubén told us his group Osain del Monte was playing at a "piano bar" the next evening. Lali had been telling me this was his favorite rumba group in town these days. What luck!

    The "piano bar" had no piano. When we arrived, an hour after the official 5 p.m. start time, there were no musicians on stage, but the stage was crammed with all the percussion a rumba group needs. By 7, the club was packed and Osain Del Monte finally started. The band's name references the two major African religions in Cuba: Osain is the Santería deity who knows the herbal remedies of the forest, and "del Monte," meaning "of the forest," references Palo del Monte, the name of the Kongo religion in Cuba.

    I took this video just as they began their set. There's a wonderful sense of drama here. In most rumba, a performance will often start with yambú rhythms. Slow and stately, it reminds me of a concert of classical Indian music, where you know fast-tempo excitement is coming, but the ensemble painstakingly builds the drama. It was a joy to listen to and see the conversation between the three drummers; the lower-pitched drummers improvise from a rhythmic cell, while the cajon quínto player (the highest-pitched of the three) dialogues with the singers and dancers. The crowd was intoxicated — by the music and, yes, by rum and beer.

    Bulnés and his group aren't the first to explore drama in music by building one long crescendo across a two-hour set, but they sure do it masterfully. Two hours later, Lali and I left, exhausted, and they still hadn't finished their first set.


Harris Eisenstadt is a drummer and composer living in Brooklyn, N.Y. The new ensemble inspired by his trip to Cuba, Aberikula, presents its first performance on March 30.

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