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The Talking Drums

The Talking Drums

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I didn't know how much I didn't know about drums. There are drums that talk, that can imitate speech. There are drums grouped in families for the purpose of talking to each other. Tapping a drum with your fingers produces a sound different from playing it with your palms, or striking it in the center, on the rim or on its sides. There are even drums with flexible flanks that you squeeze under your arm to change their tone.

Not to mention maracas, triangles, gourds, bells, pairs of hardwood sticks (male and female) called claves, thumb pianos and other items that you hit or shake to make people dance and gods listen.

There must be 150 drums and other percussion instruments in the wonderful new exhibition at the Smithsonian's Arts & Industries Building, in the space where for years we saw all those gigantic 19th-century machines. Called "Ritmos de Identidad" (Rhythms of Identity), the show is organized by the Smithsonian Center for Latino Initiatives, a department created in 1998 to increase and enhance the representation of Latino culture in the Institution's museums and educational programs.

The exhibition features items from the Dr. and Mrs. Joseph H. Howard Family Collection, a treasure trove of handmade instruments amassed by an oral surgeon and his family, and pays tribute to Fernando Ortiz, a scholar of Caribbean culture.

It was Ortiz, a Cuban anthropologist and a pioneer in Afro-Cuban studies, who brought the African origins of Cuban music to the world's attention with his 30 books and his lifetime of work for social justice. And it was Joseph Howard, an ally whom Ortiz never met, who collected some 700 percussion instruments from Asia, the Pacific, Africa, Europe and the Americas.

The exhibition, which has text and videos in English and Spanish, explores the transformation of African music once it arrived in the Caribbean and the United States, including liturgical African rhythms used to invoke deities, Caribbean drum calls to freedom, early Latin jazz and Top 40 Latin pop. The show is on view here through August 1, then moves to the Historical Museum of Southern Florida in Miami, where it will run from September 8 through January 21, 2001.

What caught my eye were some batâ drums from the Yoruba people of Nigeria. These double-headed, hourglass-shaped drums are often played in ensembles of three for sacred ceremonies. Carved laboriously from a single piece of wood and topped with goatskin, they are equipped with leather cords that can be used to adjust the tones. Bells and a circle of beeswax on the drumheads produce even more musical variation.

"They are like people," explained Michael Atwood Mason, an anthropologist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History who helped curate the show. "The largest of the three is the iyá or the mother drum, the middle one is the itótele, and the baby is the okónkolo. They communicate with each other through successive interlocking rhythms, a sort of polyrhythmic call and response.

"Batá drums imitate the tonal language of Yoruba," Mason continued. "Any Yoruba syllable has one of three tones, in a fixed relationship with each other, and the batá imitates them. In ritual drumming, the drums are played for the orishas, the Yoruba gods. It's believed the drums themselves are praising the orishas."

Praise poems, Mason told me, are a major part of West African culture. "By praising something, extolling its attributes over and over, you gain influence with it. It can be a god or a king or your grandfather. In West Africa, everyone has praise poems associated with them, but in Cuba the praises are reserved for the gods. And when you play the tones on the drums, people recognize the being or deity being praised."

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