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The Talking Drums

The Talking Drums

He sang for me a praise poem for Oshún, the orisha of the river. It was in a Yoruba dialect that's spoken in Cuba. Lilting and cadenced, the poem reminded me of the patter of gentle rain. The belief was that the goddess would become more engaged in the lives of those who praise her.

I went through the exhibition with Refugio Rochin, director of the Center for Latino Initiatives, and Miguel Bretos, its senior scholar and associate director. "We are developing a five-year program on Latin music showing its diversity and contributions to American culture," Rochin said. "This exhibition highlights the Afro-Caribbean contributions, and it is symbolic of what can be expected in the future."

Bretos, who was senior curator for "Ritmos," recalled the challenge of getting the show up.

"There was a small window of opportunity to use the space, and it was a difficult space," he told me. "We had to put in our own floor, wiring, everything had to muffle the sound because the place echoes so."

It's an ingenious arrangement, a sort of chambered nautilus that you wander through, encountering the many aspects of drums. Though the exhibition is walled in, there are several windows that invite passersby to peer in. Sounds of rhythmic drumming permeate the setting, thanks to tapes and videos.

Other videos narrated by the daughters of Ortiz and Howard explain both men's role in preserving the Afro-Cuban music connection, but the women were also on hand at the opening, sharing memories of their fathers.

"I fell asleep to the sound of those drums," Victoria Howard said, staring at a large photograph of her father playing congas. "Drummers would come to the house every weekend for jam sessions, and the sounds drifted up the stairs. The rhythm of the drums became a lullaby.

"My father felt it was rhythm that was universal," she commented in the video. "As a family we spent years participating in what my father called his ‘adolescent hangover.' As a boy growing up in Venezuela until he was about 7 years old, he was obsessed with rhythms and drumming and hanging out on the streets with his buddies playing drums."

Howard refers to her family as "African-American with a multicultural lineage." Her father was born in Venezuela, and was descended from African-Americans, East Indians and Europeans, and her mother was of similar heritage and part Native American.

Collecting drums from around the world became a way of exploring their diverse ethnic roots, Howard said.

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