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The Talking Drums

The Talking Drums

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"My brother and I didn't have a choice. We were involved in the collection whether we wanted to be or not. My father would take my brother and me into the drum room and point at all of the drums and say ‘you are the fruit of the cross of cultures and of the pride they bear. You are children of the world's culture; you are from everywhere, like the drums.'"

The whole family worked on the collection, helping with the documentation, joining Joseph Howard on trips all over the world. His wife, Tommye Berry, specialized in African art. Often Howard's stamp collection, part of which is in the exhibition, brought exotic instruments to his attention.

In 1960 Dr. Howard bought some batá drums made by Trinidad Torregrosa, a famous Havana drum maker. Torregrosa knew Ortiz, and the vital connection was made. Ortiz became another source for Howard in the classification and management of his growing assortment of drums.

Surveying a desk with Ortiz's papers, glasses, books, awards and a tiny thumb piano, María Fernanda Ortiz Herrera talked about her father's love of Cuba and his respect for other people's ideas.

He founded the Hispano-Cuban Cultural Society in the 1920s. "Everybody was welcome, from the Communists to the Franciscans to the Jesuits," she said.

Exploring Cuba's diverse population, he concluded that there are no races, only ethnic groups, and that it is through cultures that human beings find their true identity. In his book Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar, he coined the word "transculturation," a process that is clearly demonstrated by this exhibition, with its proof that music unites people separated by language and oceans and time.

Field research in Cuban culture led to African studies. In the '50s, Ortiz began researching African dance, music and theater. "If it had not been for him, much of the authenticity would be lost," Ortiz Herrera said.

Not far from the desk display is a section on drum history. Batá drums came to Cuba in the early 1800s when a Yoruba master arrived on the island, as the wall text says, "in bondage."

"Approximately a million slaves were brought to Cuba," Bretos said. "They came from West Africa, brought by the Spanish, British, Dutch and Portuguese to work the sugar plantations. The slave trade officially ended in 1820, but slavery itself continued until 1886. That's pretty late."

Many Yorubas wound up in the Havana and Matanzas districts of Cuba, but the drumming tradition quickly spread all over the island along with the technique of making batás. The instruments, however, were often prohibited or restricted by authorities because drums could be used to spread a message of defiance among slaves as well as to petition the gods.

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