The Talking Drums

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."

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.

"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.

Bretos introduced me to some other drums: tall atumpans and wide-bellied, pedestaled fotomfrons from Ghana, the cone-shaped turu from Nigeria and the Jamaican signal drum. Another display featured a painted serpentine guiro from Suriname whose scored side delivers a washboard sound, an iron music-maker that must have been a hoe at one time, and a jackass's jawbone. This last-mentioned, which is painted red and green with teeth intact, makes an "incredible" sound, the curator told me.

There is a balafon, shaped like a chaise longue or an Arctic dogsled; it's made from hefty lengths of wood with rows of large gourds underneath to amplify the sound. There is even a large thumb piano the size of a suitcase — with handles, too.

"The idea is," Bretos said, "that the music goes on. Here at the end of the exhibit we have the modern drums. Some are from Howard's collection, some were gifts. We're beginning to do some recitals and poetry readings here. The glass walls are here for better security, but there are also drums you can actually play as you go along." A clutch of contemporary drums mirrors their traditional counterparts across the aisle. The fiberglass and plastic instruments are more tunable and durable than the handmade ones, but "the sounds are very similar," said Marvette Pérez, a curator at the National Museum of American History who worked on the show. The traditional drums "have been reproduced and are played in many different kinds of music — Latin, rock and roll, even jazz. It's part of the transculturation."

Bretos pointed to a set of modern congas bearing the name Poncho Sanchez in black script. "He played these and signed them when he was at the Smithsonian last month," Bretos said.

"He's Mexican-American, but he plays Afro-Caribbean music. That's a crossover right there."

He spoke with pride and delight, adding, "This is our first exhibit. We need some kind of place where these things can happen."

It looks like he's found it.

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