Drumming Up a Religious Experience

March 25, 2013
Professor Kenneth Schweitzer has written an authoritative new book on Batá drums, the sacred percussion that powers possessions in the Santería religion.

Music professor and ethnomusicologist Kenneth Schweitzer has spent more than 15 years exploring, researching and living his musical passion—the powerful percussion music of the Cuban Lucumí, or Santería, religion and its vibrant world of saints, spirits and celebrations. He has studied with some of its most experienced drummers, interviewed many others, and witnessed and facilitated hundreds of spiritual possessions. 

One tangible result of all this rich experience and knowledge is his first book, The Artistry of Afro-Cuban Batá Drumming: Aesthetics, Transmission, Bonding, and Creativity, just published by University Press of Mississippi. Schweitzer filled its 242 pages with history, cultural context, personal stories and interviews, along with musical transcriptions and detailed analyses. Latin music expert and seven-time Latin Grammy nominee Michael Spiro, who also teaches percussion at Indiana University, views Schweitzer’s book as a must-read for understanding Afro-Cuban drumming and Afro-Cuban culture in general. It is “as thorough a study as has ever been published on one of the most important musical styles in the New World,” he says.  “It will stand as a seminal contribution to both our understanding of the musical genre itself and to our larger awareness of Afro-Cuban culture and music.” 

Schweitzer, who chairs the Department of Music at Washington College, was officially initiated into the secretive fraternity of Santería ritual drummers in 2004.  It was a private ceremony in Washington, D.C. whose details he can’t divulge. But he will confirm that it involved tests of physical endurance, the handling of sacred objects, prayers and invocations, and, as might be expected from this cousin of Voodoo, various types of animal sacrifice. Since then, he has played the sacred batá drums in more than 100 rituals as close as D.C. and Baltimore and as far away as Cuba, Mexico City and Toronto.  

The Lucumí/Santería religion and its music were introduced to Cuba by the African slaves, most from what is now Nigeria, who were shipped to the Caribbean island in the early and mid-1800s to work on the sugar plantations. Its practitioners worship through spirits they call orisha; they believe that each person contains the divine essence but needs a patron orisha to guide them. Over time, the religion merged some of the Catholic saints into its cast of spirits, but what didn’t change was the important role of the sacred ritual drums, or batá, in calling the orisha and in creating the atmosphere that enables celebrants to become possessed by them.    

During rituals, there are always three batá drummers and a singer, says Schweitzer. “These musicians, armed with an extensive repertoire, and knowledge of both ritual and mythology, lead congregations during religious events that last four to six hours and are characterized by non-stop drumming, singing, and dancing. I’ve seen drummers break a finger and just keep playing,” he adds. “It requires endurance.” 

“The drums speak to the orishas and invoke their power by calling their names, praising their individual attributes, and broadcasting their historical deeds,” Schweitzer explains. “The drummers achieve this by imitating linguistic forms such as spoken phrases, musical or heightened speech, and songs.” The best batá drummers, he adds, know the mythological stories behind each orisha and how to express them creatively in sound. They also know how to generate an elevated level of excitement by increasing the frequency of call and response exchanges between drums. 

“As a ritual drummer, I’m a priest in the religion,” says Schweitzer. “During a ceremony I am providing what the people in the room need spiritually. I am leading them into an ecstatic state for possession. It’s a very intense, expressive experience.” 

His interest in Afro-Cuban drumming was first sparked in 1992, when as a college student he heard Latin Jazz masters like Tito Puente perform at the Blue Note in New York City. Two years later, as a graduate student at University of Maryland, he began immersing himself in the musical and religious culture of Cuba, an island he’s visited seven times for batá studies and research. Drawn to batá’s complexity and depth, he sought out experienced teachers, including the late Francisco Hernández “Pancho Quinto” Mora, an international sensation known as a master drummer of both batá and rumba. He also engaged Santería communities in the U.S., especially in the D.C. area.  

Schweitzer says he wrote the book not only for musicians and scholars of music, religion and anthropology, but also for aficionados of Cuban music and culture. He is already at work on a second book that will seamlessly integrate text, audio-visuals, and images, and which will go beyond batá drumming by examining all the rich and diverse musical traditions of Santería. He also plans to expand his research throughout Latin America, starting with Venezuela and Brazil.

He has no fear that his musical and scholarly expertise will become obsolete. Santería is still growing and spreading way beyond its Cuban base. “This religion,” he says, “is flourishing beyond belief.”

To learn more about Dr. Schweitzer’s expertise, visit his faculty Web page. 

To hear excerpts of batá drumming, as performed by Kenneth Schweitzer, David Font, and Mark Merella, click on these links for mp3s:

1) Eight minutes segment, with slow and elegant beginning and fast, wild end.

2) Two minute segment with several changes.

Last modified on Apr. 24th, 2013 at 11:37am by .