maandag 10 september 2012

Distant yet near hand drums


Holguín airport had a “rural” feel. No “hustle and bustle”, no uptight businessmen, neither other travellers willingly or unwillingly transmitting a tense vibe, probably for sensing to be “where it’s happening”, at the center of it all. By contrast: the general atmosphere on this airport in Eastern Cuba was relaxed. No fuss, just doing our job. This was after all not the center of it all, but far removed from the busy spots where more important things happen. Things just went their usual, slow, not very spectacular way.

I found this all in all pleasant. A nice way to start a holiday. I am of the opinion (with the necessary nuances and conditionalities) that big cities – and even some not too big ones - , busy traffic, and busy, modern urban life in the Western world in general make people at least unstable: and often crazy. Rural life can also have its disadvantages, a limited focus, limited options, narrow-mindedness, and a small and closed cultural frame, but this time I found the rural, “easy” feel relaxing and welcome, at and around Holguín airport. Apart from a somewhat annoying customs officer – a relatively strict one – the atmosphere was nice.

The customs officer wanted to have a precise staying address of me in Cuba: by law a requirement for tourists. This perhaps betrays the totalitarianism of the state, but I am not sure if similar laws apply in other (more democratic) countries. Forces who want to control travel probably do not like a nonchalant attitude along the lines of “I’ll look for some hotel in town”, or “I’ll find something”. That is to free for them and those. The respective customs officer responded slightly agitated to the (somewhat vague) way I answered his question of where I stayed in Santiago de Cuba (where I was heading for). I had telephone numbers, and also had an address but that was the home address of a family in Santiago de Cuba I befriended before. I was hesitant to bring them into possible trouble. The Cuban regime “discourages” (with varying intensity and legality) contacts between Cubans and tourists, though not all contact is strictly speaking forbidden, or actively persecuted.

In similar occasions before, I just said that I stayed at a hotel that actually existed, and that was somewhat big. A small bed-and-breakfast – I imagined – would be easier to check upon by an over-zealous bureaucrat: a hotel in central Havana or Santiago de Cuba with over 50 rooms and people of all nationalities would be more difficult to check, I reasoned. That is what authoritarian rule brings people to, I suppose: having to find clever ways to lie, without doing anything immoral.

Anyway, some bad vibe from “Babylon in a communist jacket” was there, but I got through the customs. Outside the airport the rural feel was confirmed. While in other parts of Cuba, such as the biggest cities Havana and Santiago de Cuba, at least the suggestion of a developed infrastructure was present, here I felt to be dropped in rural lands where only resident farming folk knew the way. I exaggerate a bit, because adjacent to the airport there were buses (or better said: bus stops), taxis and some other facilities commonly convenient for international travellers. Because it was getting later in the evening I acquired via via a taxi to take me to Santiago de Cuba. I have taken taxis for longer distances within Cuba before, or paid other people with cars for long distances, so that was not that extraordinary to me. The distance between Holguín airport in the north of East Cuba, to the city Santiago de Cuba, in the south of East Cuba is about 120 kilometres, so a car trip of a few hours was ahead.

It has just become dark outside, since it was close to 20.00 hours (after sunset). The taxi driver was an informal, talkative guy – not untypically Cuban I’d say – and spoke to me about international politics, expressing some temperamental irritation about the foreign policy of the big neighbouring country to the north (regarding Cuba, but also Iraq etcetera). He looked white, of European descent and was from the nearby city of Holguín, the capital of the province of north east Cuba. We stopped a short while in the city of Holguín, because the taxi driver had to get something from his home, while I waited in the taxi. I saw people in the streets and with some I talked. Most people looked mostly white or European. After his return the taxi driver gave some general information about Holguín and the province. He pointed out that the population was different from other parts of Cuba in that most of the inhabitants of Holguín are white, of European descent. You apparently have two East Cubas or “Orientes”. My destination in the South East of Cuba – as said 120 kilometres away -, Santiago de Cuba, is in turn the “blackest” province of Cuba. In the city of Santiago de Cuba (with about 500.000 inhabitants) about 75% of the population is of African descent, of which most also primarily African, although its mixed population is substantial. In Holguín I estimate that 75% is in turn mainly of European, mainly Spanish, descent.

Not far after Holguín city we passed Birán: the birth village of the president Fidel Castro, who of course indeed looks also phenotypically white. Fidel’s father was actually a Spaniard from Galicia, and his mother largely of Canarian descent. Two relatively large groups among Spaniards migrating to Cuba, especially later (even when it was no longer a Spanish colony).

Saying now something along the lines of “I was traveling from white to black Cuba” (or from Euro-Cuba to Afro-Cuba) may sound rhetorically sharp. Yet in a racially and culturally intensely mixed society as Cuba, this is somewhat simplistic, though it has some truth to it. Rationally, through figures, scientific research, and other reading, I was aware of this cultural and historical difference. This undoubtedly shaped my perspective. On the other hand I sensed, emotionally and intuitively, that the atmosphere began to change. The landscape changed from more plane to mountains and hills around Santiago de Cuba, but also the cultural “vibe” changed, I felt somehow. I have been to Santiago de Cuba before this, so maybe there was an element of recognition here, a renewed connection to the familiar that I also sensed. However: I certainly experienced a difference. On arrival in Santiago de Cuba it was about 22.00 and there were still quite some people on the streets. These looked mostly mulatto or black. I was (again) in one of the main centres of Afro-Cuba.

Left: the central Parque Cespedes square in Santiago de Cuba


Santiago de Cuba and its surrounding province is the main birthplace of the Son music genre, that arose at the end of the 19th c., which in turn strongly influenced Salsa in a later stage. The province Santiago de Cuba and the bordering province Guantánamo to the east (also with mainly inhabitants of African descent) also are the place of origin of the musical instrument known as “Bongos”. This is interrelated: it can be said that the Son and the Bongos mostly developed historically in tandem. The Bongos are attached drums of differing size, commonly used as percussion in son music, but soon also other Cuban music, later on Cuban-derived salsa, and over time also in other Caribbean genres, or even genres in the US and Europe (funk, soul, pop). The bongos also made their way to Brazil. It is said by several musicologists and others that the bongos – along with the Congas (also originally Cuban in that form) – are among the most internationally spread of Caribbean musical instruments, or indeed of all percussion instruments.


That begs the questions of the origins of the bongos. At least it would among those with a reasonably inquisitive mind. I’ve studied literature on this, and found differing explanations, including contradictions, and revisions. I think I can come to some reasonable conclusions, however.

Fernando Ortiz is a famous early (white) Cuban anthropologist, since about the 1930s. He had some dubious sides to him: in his early “scientific” stage he even believed in Lombroso’s theory that criminal tendency can be seen in physical features. This is, well, plain stupidity. That Ortiz believed in this is almost enough to discredit him, but not entirely, because he corrected himself in a sense and changed his views and general opinions toward more progressive and human, with a detailed interest in Afro-Cuban culture.

He wrote in a work released in 1954 about the bongos that they originated in Cuba and is in that sense a creolized local Cuban invention, albeit based on African models. These African drum models, with one membrane (and hide) and an open bottom are mainly of Congo/Angola origin, just like the conga. The connecting of two drums of differing sizes on the other hand most probably developed for practical purposes in Cuba. The bongos (the instrument is actually called “bongó” in Cuba: the emphasis on the last o and singular) appeared in that form probably since the late 19th c. in South East Cuba, as said in tandem with the development of the Son music genre. It appeared in Havana since 1909, foreboding its wider spread.

Other, later musicologists and anthropologists seem to confirm most of this, though there are some differing opinions. Some trace the origin to the Abakuá secret society among Afro-Cubans origin from the Calabar region (now Nigeria/Cameroon). The fact that slaves from the Congo/Angola region were relatively more common in Eastern Cuba historically makes a deeper Congolese origin of the bongos however more probable. Also the bongos’ partial similarity to specific (historical) drum types in Central Africa/Congo region make that more plausible, although there are certain similarities in percussion and drums throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

It is documented that probably about 40% of the African slaves brought to Cuba came from the Congo/Angola region (or Central Africa). Other substantial percentages came from the Yoruba region in Nigeria, Benin, and from the said Calabar region. Especially Yoruba slaves tended to be concentrated more in the later developed plantation areas in Western Cuba (around Havana, Matanzas), though they were spread all over the island, as were to a degree slaves from the Calabar region. Congo/Angola region slaves, while also spread all over Cuba, were relatively more concentrated in Eastern Cuba, especially in parts where there were many slave imports and plantations: the south eastern region around Santiago de Cuba. Holguín to the north had much less of this plantation slavery, hence the racial difference in the present.


The bongos are thus probably (or mainly) of Congo origin, reworked in Cuba. But besides this, other historians and musicologists explained other interesting features of the bongos, especially regarding their relation with other Afro-Cuban percussion. There were, since slavery, other drums used among Afro-Cubans, mostly in religious African rituals of Yoruba, Calabar, Arará, Congo or other origin. These ritual drums have - some point out convincingly - their echoes in the bongos. The latter’s two connected drums of differing size have an inherent flexibility, and a strong emulative potential of the drums used in the Yoruba-based Santeriá religion (called Batá drums), or in other religions/traditions. These drums may have different shapes and sizes, but their sound can be approached or emulated well with the bongos. The bongos thus, so to speak, “translate” Afro-Cuban ritual drum use – with often a direct spiritual aspect - for use in popular or secular music. They thus integrate these in the popular music genre called son. I found this culturally and musically very interesting and significant. Also because this process has parallels in other Caribbean music genres. I will return to that later.


It is of course a hand drum, which was long frowned upon in elite (white) circles in Cuba. Drums played by hand were seen by some as too “African”, preferring a military-type drum hit by sticks, seen as more European (though in fact Africa also has many drums originally hit by sticks). Despite this the bongos were one of the first Afro-Cuban drums to reach broader Cuban, “national” music since the early 20th c. Cuban bongo players point out that most fingers can be used to play the bongos properly, but that the emphasis is on the middle finger. The bongos are mostly held between the knees (slightly bent). The larger drum is traditionally held on the side of the most apt hand (when right-handed on the right or left when left-handed) and is called “hembra”, female, while the smaller drum on the other side is called “varón" (male). Most Cuban bongo players recommend a tight (though not too tight) tuning of the hides.


To (help) keep the rhythmic timing is the most obvious function of percussion and drums. Indeed this is also from early on, within son, an important function of the bongos. There was of course no modern drum kit back then. Son ensembles tended to include a guitar, a Cuban tres guitar, later on an acoustic bass/double bass, horns, and of course from early on percussion. Percussion included in most cases the bongos, maracas (or other “shakers”), and often also congas, as well as the “clave” (wooden sticks). These clave sticks were most literally and limitedly used for keeping the timing, though not throughout the entire song. There was even an old-time son song, from the 1950s, by the Cuban band Orquesta Aragón named ‘Sin clave y bongo no hay son’ (‘Without the clave and bongos there is no son’).

The function of the bongos was also that of keeping the rhythm, but in a broader sense. Still within the overall timing the bongo players improvised, broadened the rhythm from within, you might say.


This is related to the historical role of the drums in African music. More specifically the idea of the “talking drum”. Of course there is a specific instrument used in Africa by that name, but the idea of drums that talk, tell stories, is more broadly spread throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Some musicologists found that the principle is also to be found in some cultures outside of sub-Saharan Africa, such as in Asia, but is most common in Africa. Different types of drums “talk” there to some degree, not just the instrument known as Talking Drum. Less elaborate when they lack the capacity to regulate the pitch as the Talking Drum has, but they still “talk”. This can be connected to social or practical functions, as well as spiritual meanings. Especially in the Bantu/Congo area, communicating with (the spirits of) ancestors is often a function of the hand drumming.

Due to this African heritage, from its beginnings in son music, it became known in Cuba that good bongo players should have a good sense of rhythm, know how to keep it. This is self-evident, but not as simple as it sounds (see for instance how some people dance without any regard for the timing). The “martillo” (means “hammer” in Spanish) technique used by bongo players in son, is mostly “built around” the basic rhythmic 3-2 structured timing (indicated by the clave sticks), in turn based on a 12/8 or sometimes 4/4 beat. Beyond this, it became common knowledge among Cuban musicians that good bongo players should also know how to make the bongos “talk”. This almost became a prerequisite for a bongo player. People who know about Cuban son, know that the son style known as “Son Montuno” has a more improvising part at the latter part of songs, when the bongos (and other instruments) start to improvise more, while the vocals turn (again) to call-and-response. Many salsa songs maintain this basic song structure of more improvisation at the end.

During my travels to Santiago de Cuba, roughly between 2001 and 2006, I noticed that there was much live music in the city. Many bands performing in some regular venues (like the Dos Abuelos club and the Casa De La Trova), and outside them, including the streets. These were often acoustic performances, often of traditional son. Several of these bands had the bongos as only or main percussion (at times along with a conga). In electric or fuller ensembles it would “drown” more in the general soundscape (which in itself says nothing about the quality, by the way). More acoustically and sparse, however, - and in a small-scale live setting of course - I could hear better how the bongos kept the rhythm, but also how and when they “talked”, and “told”.

Photos underneath: bongó players in bands in the Los Dos Abuelos club in Santiago de Cuba. I took these in 2006


I mentioned before how the bongos served as translator of Afro-Cuban ritual drums, translating these to the secular/popular son music genre and related genres. Not too far south of Santiago de Cuba lies the island of Jamaica. Geographically it’s very close, but a different colonizer and other historical differences makes them seem worlds apart. Often just the language barrier sets for many these islands apart, but I speak both English and Spanish, so for me that is not so the case. I have been to Jamaica as well, which I discussed on this blog as well. Furthermore I have learned a lot about reggae since I am a reggae fan for over 25 years now. I have also read much about it, also historical and cultural studies. I have also studied Cuban music. This is not at all to brag, but I have a point with this: I think I am in a position to compare the music cultures of both islands.

There are some historical differences, but also similarities. Both Jamaica and Cuba knew plantation slavery. This was in Jamaica’s case relatively more intense, making that in the present about 85 % of Jamaicans are primarily of African descent. In Cuba only the region around Santiago de Cuba and Guantánamo comes somewhat close (though there was relatively more racial mixture). I think that for the whole of Cuba about 60 % is (partly) of African descent, which includes bi- or tri-racial people.

Slaves that were forcibly brought to Jamaica came, like in the case of Cuba, from several parts of Africa, with certain concentrations. From what is now Ghana (Ashanti, Coromantee) came relatively many, from what is now Nigeria and Benin, some from the Senegambia region, and also from the Congo/Angola region. Some parts that were less common for slaves brought to Cuba, but also similarities. Studies estimate the percentage of slaves from the Congo/Angola region arriving in Jamaica at about 20% of all slaves. More than many would imagine.

This Congolese cultural influence (including from liberated slaves after Britain abolished slavery) is according to studies strongest in eastern parishes/regions from Jamaica: St Thomas and Portland. A remarkable mirroring of the Cuban situation. Slaves of Congo/Angolan descent have further been reported all over Jamaica, but there is some concentration. Like the religion Kumina from St Thomas and surroundings, the Afro-Cuban religion Palo Monte in Eastern Cuba has strong Congo/Bantu influences, thus also in ritual drum use. Yet also other Afro-Jamaican religious systems like Burru – found in central parishes Clarendon and St Catherine - show Congo influences.


In light of this I would like to point at an interesting article I read about the influence of hand drums on the originating and developing of Jamaican music genres: from ska, to rocksteady, to reggae. This was published in the scholarly journal Caribbean Quarterly, Volume 56, nr. 4 (2010): the article was titled: ‘Distant drums : the unsung contribution of African-Jamaican percussion to popular music at home and abroad’. It was written by Kenneth Bilby.

I found this article interesting and revealing. Some say a movie like ‘The Matrix’ was life-changing for them. I consider this article in a sense life-changing for me. At the very least it made clearer what I assumed or knew vaguely. Ska and following music genre rocksteady originating in the period 1960-1966, ultimately resulting in reggae arising in 1968, were influenced in their origins in part by US Black music, like R&B and Blues, but also clearly by Afro-Jamaican music and percussion.

This article by Bilby reveals convincingly through interviews with influential Jamaican musicians and percussionists, with intriguing nicknames like Count Ossie, Bongo Herman, Seeco (percussionist for Bob Marley & the Wailers), Sticky, Skully, and Sky Juice. Reggae fans may know these names at least from credits written on the back or inner sleeves of albums, as most have played with many artists during the Roots Reggae era as well. Besides the names known among reggae fans, Bilby also pays homage and gives credits to lesser known – yet influential - hand drummers and percussionists, who were active in Afro-Jamaican cults like the mentioned Burru tradition. Bilby describes Watta King as a crucial link between the Burru hand drumming and the Nyabinghi drumming tradition among African-centered Rastafari-adherents in West-Kingston, in Jamaica’s capital. Watta King taught several (Rastas) there to drum, including Seeco and the mentor of Count Ossie, while serving as a model for other (later) studio musicians/percussionists as well. Interestingly, this Watta King was of Congo descent.

The Nyabinghi tradition thus developed influenced reggae strongly since reggae originated, as well as earlier genres in Jamaica. Drumming patterns eventually helped shape reggae’s rhythmic structure, as the musicians explain in the said article. This includes the “Heart Beat” (one two, one two) one of the drums called “Funde” in the Nyabinghi tradition regularly play. This Funde drum’s basic rhythm, by the way, combines in Nyabinghi with other more “talking” drum patterns. It influenced according to some the One Drop rhythmic structure, but also indirectly the guitar strum (chick! chick!) on the second and fourth count of a 4/4 beat, characterizing reggae. The great Tarrus Riley song One Two Order (from 2006) refers to this “heart beat”, one-two rhythm of Nyabinghi (and includes it at the beginning).


The parallels between the Cuban and Jamaican situations are evident: especially with regard to the “translation” of African-based ritual (hand) drumming to percussion and rhythmic structures in popular music genres. Both include a Congo/Angola original influence as well, through Watta King and Kumina on the one hand, and son and the bongos on the other.

The musical worlds of Cuba and Jamaica are not so far apart when looking at origins and essence. Not just in their shared (part) African-based origins – which a wider public already may know - , but also how these influences actually developed, with “hand drums” being the key term. At least frowned upon, but often also conscribed or actively limited by colonial and later elites, this African-based hand drumming nonetheless survived and thus helped maintain African musical traditions through the centuries. Up to the present.


I myself took up playing the bongos not too long ago. Mainly to practice, I have improvised on some reggae riddims. This originally Afro-Cuban instrument does not seem or “feel” at all out of place - and is in fact occasionally used - within reggae. This is in line with the connecting of musical cultures of this post.

I’ve uploaded my bongo improvisations on my YouTube account: on the Real Rock Riddim I focus more on “rhythmic base”, while on the Columbus Riddim I “talk” more: of course with the rhythm in mind as well. I also tried to use some Nyabinghi patterns, especially in my improvisation on the Columbus Riddim. For the improvistation on the Columbus Riddim the drums were tuned tighter, as one can hear. I still haven't figured out of what animal the hides are from, but they are definitely animal skin (and not synthetic). The manufacturer of similar bongos, the Germany-based Meinl company, tends to use most commonly buffalo hides, so it could be that.

These videos can be seen underneath, or on my YouTube Channel..

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