Custom «Bata Drums in Santeria Religion» Essay Paper Sample

Bata Drums in Santeria Religion

This paper deals with the study of bata drums in Santeria religion. This topic is particularly interesting due to its complexity and origin: Santeria is a complex combination of Catholic and Afro-Caribbean religions concentrated on Yoruba beliefs; another name of this religion is ‘La Regla Lucumi’; Santeria is a syncretical religion that stems from the traditions of slaves brought to Cuba (Pinto 142-144).

As for bata drums, they are the most important of all the drums of the Afro-Cubans. They are considered to be holy and are used only for religious Santeria ceremonies. This topic is also of great interest to me as I listened to some of bata drums music when I was a child, though I even did not know what it was. That is why, it is quite engaging to find out the peculiarities of bata drums music in Santeria religion.

History of Bata Drums

Santeria music is used for almost all religious ceremonies. The most popular instrument is the bata drum. Usually, it is used at holy initiation ceremonies and those held in honor of birthdays of various saints (Villepastour).

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It is important to mention that there is the orisha (the spirit) of drumming in Santeria - Chango. This orisha is one of the most respected spirit in Santeria.  Moreover, Chango is regarded as the orisha of leadership, dancing, and fire. Once he was a real king on earth in Yoruba land. Chango was not a good king when he was alive, but he did miracles after his death and acquired the status of orisha (“Chango”).

The history of Cuban bata drums began when slaves brought the instrument to Cuba (Pinto 142-144). They were first brought to Cuba in the 16th century. Between 1830 and the abolition of slavery, a lot of Cuban slaves came from southern and western parts of Nigeria, now known as Yorùbá in Nigeria and Lukum in Cuba. This forced mass migration led to the appearance of Cuban communities of African slaves, which originated from Nigerian òrìsà cults. This happened despite the attempts of the Cubans to oust African religious identities. These communities made slaves remember the African craft of drum making and consecration, holy drum rhythms, and bata songs. All these traditions were reinterpreted in the Cuban slave colony.

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Although the state allowed the slaves to practice their spiritual traditions in special organizations controlled by the church – cabildos, the authorities and the clergy considered drumming a powerful communication medium and opposed it until the middle of the 20th century. The police confiscated drums at cabildos and homes (Villepastour).

The Nigerian bata was mentioned for the first time in the journals of Richard and John Lander, who described decorative brass plates - bàǹté. These plates depicted imperial and military power of Òyó. Those writings suggested that the bata led the Oyo kingdom to war and that drummers belonged to slave-raiding groups rather than to victims of slavery (“Chango”).

Though Nigerian and Cuban drummers are not considered to have the same view on slavery, they had shared a heritage of religious and musical oppression for 150 years. Religious changes in Nigeria have taken a direct toll on òrìsà followers.

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It is also worth mentioning that while the Cuban bata has been developed in Yorùbá diaspora, the Nigerian bata has experienced serious neglect in the 20th century (Villepastour).

Types of Bata Drums and Their Peculiar Features

The bata drums consist of three drums that are of different seizes and have the shape of hourglasses. There are two leather membranes in each drum. They also have different sizes and are installed on two corresponding hoops that protect the outside part of these membranes. The hoops are drawn tight and firmly joined. They are used with leather straps that make the letter N on the drums’ body. These three bata drums are known by its holy name Aňà or the common name Ilú. Each bata drum has own name (Nodal 157-177).

Iyá is the biggest drum – it has the biggest diameter. The deepest musical tones are created with the help of this drum. Its name is equal to the word of the Yoruban origin, meaning ‘mother’. People identify the name Iyá with the sounds created by the Earth, which is thought to be the great mother of human beings. The Africans thought that the Earth had the wisest and deepest voice.

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The second drum is of middle size. It is called Itótele. Its meaning in the Yoruban language is ‘the one following the mother’. The third drum is called Okónkolo. The name of this drum consists of the Yoruban word ‘Konkó’, which means ‘small’ (Nodal 157-177).

As for the function, the Iyá fulfills the most important one in the bata drums playing. The essence of the message provided by the music is carried by various improvisations and complex rhythms. The Iyá drum is fastened with the help of two leather thongs with different bells and rattles around the heads of this drum. A red elastic material that has ceremonial importance – fardela - is put in the middle of the basic head. This substance modifies the vibrations when the drummer hits the head of the drum. Two smaller drums produce simpler music. They make repetitive rhythms that are the foundation or ‘bed’ for various improvisations (“Music and Dance”).

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Necessary Qualities of Bata Drums Player

As bata drums have sacred nature or añá, they are used in special cults. It is important to point out that they can be played only by men called Olú-batá (Villepastour). These men should be specifically appointed to this function.

The process of playing drums needs some knowledge. Each bata is held by a cord on the drummer’s lap. This cord passes around him and under his knees. Usually, the drummer plays the deep tones on the large head with the right hand. The Iyá drum is always placed in the center between two smaller drums. Its player is called ‘kpuataki’ or ‘olubata’ and he is regarded as the leading drummer (Nodal 157-177).

Moreover, the drummer should have certain qualities. If the drummer is good, he has an extensive repertoire, which includes various liturgies, rhythms, and dances. As a rule, bata drummers do not sing while playing. It is explained by the fact that while playing different complex melodies, they need a lot of concentration and, consequently, do not have the possibility to sing. Playing of ritual songs is the most serious task.  It is thought that playing a wrong note can lead to the punish­ment imposed by gods (Villepastour).

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Not every person can play the bata as it is not an easy task. There are cases when drummers have to play for three hours without a rest. Moreover, there are rituals, like santo subido, when playing drums induces a ‘trance’. In such cases, drummers keep play­ing until the drums are broken. If the drummer cannot do so, it means the renunciation of the god. It is considered to be a serious sin, which must be severely punished. Moreover, it damages the prestige and reputation of the drummer (Nodal 157-177).

There are no clear requirements for the bata drummer. However, there are some primary conditions necessary for candidates. They are: men must be adults; they must be probados (fully grown-up men without signs of femininity); they must have high moral qualities; they are not allowed to commit crimes or any offences. Nevertheless, there is the only absolute condition – they must have firm beliefs in Lucumi religion. Though, candidates must also have theoretical musical knowledge and the ability to play bata drums.

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It takes a long time to learn how to play drums. Nevertheless, there are no special schools or methodology. In fact, the main condition necessary for the candidate is the desire to learn and an ear for music (Nodal 157-177). 

Peculiarities of Bata Drums Use in Santeria Religious Ceremonies

Music is used in almost all religious ceremonies.  As it has been said above, bata drums are used during holy initiation ceremonies and ceremonies held in honor of saints' birthdays (Pinto 142-144). 

At the beginning of most drumming celebration, the drums are played directly for the orishas. They are usually played in front of the cabinet or throne where the orishas live. The cycle of rhythms played at ceremonies is called the Oro Seco, which is translated as ‘dry cycle’. The Oro played in front of the orishas is also called the Oro Igbodu.

After the Oro Seco, another cycle of rhythms follows. The playing is accompanied by singing in an open area and is called the Oro Cantado. This cycle presupposes that priests greet the drums – they bow their foreheads to the floor and to the drums (Nodal 157-177). 

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At the end of the circle, the akpwon (lead singer) is provided with the freedom to sing in a way he wants.  He can sing songs of any length and to any orisha. He can praise them and invite them to join the celebration. When orishas come, the Iyà drummer must pay most of his attention to the movements. It is explained by the fact that it is the orisha who calls on any changes of the drum rhythm (“Music and Dance”). The relationships between the three drums are considered to be a conversation – the conversation with each other, with the orishas, with the singer and chorus, and with the God (“Chango”).

It is important to mention that the bata drums are given food altarage during the ceremonies, as each of them is thought to contain a semigod having magical secrecy. The drums’ ‘feeding’ is known in Yoruba as inale. This ritual is held in the following way:  priest kills a cock or a chicken, then he removes its liver and heart, wings, and feet. Some water and a ninety-proof alcohol - aguardiente - are mixed with these parts of the body. This mixture is carefully stirred, and then put on a round plate on the floor near the drums so that they are  able to ‘eat the food's spirits’ (Villepastour).











There also exist Bembe celebrations, which are held only for fun and entertainment.  During these ceremonies, bata drums are not allowed to be used.  This time musicians are to play instruments made from gourds - guiros or abwes.  Moreover, they usually use agogos - iron bells (“Music and Dance”).


To sum it up, dancing and drumming in Santeria religion are not used just for entertainment. They are the part of religious rituals performed in honor of the orichas. There are three types of bata drums - Iyá,  Itótele, and Okónkolo – that all performing certain functions. These drums are considered to contain the spirit of the drum – aña. They are used only for religious purposes, as bata drums are thought to communicate with the orichas. 

It is a very complicated task to play the drums. The drummers must undergo long training have the right to play bata drums. Moreover, in traditional Santeria ceremonies, only men have the right to play the drums.  

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What concerns the music performed with bata drums is concerned, it is a combination of complex rhythms and various improvisations, the depth of which are often astonishing. Nowadays, it is becoming more and more popular.

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