Toward a Theology of Sound

Drum talk, oricha worship, and other ecstatic phenomena.

By Katherine J. Hagedorn

Fifty people crowd into a tiny whitewashed room with a low ceiling. It is midday in December 2000, and although the temperature outside is pleasant, the heat in this urban Havana apartment is stultifying. The tangy fragrance of ripe mangos and guavas, arranged in groups of five on a multitiered altar in the next room, meanders through acrid cigarette smoke. A singer and three drummers push their way into the small room, laden with folding chairs and batá drums. They are dressed in white; two sport red kerchiefs around their necks and white knit caps, another wears a yellow cap, and the singer places a red-and-white gingham cap on his head just as the drummers sit down. The four musicians finish their cigarettes, and each takes a swig of potent-smelling clear liquid from a plastic cup. Some of the congregants watch these preparatory gestures with interest; others mill about the adjoining room, admiring the altar. They salute the deities that rest upon it in covered porcelain jars with customary gestures—lying on a rush mat in front of the altar, and shaking rattles, maracas, and bells. When the singer intones, “I barago moyuba,” starting a praise song for the deity Eleguá, most people in the apartment try to squeeze into the small room where the musicians are. The tambor has begun.

The word tambor literally means “drum,” and is understood by practitioners of the Afro-Cuban religion Santería to connote a Santería drumming ceremony. The use of the word tambor to represent the entire event emphasizes the significance of the drum in the religious practice of Santería, and also locates it squarely within a series of circum-Caribbean drum-based religious traditions that have their roots in the West African diaspora caused by the almost 400 years of the Atlantic slave trade. Haitian Vodou and Brazilian Candomblé bear striking similarities to Santería precisely because all three originate in the oricha religions of the Yoruba, Fon, Ewe, and other communities that now live in the contiguous coastal areas of Nigeria, Togo, Benin, and Ghana. Most of the enslaved West Africans who were forcibly landed on Cuban soil arrived during the nineteenth century. For the last 200 years, the bearers of these related oricha religions have lived and worked together, married, and survived the traumas of enslavement and emancipation in large part by shaping their religious practices to accommodate and enhance their rapidly changing lives. One practice that remains intact both in Cuba and in these West African coastal areas is that of oricha possession performance. Each oricha owns particular songs, rhythms, and dances, which are enacted by congregants to invoke specific orichas to come to earth and possess the bodies of willing adherents.

The batá drums are crucial in this performance process, because they respond to the praise songs, guide the movements of the congregants, and speak to the orichas ‘in their own language.’

The batá drums are crucial in this performance process, because they not only respond to the praise songs offered by the lead singer and guide the movements of the congregants, but also speak to the orichas “in their own language.” Consecrated batá drums are inhabited by an oricha known as Añá, who has the power to make the rhythms of the drums intelligible to the other orichas, so that the earthly pleas for manifestation of the deities through possession performance may be heard and understood by these divine entities. This sacred language is called Lucumí, and represents the Afro-Cuban version of liturgical Yoruba, the origins of which are in Yorubaland, Nigeria. Lucumí bears some resemblance to the Yoruba spoken today in Nigeria, and the praise songs (oriki) for each oricha are sung in this language. But because Yoruba is a tonal and nasal language and Cuban Spanish is not, and because spoken languages change to meet the needs of their speakers, Afro-Cuban Lucumí cannot reproduce the exact phonemes spoken almost 200 years ago by the first Yoruba and Fon ancestors to set foot on Cuban soil. This language, the language of Cuba’s African ancestors, is the most powerful and efficacious way of communicating with deities. The batá drums, with their consecrated godhead inside, call the orichas in this sacred tongue and persuade them to come to earth.

Drum Talk and Divine Discourse

It is this musico-linguistic intersection of human and divine, sacred and profane in Santería possession performance that forms the crux of my argument for a theology of sound. I am referring here to how the function of sound is theorized by musicians and adherents within a religious context, such that “divinely targeted sound,” as well as discourse about that sound, maps the experience of divine transcendence onto a human grid. In this way, the more generalizable aspects of possession performance and other ecstatic practices become intimately tied to local histories and geographies. In my work thus far, I have been attempting to understand the meaning of sacred batá drumming and Santería praise songs not only by focusing on this “music sound,” but also by listening to what people say about these sounds in ethnographic interviews (“speech sound”). For example, many of the religious practitioners whom I’ve interviewed use the terms verdadero and auténtico (“real” or “authentic”) to describe a song or rhythm that is perceived as efficacious or powerful within a sacred context. (That is, the rhythm or song has already invoked a deity, or oricha, to possess the body of a religious adherent, or seems about to accomplish such a feat.) Other religious practitioners, especially musicians, rely on constructs of race, gender, and ethnicity to convey the sacred power of sound at a tambor, characterizing those rhythms that evoke spirit possession as “blacker,” or identifying as “more African” those songs that bring orichas into the midst of humans.

My fieldwork with Afro-Cuban batá drummers from Havana and Matanzas over the last 17 years suggests that “drum talk” amplifies a larger discourse about musical preferences, racialized identities, gendered stereotypes, and religious experience. Talk about music reveals deeply embedded ideologies about identity and territoriality—literally, one’s place in the world. My thinking here has also been influenced by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman, whose work asserts the social construction of reality, and by Catharine MacKinnon and Dale Spender, whose writings emphasize the specifically linguistic and gendered construction of reality. It is my belief that discourse conveys experience, and language is one of the most effective tools we have to communicate that most personal and elusive of experiences, religious ecstasy. The philosopher Walter Kaufmann argues that although “formally (like any other cultural element) the available God is a human construct, created by men [humans] in the process of dealing with the exigencies of life, materially he [God] is grasped as the most Real of all the realities of experience and the world.” It is the discourse about divine practice that reifies and anchors for humans the alarmingly non-mundane and ethereal experience of possession performance.

The phrase “drum talk” refers to several forms of discourse— the way the batá drums talk to one another (animated by their master drummers, or olú batá); the related way in which the batá drums “speak” to the orichas in their own language; the way batá drummers talk about religious drumming ceremonies and the events therein; and the discussions that occur among musicians and practitioners of Santería about who can and cannot play batá drums, thus deliberately circumscribing the realm of this larger conversation. Finally, I include my own meta-discourse in the category of “drum talk,” since I, too, am participating in the discussion, and guiding its direction.

Atrasado and Adelante in Matanzas and Havana:
Ecstasy in Black and White

Tambores are prevalent in western Cuba, especially in the port cities of Matanzas and Havana, each of which boasts a distinctive batá drumming style. The two olú batá, or masters of consecrated drums, with whom I’ve studied—Francisco Aguabella, originally from Matanzas; and Alberto Villarreal, from Havana—describe the drumming styles of their respective home cities with metaphors that reference movement. Francisco refers to the Matanzas style as atrasado (literally, “late” or “slow,” understood in a musical context to mean “behind the beat” or “laid back”). Alberto characterizes his Havana style of playing as adelante (literally, “forward,” understood to mean “fast-paced” and “forward-moving” in musical terms). Consider the batá rhythms for the orichas Ogún and Ochosi, who, along with Eleguá and Osun, make up the powerfully protective guerrero (warrior) orichas. The rhythmic pattern played for Ochosi in Matanzas is virtually the same as a rhythm played in Havana for Ogún—with the exception of one small difference in the phrasing of the lead drum’s (iyá‘s) call. In the Matanzas phrasing, the pattern is more relaxed, the syncopation less anticipatory. In the Havana phrasing, the syncopation is straightforward, pushing the listener (and the player) over the next musical bar. These metaphors—atrasado, adelante—are non-arbitrary, to use Judith Becker’s terminology, and therefore iconic of culturally specific referents and experiences.1

two slightly different lines of music

Matanzas, where Francisco was born, stands about 100 kilometers to the east of the city of Havana. During Cuba’s brutal ingenio (sugar mill) economy of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Matanzas was the driving force, with 456 ingenios and 72,689 African slaves, compared with the province of Havana, which had 130 ingenios and 19,404 African slaves (see Rebecca Scott’s 1985 book Slave Emancipation in Cuba: The Transition to Free Labor, 1860-1899). Fifty years after Cuba finally abolished slavery in 1886,2 anthropologist Lydia Cabrera began researching Afro-Cuban religious traditions in both Matanzas and Havana. Cabrera wrote that going into rural Matanzas was like descending back into the middle of the nineteenth century (see Kenneth Bilby’s liner notes for “The Yoruba/Dahomean Collection: Orishas Across the Ocean,” a 1998 CD done for the Library of Congress Endangered Music Project). Descendants of slaves continued to speak bozal (an Africanized Creole Spanish of newly arrived slaves), and most were barely surviving on their small agrarian homesteads.

Before the abolition of slavery, the free population of color in Cuba had already been strongly concentrated in the cities, especially in the city of Havana. After abolition, Havana attracted even more Cubans of African descent who were hoping to break into the potentially lucrative entertainment industry. From the 1920s through the 1950s, legendary Afro-Cuban bandleaders such as Arsenio Rodríguez, Antonio Arcaño, Beny Moré, and Dámaso Pérez Prado were performing in Havana’s most popular nightclubs and ballrooms, and Afro-Cuban ritual drummers took advantage of this opportunity to work as substitute musicians and featured percussionists. Just as the rhythms of conga and batá drums punctuated Cuba’s big band music of the 1940s and 1950s, so were the sounds of Orquesta Aragón, Sexteto Habanero, and Arsenio Rodríguez seeping into the performance aesthetics of ritual tambores. According to Francisco, the batá drummers he played with in the 1940s and 1950s in the city of Matanzas called their style of playing “Arcaño,” after Antonio Arcaño, the bandleader of the 1940s típica orchestra that introduced mambo rhythms to the danzón (“Arcaño y sus Maravillas”). Arcaño’s music was slow and sultry, which allowed people to focus on the relationship between their gestures and the music.

David Garcia’s recent book on Arsenio Rodríguez and the dance bands of the 1940s and 1950s supports Francisco’s reminiscences. The faster tempos and more energetic dance styles of Cuban music in the 1940s played by such bands as La Sonora Matancera and Conjunto Casino were considered “whiter” and “simpler” than the slower, “blacker,” and “more complex” styles of Arsenio Rodríguez and Antonio Arcaño. By the mid-1940s, faster tempos were considered characteristic of the ethnically and racially mixed New York ballroom, while slower, suppler tempos were associated with more “authentic,” “traditional,” and “blacker” Cuban music.3 According to Garcia, “black Cuban dancers keenly listened to musicians perform, expecting to engage in a dialogue between their bodies and what and how the musicians played.” People in Matanzas were listening to recordings of Arcaño’s music not necessarily to crib riffs or to imitate, but rather to reaffirm a preexisting rhythmic style and aesthetic that had developed primarily in ritual settings.

This musico-ritual aesthetic in Matanzas tambores allows the possession performance to unfold gradually, with the repetition of particular viros (rhythmic changes) acting as catalysts for possession performance. In Havana tambores, by contrast, the trend is to maintain control over a rhythmic intensity that becomes more complexly articulated over the course of a toque (rhythmic pattern), especially if a practitioner is on the verge of becoming possessed. It is usually the loudness and acceleration of a particular rhythm in a Havana tambor that drives a practitioner “over the edge” into the realm of possession. This speaks to different philosophies about possession performance and, ultimately, about different socioreligious histories. Matanzas’s isolated and brutal plantation slave economy helped create performance traditions that were segregated from the religious and popular musics of white urban Cuba until the early twentieth century, giving rise to a laid-back style that signaled gestural resistance in both work and in music. Havana’s long history as a cosmopolitan, racially mixed hub for cultural exchanges of all kinds led to the creation of polyvocal, multiply referenced performance styles in both sacred and secular contexts, resulting in a fast and forward-moving musical imperative.

Religious experience, particularly ecstatic religious experience, is at once both thoroughly human and profoundly divine. Thus, the conveyance of one’s personal relationship with a divine entity is necessarily perceived in human, profane categories. When music is a vehicle for trance possession, as Judith Becker notes, the experience is that much more deeply felt, that much more “Real” with a capital “R,” as Walter Kaufmann would put it. While drum rhythms, song texts, and gestures evoke and focus the divine potential of a tambor, it is the discourse about the experience that anchors it in “Real” terms.


  1. Becker’s argument, found in the 1981 book The Sign in Music and Literature, edited by Wendy Steiner, is fully in line with George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s work on metaphors here: “. . . no metaphor can ever be comprehended or even adequately represented independently of its experiential basis”; Metaphors We Live By (University of Chicago Press, 1980), 19.
  2. The formal abolition of slavery came in February 1880 with the passage of the ley de patronato (the “patronage” law). This law, however, was meant to provide a transition (beneficial to slaveholders) between the previous period of slave labor and the coming era of paid labor. As a result, the law obligated all “emancipated” slaves to continue working for their former masters until 1886.
  3. Antonio Arcaño, while technically “Afro-Cuban,” was very light-skinned and often “passed” for white. The “blackness” of the music, then, was not necessarily connected to the people who played it, but rather to the memorial geography of what it represented—that is, colonial Matanzas and its sugar mill economy. See David Garcia, Arsenio Rodríguez and the Transnational Flows of Latin Popular Music (Temple University Press, 2006).

Katherine Hagedorn is Associate Professor of Music at Pomona College in Claremont, California, and author of Divine Utterances: The Performance of Afro-Cuban Santería (Smithsonian Books). The recipient of a Mellon New Directions award, she has been in residence at Harvard Divinity School’s Center for the Study of World Religions in 2005-06, working on her new project, “Toward a Theology of Sound.”

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