Journal of Transatlantic Studies

, Volume 7, Issue 3, pp 343–362 | Cite as

Two heads of the same drum? Musical narratives within a transatlantic religion

  • Amanda VillepastourEmail author


The Nigerian bàtá is a two-headed talking drum (spelled and pronounced batá in Cuba) and provides an apt metaphor and microcosm for the transatlantic conversations and symbiotic relationships between Nigerian and Cuban religious elites involved in the various sects of orisha religion. This article revises Gilroy’s Black Atlantic (1993), challenging his term ‘black music’ and the notion that black Atlantic populations are fundamentally unified by shared memories of slavery. Furthermore, this discussion challenges the privileging of text in transatlantic musical studies and argues for the centralising of purely musical data across academic disciplines.


Yoru`bá music bata drums orisha religion slavery black Atlantic 


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  1. 1.
    For clarity, I use the spelling of the tradition to which I refer at any given moment. Hence, I use the Yorùba spelling bàtá when referring to the Nigerian drum, bata when referring to the Cuban drum and the non-italicised ‘bata’ without diacritical markings to encompass both and all traditions. Likewise, when discussing the spiritual beings within the Nigerian tradition, I use the Yorùba word orisà, but when discussing the transatlantic Cuban tradition, I use the Cuban Lukumí terms, in this case oricha(s). When referring collectively to both and all traditions, I use the non-italicised English spelling, ‘orisha’. Orisà Devotion refers to the Nigerian tradition, Ocha to the Cuban tradition and Orisha Tradition to both and all related traditions.Google Scholar
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    For useful introductions to Nigerian Orisà Tradition, see the work of Karen Barber, William Bascom, John Peel, Pierre Verger and Susanne Wenger. For introductions to Cuban Regla de Ocha, see the work of George Brandon, David Brown, Michael Attwood, Mason Joseph Murphy, Stephan Palmié and Robert Farris Thompson. See subsequent references for individual works.Google Scholar
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    Although spiritual entities, the orishas are humanised by orisha devotees and are referred to as ‘he’ or ‘she’. The orishas are constituted in material form and ritually placed in vessels - one of which is the bàta drum - by orisha priests.Google Scholar
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    Although, see Marcuzzi, A Historical Study’, 388–421 and Vincent (Villepastour), ‘Bata Conversations’, 123–133, for detailed challenges to Ortiz’s account. With the break-up of family lineages under slavery, ritual lineages took precedence. Babalaos and santeros appropriate ahijados [godchildren] through ritual and are themselves referred to as the padrino [godfather] or madrina [godmother]. Ocha devotees recite a moyuba [homage] which pays respect and spiritually invokes the living or dead priests -padrinos/madrinas -who initiated them, along with the priests who initiated their own padrinos/madrinas, and the priests who initiated them and so forth. Moyuba recitations can reach back several ritual and biological generations. Devotees speak of people who were initiated by the same padrino/madrina as their abures/aburos [siblings]. Devotees frequently self refer as omo oricha [children of orisha].Google Scholar
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    Richard and John Lander, The Niger Journal of Richard and John Lander (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1965 [1832]), 68. See Marcuzzi, A Historical Study’, 278–284, for a more detailed account of the bàta s military imagery.Google Scholar
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    To ‘keep Sàngó’ is to own a receptacle in which the orisà ‘lives’. The devotee ‘feeds’ it with sacrificial offerings. Sàngó is closely associated with the bàta, which adds to the poignancy of Ayándo`kun’s narrative.Google Scholar
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    The “niña Zoila case”, which was the investigation into the kidnapping, murder and heart extraction of 20-month old Zoila Díaz in 1904, was blamed on African ritual practitioners. The authorities responded with brutal reprisals in an effort to cleanse the nation of African savagery. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, several practitioners were imprisoned and executed by the authorities. In response to years of inflammatory media reporting, mob violence escalated and peaked in Matanzas in 1919 with the lynching of six presumed sorcerers. This violent racist and religious persecution resonated in Cuba for decades to come. See Aline Helg, Our Rightful Share: The Afro-Cuban Struggle for Equality, 1886–1912 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 108–116, andGoogle Scholar
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    See María Teresa Vélez, Drumming for the Gods: The Life and Times of Felipe Garcia Villamil, Santero, Palero and Abukuá (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000), andGoogle Scholar
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    Katherine J. Hagedorn, Divine Utterances: The Performance of Afro-Cuban Santería (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001).Google Scholar
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    The term periodo especial refers to a temporary peacetime policy instigated on the eve of the collapse of the Soviet Union (Perestroika) in 1990. With the withdrawal of the Soviet Union’s economic support of Cuba and the recession in Cuba that followed, ordinary Cubans have suffered devastating material deprivation ever since (as shockingly portrayed in Hagedorn, Divine Utterances and Palmié, Wizards and Scientists).Google Scholar
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    The first Cuban constitution was written in 1976 and Cuba was declared an atheist state. Chapter I, article 8 and chapter VII, article 55 of the 1992 Cuban Constitution guarantee religious freedom and equality in Cuba.Google Scholar
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    Personal communication, Havana, April 2004. Gonzalez, who was in his seventies at the time he recounted this story, was not specific about the time frame of this episode, though he appeared to be reminiscing about the distant yet contemporary past, claiming insider knowledge of the event.Google Scholar
  49. 39.
    Ifá is a branch of orisha religion led by divining priests called babaláwo (babalaos in Cuba). While Ifá practice is in fact interconnected with orisha worship, in Cuba there is a power struggle and political split between oricha priests and babalaos. Some Cuban ilés [ritual families] interlock Ocha practice and Ifá in a similarly cooperative manner to current Nigeria, whereas in the extreme, some devotees regard the different strands of Ifá and Ocha as different religions. See David Brown, Santería Enthroned: Art, Ritual, and Innovation in an Afro-Cuban Religion (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003), 148–151.Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Board of Transatlantic Studies 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Bowling Green State UniversityBowling GreenUSA

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