Half my life ago, when I started dating The Congero, I was baptized in a heaviness of brilliant music; jazz, salsa, complex and earth-moving drumming both secular and religious. This music was The Congero's entire world professionally and personally, and he lived his life in the fray of all things African-Caribbean while I, before him, lived in the fringes, tiptoeing with mixed blood and an uncertainty of my belonging within those things. The Congero called me into this world. As a dancer I gladly plunged -- arched in with a swan dive -- because I knew this much: Rhythm was the catalyst to movement.
The people we hung out with regularly were musicians of legendary proportions. They had played for Miles Davis, Hector Lavoe, Herbie Hancock, Eddie Palmieri, Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, Dizzy Gillespie, Mongo Santamaría and a million more. Jam sessions spontaneously erupted in The Congero's tiny living room back then, and I would watch or listen as I cooked or puttered while trying to wrap my mind around what they were creating. It was often a controlled freefall of genius.
My favorite sessions were when batá drums were played. Batás are double-headed religious drums. They are played in a trio, one large, one medium, one small, and drummers rest them across their lap, playing both sides. Each size has a distinct sound, the large being bassy; the smallest producing a cracking sound, but the remarkable thing is that each drum plays a different rhythm concurrently. The rhythms then converge together at the most surprising and harmonious places. Bells that lace the largest rim of the big drum chime as beats clock out. The rotation of the different rhythms creates one that is three-dimensional and heart-bursting. And with this complexity, the batás develop a voice. They are able to call down the gods.
To write about these things knots my stomach I'm realizing. I'm writing about things that I believe in private shadows. Things that get easily ridiculed and misportrayed in movies and conversation. The things of the orishas or santos shouldn't pass casually across the threshold of one's mouth. I know this because I feel it. I've mentioned on the blog before that I am watched over by the mother/ocean deity, Yemayá, and by the lovely Oshún, but that's all I'll say about that.
Though I think frequently about the orishas, I hadn't talked about them at all in years, until Saturday. A local theater was showcasing an African-Caribbean performance. I knew I had to go. I knew I had to take the girls too.
There were no other children present when we arrived at the intimate theater. In the casualness of general seating, we sat in the first row of six, at the same level as the stage. On a large screen in front of us played a DVD from Cuba of orisha dances performed in a forest. Eight dark dancers were smeared in white clay. They were barefoot and naked shrouded in a sheer white sheet. I whispered to the girls, "I want no comments about nakedness. Take this in as art. These are dances to honor nature and god. I'll answer any questions you have." They watched with eyes wide and backs erect. Then the veiled forest deities disappeared from the screen and in their place was a chorus of singers in white clothing standing behind three seated batá players. The drums began and a lead female sang in Yoruba. The chorus responded to her. She and the drums were calling out Elegguá, who is always called out first because he opens the door that stands between humans and deities. When honored first, he'll let prayers be heard. He appeared from the forest wearing red and black, smoking a cigar, slinking out playfully. I whispered details to Maya and Mina.
One by one, the singers and drummers called out the line of orishas. When Oshún revealed herself by a river, the girls gasped. She wore a yellow head wrap, a flowing yellow dress and a tall crown of gold. She fanned herself and smiled brilliantly. At this point the girls were whispering things to me. "Oh, she's beautiful!" Mina said, "I like Oshún." The batás then played a song for Yemayá. The screen showed the calm sea by the shore and when the singer began, Yemayá rose up out of the water wearing a similar dress and head wrap but in blue. My skin rose up and I teared a bit. When she danced on the beach, Maya said, "Her skirt looks like waves." And I knew they got it. They were engaged and flying solo on their intrigue, hooked in by the drum's call and the beauty and power of it all.
Later in the show, live dancers performed dressed in white and backed by a tiny chorus and three batás. They didn't have the same impact as the film in the forest. The amateur batá players lacked a touch of god, it seemed, but the girls loved every second, and so did I. Wow, really I did.
I've thought about the show ever since. Salsa and latin jazz fill a void, for sure, on a top level, but hearing the batás and the orisha names in the rhythms again has weighted me, like sustenance would.
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