You’ve heard and maybe participated in drum circles — on Sproul Plaza, at parties, as part of La Peña Cultural Center performances. But traditional batá drumming, which plays a central role in some traditional African and Cuban cultures, is different. And unless you’re already a mindful practitioner, what you’ve heard from these double-headed, hourglass-shaped drums only scratches the surface. An anthropologist, Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at Cal State University Monterey Bay, and lifelong dancer and drummer (his mother, Deborah Vaughan, founded Oakland’s Dimensions Dance Theater 35 years ago), Umi Vaughan began formally studying the three batá drums in the mid-1990s, when Carlos Aldama appeared on the Bay Area scene. Aldama, a traditional batá drummer trained by a line of master drummers in the Yoruba (also known as Santería) tradition, emigrated from Cuba where he was a self-proclaimed “slave to the drum” during the golden age of batá. Vaughan had studied videos of Aldama’s performances with Conjunto Folklóirco Nacional de Cuba, and immediately sought out Aldama and apprenticed himself.
“No matter how talented you are, it’s important to learn firsthand from someone who’s done it themselves,” Vaughan said. “I would listen to the story he would tell between rhythms and could tell it was part of an untold story. After five or six years we decided his story should and would be a book project.”
The result, Carlos Aldama’s Life in Batá: Cuba, Diaspora, and the Drum, covers incredible history and tradition in its slender 150 pages. Vaughan captures everything the subtitle proclaims, but the heart comes directly from Aldama’s own still-feisty voice, whether he’s detailing the traditional toques — ritual-musical gatherings at which batá drumming takes place to call down the oricha (deities), to ask the santos (saints) for help, and to confirm new initiates into the community — or telling tales about Havana/Matanzas rivals showing off their skills. The drumming is not just for fun: There’s a specific purpose to every session, and drummers are absolutely serious about their beats, their teachers, and the sacred drums themselves. “Drums are not played in order to have a party, but rather to make sacrifice,” Aldama once told Vaughan.
“So often, people think of ‘real musicians’ only as those trained in the Western tradition, but I wanted to emphasize that, like the great classical traditions from Europe, this West African/Caribbean tradition requires apprenticeships, vast knowledge, restraint, and precision,” Vaughan said. “Counter to what a lot of people think, it’s not just banging on drums at all.” He compares witnessing a performance by a drummer like Aldama to watching dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov onstage: “Oh — shit!” The book serves as a fitting entry point into the form. Anyone from practicing drummers and anthropologists to those who just love ideas and books can easily be transported into the batá life through Vaughan, Aldama, and their accompanying online music samples. “My hope is that … it’s enough to inspire more people to learn with respect,” Vaughan said, “enough to help the tradition to live rather than die out or become solely for entertainment or recording.
“The Bay Area is a special place … to watch in considering the transition of the culture from Africa to Cuba and the US and beyond.” It’s also a good place to learn from Aldama in person; he lives in San Leandro, offers lessons in San Francisco, and performs throughout the Bay Area. CarlosAldama.com