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Afro-Cuban Traditions

Yoruba-Based Traditions

Cuban Orisha Percussion / Batá Drums
Batá drums are a set of three double-headed religious drums used in Cuba: The Iya, Itotele and Okonkolo. Sacred to Yoruba religion and Santeria, they have also been used in secular music such as salsa and jazz.

Percussion is a crucial component of the Orisha religion, in that it is the vehicle through which devotees communicate with the Orishas (deities). For the most important religious ceremonies, an ensemble of three double-headed batá drums is employed and frequently augmented by the acheré (a small gourd rattle). Batá drums are ritually consecrated and are particularly pleasing to the orishas.

In ceremonies where there is a less rigorous protocol, other instruments can be used, such as shekerés (large gourd rattles that are strung with beads or seeds), conga drums and a guataca (a hoe blade or cowbell played with a striker). Orisha percussion generally accompanies singing in which deities are praised and invited to descend upon their devotees.

Though most Orisha percussionists play mainly for religious ceremonies, some occasionally appear in nightclub shows, museum programs or similar settings. Orisha percussionists believe that, when they perform in secular contexts, they help audiences gain a new perspective on a religion that is often misunderstood.

The Orisha Elegguá is one of the most respected deities of the tradition. He is the trickster Orisha, represented as a child or an old man, and the owner of all roads, which he can open -- or block. As a messenger between humans and Orishas, he must always be honored first at ceremonies and religious events. He loves candy, toys, rum and cigars, and his colors are red, black and white.

The Orisha of iron, war and labor, Ogún uses his machete to clear the pathways opened by his fellow warrior Eleggua. A blacksmith, he is a solitary fellow who lives in the forest with his friend Ochosi, the hunter Orisha. He gave humans our tools and technology, and is both destroyer and producer. He likes rum and his main colors are green and black.

Ochosi is the hunter Orisha, who scouts the forest so that a path can be opened and clear by his fellow warriors, Eleggua and Ogun. He helps us focus our attention on our desired goals and results, and shows human the fastest path to our destiny. He is also associated with justice, and is friends with Obatalá.

Oshún is popular, beautiful and seductive Orisha of love, wealth, sensuality, fertility and art. She owns the rivers, and loves the color yellow, honey, sweets, pumpkin and champagne. She is both loved and feared, since she has a terrible temper. She renews the process of creation.

The older sister of Oshún, Yemayá is the mother of all, who rules over the ocean and is well-loved by sailors and fisherman. She is the maternal force of life and creation. Fish are sacred to her, and her colors are blue, white and silver.

The fiery warrior Orisha Oyá guards the cemetary and rules over the egun or dead. She is also the ruler of the winds, tornados and hurricanes, and wears a skirt of nine different colors. She is a strong protectoress of women and an Orisha of change. Her colors are burgundy and purple, as well as the colors of the sparkle, which she represents as well.

The warrior Orisha Chango rules lightning, dance and drums, fire and passion. He is the consuming energy of virility, power and passion. He is handsome and very masculine, and loves women and music. He uses a double-bladed axe and his colors are red and white.

Obatala is considered to be the father of the other Orishas, the oldest Orisha and the creator of mankind. He is a peaceful and compassionate Orisha, who represents wisdom and clarity. He is also the guardian of those with mental illness, birth defects, drug addiction and alcoholism. His color is white and his ornaments are silver.

Babalu Aye
Babalu Aye is the Orisha of healing and disease. He appears as a sick man with sores and trembling arms and legs. He teaches compassion and responsibility to others, and is often invoked by people suffering from HIV/AIDS and those rejected from society. He likes popcorn and his colors are brown, black and purple.

The painting above is the work of Miami-based Afro-Cuban artist Aruan Torres. The bata drum was handcrafted by Ezequiel Torres.