[0:10] Sarah Town: Elizabeth, it’s so great to see you. E, is how you go these days, right?
[0:16] Elizabeth Sayre: Yeah.
[0:17] Sarah: E, it’s great to see you and it’s really been fun to get to know you, like work with you through this Raíces project. I already knew a little bit about you, like your kind of, you’re a bit- you’re well known I would say, in the Afro-Cuban community as a female percussionist and performer and teacher, and I’ve heard your name kind of circulating in different spaces. And then I came across this article that you wrote with Robin Moore, an analysis of a recording, a recorded song to Obatalá. So I kind of like, when you, when Nicole mentioned the people that were going to be part of this project, and you were one of them, I was like, “Oh, this is great, I get to talk to- I get to meet her, and chat, and get to know you” so it’s a real pleasure, and I’m honored to be interviewing you today.
[1:21] Elizabeth: Oh, thank you so much. I’m also really pleased to get to know you and your work as well, which is so diverse and interesting.
[1:33] Sarah: Thanks. Well, do you want to start by telling us, or introducing yourself and talking about the form that you practice and research, telling us a little bit about your trajectory. I know when we were preparing the questions, you mentioned that your learning process wasn’t necessarily a traditional one, so sort of telling- talking a little bit about your introduction to your form.
[2:03] Elizabeth: Ok, sure. Ok, so my name is Elizabeth Sayre. I live in Oakland, California, now. I’m from the East Coast, I’m from Delaware- Wilmington, Delaware, originally. And I lived the first forty-seven years of my life on the- well, East Coast, and South, and New England, I guess, and then I moved to California.
[2:29] And the form- the main- I came into percussion through African dance. Actually, through Chuck Davis’s company in Durham, North Carolina, was the first African dance classes that I went to back in the late ‘80s. And then I started- I was always really fascinated by the drums- and actually, your co-inhabitant of Durham, Beverly Botsford, was a person who caught my eye back then in the late ‘80s because she was playing with Chuck’s company. She was a white woman playing in an African American dance company doing African dance along with African descendant drummers so she really caught my eye and I thought she was the coolest person on the planet and I- but I was too shy to talk to her back then, when I was in my early ‘20s, but later we became friends. Anyway, side story and a connection to Duke and Durham.
[3:35] I came into percussion through dance, and I first started playing congas, shekere actually, was my first instrument. I saw Women of the Calabash perform at Duke University when I was there as a student in the late ‘80s, a graduate student in literature. And I loved the shekere as an instrument. I found a class in Philadelphia, in my neighborhood, and through that got connected to a whole community of African American drummers and dancers. The community of dance students was mixed, of mixed heritage, but the teaching artists were all African American.
[4:21] Anyway, so then I started playing Brazilian percussion. In Philadelphia, I played in a Brazilian band for 11 years and actually in a predecessor band in the ‘90s, I played with that preceding band as well. So I was really interested in Brazilian percussion as well.
[4:41] Then in about 1992, I was first introduced- I first heard about the batá drums, and then I first saw them for the first time on December 4, 1992, which was Changó’s day, 1992. The Muñequitos de Matanzas were on their first tour to the US in 1992. They’re a famous rumba group from Matanzas, Cuba, one of the famous professional folklore groups. And so that was the first time I saw the batá drums, and the way I got into playing was my conga teacher brought a batá rhythm arranged for conga drums to class. The rhythm that he brought was “Rumba Obatalá”. Some people call it that, or some people call it Egbado. [or Egwado or Wardo] Also, it’s the fourth section of Osaín’s rhythms in the Oru Seco, for all you batá nerds out there. Anyway, the rhythm it’s super funky, it sounds kind of like [demonstrates with sounds]. In jazz now, you hear it a lot with the song “Drume Negrita”. A lot of people use that rhythm to accompany boleros or you know- anyway, arranged for congas. So my teacher brought this rhythm to class, and we were captivated because it was so melodic and so funky, interlocking, a little bit, a little bit complex, but we were able to play. And then my teacher Paul Lucas who’s from the New Jersey area, a djembe player, conga player, batá player, from that area. Ooh, now I’m getting an echo. Are you hearing that, or is that just me? No, ok, great. Anyway, Paul brought this, he was my first conga teacher, he brought this rhythm to my class, and he started waxing poetic about the batá drums, how cool they were, “haven’t you all seen them before?”
[7:01] They bring them out, you know, the batá drums come out in the streets for the Odunde Festival every summer in Philadelphia, which is an artist founded festival that has become a major cultural event. It was started in 1975 and still has continued every year through the present, where part of the event is a procession to the middle of the South Street Bridge in Philadelphia with the batás playing behind an Oshún belonging to a religious elder in Philadelphia. They make prayers and offerings to the river, and then it begins this whole cultural festival, and it’s a big- it’s an important local event that people who haven’t been to Philadelphia don’t necessarily know about it, but people who are into Yoruba religion, practitioners, and others, artists who are into the African diasporic arts in Philadelphia in that region know about it.
[8:04] Anyway, so he started talking about all of this. You know, he got really caught up, he was super enthusiastic, and then he remembered who he was talking to, which was a small room full of- I think we were all white women- learning how to play conga drums, and he was like, “But wait, don’t- wait, don’t get interested… Did you like that? “Don’t get interested because, you know, nobody will ever teach you, women can’t play.”
[8:34] So, being a contrarian, that immediately sparked my interest. So I was like, “Well, why? Why can’t I play?” It was just a foreign con- of course, we all know about gender associations with certain instruments. You know, like in the 19th century, women weren’t supposed to play cello- middle class U.S. women weren’t supposed to play cello because you were had to open your legs or whatever. Or the flute was considered very feminine. We know- those things have seeped into us, those gender associations, but it was just a really foreign concept to me, like, “Oh why can’t, but why?” So it was, that was a question, and I’m still- honestly, I’m still asking myself that, but that was, you know, almost 30 years ago.
[9:32] So anyway, that was- that sparked my journey. I first started learning in New York with John Amira, who is a well known percussionist, an excellent teacher, in New York. I used to go to his apartment in Chelsea, I think it was 25th Street and 8th Avenue, second floor apartment, and take lessons there. My first lesson was October 22, 1994, and it’s just a very memorable date for me because when I sat down and started playing those drums I just- you know, I had this fascination sparked by my contrarianism, but when I sat down to play the drums, I just genuinely I liked the feel, I liked the sound, and I loved the complexity of the rhythms, so that was the beginning of my starting to play.
[10:27] Sarah: That’s great, yeah. So I love how talking to you really brings alive these different communities that are in the diaspora that are involved in keeping the traditions alive and preserving them and innovating and adapting them. I know people in Philly too who have participated in that- the Oshún Odunde Festival, dancing and performing. I don’t know if you know Gilset Mora or-
[10:55] Elizabeth: Yes.
[10:56] Sarah: There’s also some Cuban social dancers who- based in Philly. Anyway, it’s great to think about how widespread these practices are and also how small the communities are that keep them alive sometimes and all those connections. But you started talking about your teachers as you were talking about your beginnings and so I wondered if you could talk a little bit more about some of the different teachers who have influenced you and some of your observations about pedagogy within Afro-Cuban religious and traditional percussion, and particularly the batá.
[11:33] Elizabeth: Sure. Also let’s. Ok, so let me also- let’s just talk about what the batá drums are.
[11:41] Sarah: Yeah.
[11:42] Elizabeth: And then I’ll be happy to talk about my teachers. So the batá drums are, it’s a three drum ensemble. The okónkolo, the small drum, the itótele, middle drum, and the iyá, or iyá ilu, the large drum. They’re each double headed with one head being larger than the other, kind of like roughly, you know, kind of hourglass like. You play them on your lap, playing one head with one hand and the other with the other hand. And it’s kind of, it’s almost like, you know, if you’re going to use a Western music analogy, which, you know, maybe you don’t want to, but it’s kind of like a chamber music of African percussion in a way. And actually, I did, I taught in a chamber music program at Swarthmore College for maybe a year and a half thanks to Morgan Simon who was a student back then but who’s a person who’s been a dancer and a drummer for many years. Anyway, so I played in chamber music concerts where it would be, you know, violin, piano, a string trio, and then the batás, and then, you know, something else. So it’s kind of funny. But anyway, sorry, I digress.
[13:05] Sarah: I think that’s a great analogy because chamber music is really like- well, first of all, you know, thinking about that, thinks about the texts and the people are playing, like the really complex compositions that people play, but also chamber music is known for interactivity between the different- for really teaching players and emphasizing listening, right? And interacting with one another, even when you’re playing off of a score, like a sort of prescribed score, so I think that’s a beautiful and appropriate analogy, I don’t know.
[13:45] Elizabeth: Even- to even take a little further, one of the major pieces of repertoire for the batá is the Oru Seco or the Oru del Igbodu and the Igbodu in Lucumí religion is the chamber. It’s the sacred chamber where people are initiated into religion, so it really, in a sense, it’s that type of chamber music as well.
[14:17] And the batá drums, there’s maybe- it depends on who you talk to and how it’s classified- but there’s maybe 50 or 60 different toques or rhythms. It involves a lot of memorization. Not only do you have to- so in order to be a competent batá player, you have to have the- you have to have your sound and your hands together, so that you’re playing with a good sound, you have to have memory, you have to have listening. You have to be able to really tolerate polymeter really well, you know, and be able to navigate within polymeter, and then it gets even more complicated when you start talking about songs because if you have a masterful singer who launches into a particular song, you have to know how to accompany them and what path they’re likely to lead you down. In other words, you kind of have to be anticipating like, “Ok, we’re starting here”…listen, listen, listen, “Ok, it sounds like we’re going here.” So it’s a very- it’s a lifetime study. It’s an incredible religious art form that has come out into other genres of music starting in the early, you know, the ‘30s, I think a lot of people date it to the 1930s, where there was a new elevation of Afro-Cuban identity and the batá drums were brought out into secular- the first secular sets- “aberikula” sets of batá drums, unconsecrated sets, were made for public performance.
[16:11] Anyway, so, and that whole line of unconsecrated drums is what has made it possible for women to be able to be playing batá drums because there isn’t- nobody has really come up with a way to- with a convincing prohibition against women playing batá drums in a cultural or artistic setting. The religious prohibition still- in the Cuban way of playing batá drums still stands, although women played añá drums- three women played añá drums in Santiago de Cuba in 2015 for the first time, but it wasn’t like a fever that caught on, or you know. It was a very exceptional event from what I know. But anyway, so that’s a little bit about the batá drums.
[17:10] They play- the batá salute the spiritual world. They salute the forces of nature, they salute ancestors, and they’re a very important part of Lucumí spiritual practice, but they’re also a very important part of Cuban musical and cultural heritage. And they’ve- and as I’ve said, they’ve come out into the public- you know, other genres of music and into a more secular environment. So, sorry, I digress…or I don’t know.
[17:45] Sarah: No, that was beautiful.
[17:46] Elizabeth: I progress, how’s that? So my teachers. My first batá teacher was John Amira, as I mentioned. John is a well known percussion teacher, a specialist in Afro-Cuban and Haitian music, who lives in New York. My understanding is that he grew up in the Bronx in the same neighborhood where some of the band members of Arsenio Rodríguez lived- and I think John was born in the ‘40s- and so in the ‘50s he was exposed to Cuban music, I think, in his neighborhood.
[18:24] John was the best- was a great teacher and I was with him for about two plus years studying at the beginning of my time playing batá and he was the teacher that I needed at that time because he counted everything, he was very specific about ghost notes, he would speak in paragraphs. He just, he was- it was the right person for me at that time.
[18:52] I had other teachers, you know, I had some great teachers in Philadelphia. Paul Lucas, who I mentioned. Doc Gibbs, who is a percussionist from Philadelphia who now lives in Oregon via California- he came through California. My shekere teachers Omomola Iyabunmi and Olori Oriyomi [aka Mama Yeye] who now lives in Atlanta, you know, those were some great music teachers, and they were serious. My first shekere teacher was like all that tossing things up in the air and tricks with the shekere, that’s not music, music is discipline, and I really appreciated that about her.
[19:35] Anyway, but John- sometimes the language- I just needed a more precise descriptive language to make some progress in my own playing. Like certain things, the instruction would be, “You just have to feel it.” Or how do you know? You know like, when you’re playing the quinto in rumba, how do you know what to play? “Just feel it.” At that time, I couldn’t relate to that, so John really helped me with that stuff.
[20:04] Then my second really important batá teacher was Orlando Fiol. And Orlando played- John co-authored a book with Steven Cornelius that are transcriptions of the Oru Seco and that was in 1992 and that was the first English language transcription, I think, of the batá- of any of the batá– Cuban batá rhythm. Orlando played itótele- there was a recording with that book and Orlando played itótele on that recording. So I knew his name from that and I saw him perform- I saw them perform on a show. I think it was in- it was on, it was like maybe in Harlem, it was on the West Side, back about 1994, and Xiomara Rodríguez was in the show and Orlando and John Amira and a bunch of other, you know, Afro-Cuban folklore experts. And that was the first time I saw Orlando. And then I met him at a party in 1996, a Memorial Day, I think it was in North Jersey. And Orlando is 100% blind, from birth, so he heard me playing batá at this party, and he was like, “Hey, you play pretty good, you should come to my house, I’m teaching these, I’m teaching these other-”
[21:31] Sarah: [laughs]
[21:32] Elizabeth: Do I sound like him? I’m teaching these-
[21:38] Sarah: It’s a weird- it’s a funny introduction, “You play, it sounded pretty good, come over to my house.”
[21:42] Elizabeth: Well, he, actually, coincidentally, one of my fellow students from John Amira’s students had already started studying with Orlando and Orlando was teaching Lisette Santiago at that time, and Lisette is an, you know, a well known Puerto Rican percussionist from New York. She also plays three batá. He and Lisette went to high school together at Laguardia Performing Arts. I probably don’t have the name right, but they were buddies from, you know, childhood, practically.
[22:20] Anyway, so Orlando was teaching them, and he, he had this idea that he could add me. I had been actually asking my friend, Karen Heyson, “Hey, can I?” Because she kept telling me, “Oh, he’s really good, and I’m learning a lot.” And I’d be like, “Oh, I’d really- can I come?” And she’d be like, “uhhhhh”. I think she wanted to protect that space for her own learning and she wasn’t really sure about adding me to the mix. But he- I met Orlando and he added me. Then Orlando trained us, he actually trained us for a year to play the Oru Seco and we performed at his wedding in 1997, an Oru Seco for Oshún.
[23:01] Ok, so those are my two major teachers, and there are a number of other teachers I’d like to mention as well.
[23:07] Sarah: Can I interrupt before you do that?
[23:09] Elizabeth: Please.
[23:10] Sarah: I’m just- I’m wondering if you know where- who their teachers were, or you know?
[23:13] Elizabeth. Good question. So John, I think there may be some published interviews with John where he describes his learning process but in the ‘60s and ‘70s people who were trying to learn- American people who were trying to learn batá had a hell of a time. They would go to perfor- they would listen to records and transcribe, they would go to performances and try to capture as much as they could by watching Cuban performers like Julito Collazo play, and they’d be trying to figure things out. They worked with the Fernando Ortíz transcriptions which I think are, you know, problematic. I haven’t looked at them for a long, long time, but my understanding is that they’re not necessarily all that accurate. So I think that- I believe that John went through a process like that and he has described that in some published work.
[24:15] And then Orlando learned from John. John was his first, also his first batá teacher. But Orlando grew up- Orlando’s father is a salsero, Henry Fiol. And Orlando grew up playing music, playing piano, playing conga drums, and then was like the musical director for his dad’s band. And Orlando’s a musical genius. He can play anything. He also plays North Indian classical drums, Tabla and Pakhawaj, and he does North Indian classical singing, Dhrupad, which is this old style of North Indian classical singing. And he, you know, he plays jazz, Latin and classical music on piano. So Orlando learned from John, but Orlando was also sworn to the consecrated drums of Pancho Quinto, who has passed away now.
[25:07] So Orlando, in 1996, right before I started studying with him, Orlando went to Cuba and was sworn to the drums, so- And Orlando’s like a sponge, he kind of- and he would revise, periodically revise his way of playing, so that, you know, he would pick up something from this person or a style of playing from that person or some phrases from this person and just kind like of absorb it into his playing. So as a result, my- the way that I play is very much based in John’s way of playing, and John had some- has some idiosyncratic ways of doing things that no one else does. And then, with another layer of Orlando’s favorite phrases from the mid to late ‘90s. So those are my two principle batá teachers, yeah.
[26:07] Sarah: That’s really interesting. And sorry, you wanted to mention some other teachers.
[26:11] Elizabeth: Sure, sure. So in 2000, January 1, 2000, on Y2K actually- remember that?- was the first time that I went to Cuba. And I had already been, I had been studying batá for six years. I was living in Philadelphia at that time. I lived in Philadelphia from 1990 to 2012 with a couple breaks where I went away to school or I …a couple times.
[26:46] Anyway, so I was friends with Elio Villafranca. We taught- we both worked, I was friends with his first wife, Donna Bostock. And she was a percussionist, and actually through her, I subbed for her at this community Latin music school in North Philly [AMLA — Asociación de Músicos Latino Americanos], and I met, I think that’s how I met Elio. And anyway, so Elio was going to Cuba in early 2000 to do some research for piano, a book on Cuban piano styles. And he was like, “Hey, you’ve never been to Cuba. I’m traveling, let’s go, why don’t you just come with me, and my friend who lives there, he can hook you up with a teacher, and why don’t- let’s just do it.”
[27:35] So I made this impulsive decision, I put it on a credit card, got my tickets through a Canadian travel agency, and I was like, “Yes! I’m going to go to Cuba for the first time!” But, and I did connect to a teacher through Elio, but possibly more significant to me personally, is that in my- in that trip, I stayed for the majority of my time with Amelia Pedroso Acosta, who was a well known akpwon- religious singer. And also is known because she had one of the first all-female folkloric groups playing- playing batá and playing Afro-Cuban music in the- her group started in ‘93, ‘92. Obini Batá, are the most well known group who have institutional support in Cuba and have traveled internationally, and they’re the most well known, so people sometimes make the mistake of thinking that they’re the only group, or maybe the first group. But it seems like there’s a number of female batá groups in Cuba who kind of surfaced in ‘92, ‘93, you know, full on Special Period times.
[28:57] Anyway, so I had- I saw Amelia perform. I had- I stayed with her in 2000, but I had had a couple introductions to her before that. The first time I saw Amelia it was, first of all, let’s say just she was a daughter of Yemayá. She was initiated as a child to resolve a health issue and she was a famous, famous singer in the religious setting. Anyway, so I saw her in ‘93. She came to Philadelphia with Lázaro Ros and sang on a- he did a tour in late ‘93 and she was one of the singers. And she had a featured moment, at the Painted Bride in Philadelphia. And she started singing and I just- my jaw literally dropped because her voice was so unique. Low voice, very melodic, just beautiful voice, with ease, she had such ease in singing. So I was like, “Who is that?” When I first heard her, I was like, “Wow, who is that?” And so I’d- I heard about her.
[30:05] Then in ‘95 she brought her group Ibbu Okun meaning”River and Sea”. She brought them and did like a shoestring, community organized tour of the East Coast in 1995 which was about six months after I had started playing batá. And I had heard about them. I called. I got a phone number of somebody in New York, Paula Ballan, who Paula unfortunately passed away this fall. But Paula was Amelia’s goddaughter and organized- she used a family inheritance to help subsidize this tour. Anyway, so they- I started talking to Paula because I wanted to know when they were going to be in New York so I could go see them, and Paula talked me into arranging a week’s worth of work for them in Philadelphia in April ‘95. So I did that and that’s when I first met Amelia. Then I saw Amelia again in ‘99 when she gave some classes, she came to New York and gave some classes. And I stayed with her in 2000.
[31:09] Amelia was- eventually I initiated into Lucumí religion and Amelia was my godmother’s godmother, and Amelia is a very important person for me. Taught me songs, I played, I performed with her group in January of 2000 on my first trip to Cuba. I performed with them at the UNEAC [Unión de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba]. And I saw Paul Austerlitz there, while I was there, by the way. He was like, “oh, you’re playing with this group”. I was like, “Yeah, it’s amazing to see you here.”
[31:43] And then I also perf- I played with them at an Ochá birthday, which is the anniversary of somebody’s religious initiation. It was somebody’s fifteen years of Oshún, in this apartment in Old Havana. One of their players was not available so they said, “Hey, come and play with us,” so I was like, “Oh, yeah.” So that was January 14 of 2000. That totally blew my mind because people- before I started studying in the US, and during the first six years of my process people- nobody was ever like, “No you can’t do this. No you shouldn’t do-.” You know, nobody was ever was like very negative to my face, but there were a lot of vibes. And there were- even before I started, when I was going to buy a set of drums, I got a midnight phone call from one of my teachers who was like, “I heard you’re going to buy some batá drums, and I don’t want people to lose respect for you. Maybe you should talk to this famous person or this famous person and they can explain to you why you shouldn’t do this.” So that was, that was an interesting- that was kind of like one of most overt- over the course of thirty years, that was one of the most direct conversations I had with anybody where they, you know, expressed opposition to what I was doing.
[33:05] Sarah: So did you end up buying the drums?
[33:07] Elizabeth: I did. Yeah. I bought the drums, yeah.
[33:10] Sarah: And did you feel- so the thinking would be that the people would be that people would lose respect for you because they would think that you don’t understand that women aren’t supposed to own drums?
[33:22] Elizabeth: I think there were a few things going on there. I think there was just a desire to control, to control what I was doing. Also, ok so let’s also talk about, I would like to talk a little bit more about Amelia and mention a couple of my other teachers, but I think there are a few things. Ok, let’s talk about race, gender, and class dynamics in the US batá environment.
[33:54] So you know, I was crossing racial- I was crossing all three of those boundaries in my exploration of percussion in Philadelphia, in general. And then with the batá, they’re, you know, the batá are a heavy, heavy religious symbol that represent resistance in, you know, to European domination. And I think in African American communities, taking on a Lucumí spiritual identity was kind of like a further step beyond- you know, let’s say that Christianity and Islam, for African American communities are represented, certain types of liberation from European domination. Christianity, of course, is a European derived form, but African American practice within it, you know, remolded- remolded the practice in a way. And I think African American Islam was a reaction to Christianity and tak-, you know, a way of taking on another spiritual identity that represented a resistance to European elements in Christian practice. And then I feel like Lucumí spiritual identity was even another step, getting away from colonialism, you know what I mean?
[35:26] So I was- Philadelphia is a very African American culturally important place. So for me, a middle class, white woman from Delaware, to decide, kind of impulsively in a way, that I was going to- I was going to do this was- it was controversial, and I think it was offensive to some people, and it probably, it probably still is. But we’re in a different cultural moment now. Plus I lived in Philadelphia and got to know people, I worked with people, played with people, and after a while people just are like, they just get tired and they’re like, “She’s not going away, she’s not stopping, and actually she’s not- she’s not a total jerk. Maybe, yes, maybe it’s ok in an artistic setting.” So there’s a whole journey around that.
[36:32] And also I think, I said this when we talked the first time, I want to say I feel like there’s been an evolution in my practice, in terms of why- my motivations, I’d say.
[36:46] And I’ve had a- there have been many times when I thought about stopping, you know? Probably the first time was a couple- a month or two after I started when one of my- I had roped some other women into going to New York and taking lessons with me because John was like, “I don’t have any problem with teaching women. Are people really going to prevent me from making a living? There’s nothing wrong with it. In Nigeria, men teach their daughters when there’s no sons in the family so it’s not- and also, this is artistic, this is cultural, I’m not training you to be a religious drummer. Why should people have a problem with that?” So I roped these other women into…But what he did have a problem with was, “I hate it when groups- you know, I get a group together and then one person doesn’t come and then we have to go back to the beginning,” because the learning is very cumulative.
[37:39] So I was like, “Ok, I’m going to get a group and we’re going to do this.” So, one of my group members, she quit, like after a few months because when we got to the long conversation in chachalokefun- again that’s a reference for you batá nerds. It’s a complex conversation in this really common rhythm and my- you know, I started on iyá, that’s one thing about my process that was very unconventional. I started on iyá because of the- because of our small group I was the most experienced percussionist and musician, so I would learn all the parts and then we would, you know, we would try to practice, and I would show people what we were working on, or, you know, try to make it so that the group could work, could play, together. So we got to the long conversation in chachalokefun which is complicated and my friend was like, “You know what, I just wanted to have fun…So I’m sorry, I’m going to quit because this isn’t fun.” And you know, I guess I was probably getting kind of intense like, “No. You have to do it this way, or try it this way, or this is how…”, you know.
[38:52] So anyway, you know, there were times- that was probably like the first time when I was like “hmmmmmm, may- I’m going to quit because there’s no support in my environment for this.” But I still haven’t quit.
[39:05] And what happened for me, I’m sorry, I’m probably getting a little lost in my threads, but I wanted to mention that in the late- when I first started playing percussion in the early ‘90s, it was linked to a dance community and I did play congas, djun-djun and Brazilian percussion in dance environments. So I was- from the beginning of my whole process, I started as a dancer, and then I was always into the drum and dance connection so in the late ‘90s I had the amazing good fortune to start playing for Afro-Cuban dance classes, in New York, in ‘99, April of ‘99 and the first teacher I played for was Pupy Insua, who has passed away. And Pupy was a fire- you know, he was a fireball, and I just loved him. We just had like an intuitive relationship in terms of working together. You know, I was a- I had never played batá, much less iyá, in a dance class before, and it was controversial. The first day that we went to play for him, he was like, “I’m more scared than you guys are.” But he was down, you know because, we would show up all the time.
[40:28] Sarah: [chuckling and clapping]This is where you stole Pedrito’s gig.
[40:31] Elizabeth: Yeah, well, that was somebody else’s class, but yes, we took Pedrito’s gig with another teacher. Anyway, oh, sorry, I thought I heard some hissing-
[40:44] Anyway so, yeah, Pupy, Pupy was great and we also played for Buffy Michele Drysdale, she’s a good friend of mine in New York. She’s Jamaican and she’s a great Afro-Cuban dancer who later became an excellent batá player as well. And then we also played with Yamilé Malagón Vega, who was in the Conjunto Folklórico Nacional, and she lived- Yamilé lived in New York, or New Jersey in the early- I guess it was the late ‘90s, early 2000s. Now she lives in Miami and I don’t think she teaches folklore anymore. But yes, she had- Yamilé had Pedrito accompanying her class on Sundays at Djoniba’s, is that the right place, by Union Square? Yeah, I used to go to Djoniba’s every week from Philadelphia. And sometimes we would play two classes. There- Yamilé was teaching there, Pedrito was playing for her class, but he would get a tam- on a Sunday he would get a tambor or he’d get another gig and he wouldn’t show up. So we went one time to sub for him and of course we were nothing compared to him in terms of musical skill and knowledge, but she was like, “You know what. You all are- I really like you all and I know you’re going to be here every time, so can you come every time?”
[42:08] Sarah: You can’t play tambores.
[42:10] Elizabeth: Right, exactly. So anyway, she was another teacher. I played for La Mora at Alvin Ailey from 2006-2009, every week, her Wednesday night class in the fishbowl that you could watch from the windows outside. And then I played, I played in dance classes in Philadelphia, in North Philly. I played for Iyá Oyin’s class on Saturday mornings.
[42:08] And yeah, so dance- and then since I’ve been in California, I’ve been playing with Susana Arenas Pedroso who is from the same lineage in terms of dance company as Gilset Mora from Raíces Profundas. So I had seen- I had been out to visit the Bay Area in the ‘90s and have just been captivated with the level of knowledge around Afro-Cuban folklore out here. And I had met Michael Spiro and I took lessons with Michael.
[43:11] I should- I also need to mention my other teacher in Cuba who is Lázaro Pedroso, who is Amelia’s- I think he’s Amelia’s uncle on one side of the family and then her cousin. It’s like he’s related to her two ways. But anyway, Lázaro is, I think he’s close to 80 years old now, but I- he was my first batá teacher in Cuba in 2000 when I went and Lázaro is a scholar. He’s done a lot of research into meanings of songs, you know? He taught folklore at the ISA [Instituto Superior de Artes] for a while, I think in the late ’90s he was teaching- he had been teaching folklore at the ISA. He had his own company, children’s company, folkloric company. And he’s a priest of Ogún and, you know, he lives in- and he knew- he’s of the previous generation of akpwones. He and Lázaro Galarraga are contemporaries, but he knew the previous generation like Pedro Saavedra, Felipe Alfonso, people who’ve passed away now. So Lázaro was a super knowledgeable person and he was- he lived in Marianao. And I would take a máquina out to Marianao. And you know, Amelia’s household they’d be like, “Just don’t say anything”. Because at that time it was illegal for foreigners to ride in the máquina. Maybe it still is, I don’t know. But-
[44:37] Sarah: No, it’s legal now but I remember that time.
[44:39] Elizabeth: Not that the máquinas are running right now because of, you know, economic crisis in Cuba but anyway, so that was an adventure. I would go out to his place on 138th Street I think it is, in Marianao.
[44:55] Anyway, so, I want to mention Lázaro because he and I now- now he sends me Facebook Messenger messages every once in a while, which is incredible to think that twenty years ago I’d be taking my cassette tape recorder out there to take lessons with him.
[45:11] Anyway, so, my path has been unconventional. I’ve learned from- I learned how to play batá by accompanying dancers. I learned iyá first. Normally you start on the small drum, you spend years there, you might not even ever play another drum. You learn each- you learn the small drum, then the middle drum, then the big drum. And I would that as an artist my- I think I’ve had a lot of good fortune. There are so many sources now, there are so many recordings, there are so many books, there are so many great teachers that weren’t accessible, like to players like John in the ‘60s and ‘70s. They had to for- they had to find, really carve out their path and be super dedicated to what they were doing. So I’ve been fortunate in my learning, but I think I’ve also, in a way, I’m probably not as good of an itótele player as I would like to be because I’d never- now whenever, now I have a great colleague out here, Mena Ramos, who went to medical school in Cuba and studied batá drumming while she was there, in the 2000s. And she plays iyá and she’s the most advanced player that I’ve had in my immediate environment during all these years. So now I get to play itótele some and I try to play the other drums as much as I can now, to try to make up for what I didn’t have before. Anyway, so-
[46:39] Sarah: The itótele– what you were talking about is kind of how the itótele kind of always responds to the iyá and has like, a particular role that you couldn’t exercise when you were always having to hold it down on the iyá.
[46:54] Elizabeth: Right. So yes, the itótele, the middle drum- each head- the mental state of each seat in the batá trio is really different. Like the okónkolo is the time foundation for the most part, the metronome. And it’s better if that player understands the other drums as well because then they can play to the other music that they understand, but a lot of times that person may be a less experienced player. Nonetheless, the okónkolo has a lot of control in terms of tempo, whether you’re playing ahead of the beat, behind the beat, or whether you just have, you know, your steadiness. That’s the okónkolo’s role.
Then the itótele’s role is to listen to nothing but the iyá unless they’re a super experienced musician. The itótele’s ear has to be on the iyá because things could change. It could- a signal can come and, you know, the train is gone, the train has left the station, pretty much. So the itótele player can’t really pay attention to anything except the iyá unless they are so experienced that they could just hear it all, you know? And there are players, like Cuban players like that, and great American players and other players as well.
[48:12] But the iyá’s attention goes in a different direction, like listening to the singer, first of all, following the singer. And if there- if it’s an artistic setting with dancers, marking the dancers, or, you know, knowing the arrangement, when to stop, when to change.
[48:30] Sarah: Right.
[48:31] Elizabeth: If it’s a religious setting, paying attention to the spiritual events in the room, when to intensify, when to stop, those kind of things.
[48:42] Sarah: Beautiful. I think we probably have time for one more well fleshed out question and response and so I wanted to turn back to- well, one of the questions we talked about is, what kinds of aesthetic or community values in your form either encourage women’s participation or exclude women’s participation. And we’ve already kind of been touching on that a lot as far as your experience with batá, but I also, I was- I’ve been really interested in the female akpwones that keep appearing in your story as well. So I wondered if you could, with this last question, you could talk a little bit more about these different spaces where women can exercise leadership, but may also still experience exclusion within the larger tradition. Does that make sense? Is that a good…?
[49:35] Elizabeth: Sure, and maybe I can touch on our question about pedagogy and teaching techniques as well.
[49:47] Sarah: Yeah.
[49:50] Elizabeth: And please just guide me if I go off the rails, as I’m inclined to do. I think another, just to put a point on talking about dance and dancers and the headset of the batá players, I wanted to mention that…oh now I forgot what I wanted to mention, I’m so sorry. Anyway, let’s talk about community values and women’s roles and pedagogy. Ok, so you know, the scene has changed quite a bit from thirty years ago when I started or I guess it’s twenty- when I started playing batá, it was twenty-six years ago, almost twenty-seven- no, twenty-six years ago.
[50:50] I would say that, you know, women playing batá has become much more accepted. And a new- I mentioned that the aberikula, the unconsecrated drums facilitated that for a lot of people. But also now the- now playing three drums together on a- you know, on a stand. Playing, using two hands with six drum heads, trying to replicate the sound of three musicians, has become something very accepted and encouraged. You know, for example, probably a very contemporary example is Brenda Navarrete in Cuba who, she- I don’t know a whole lot about her career, I’ve followed her a little bit and listened to her play, but I know that she played with Alaín Pérez I saw her play in his band, three batás, probably back in 2016. And now she has her own recordings and videos of her playing, and that’s- you know, that’s a fully accepted thing that’s fairly new. So that’s- there’s that.
[52:03] And then there are the various- in Cuba there are the various women’s folklore groups, Obini Batá, still going strong after almost thirty years. Ibbu Okun was Amelia’s group. They stopped after she passed. She passed away in May of 2000 and they didn’t keep the group together after that, or I think they tried for a little while but then it just became too much of a- too much of a challenge.
[52:35] But also I was going to to say about Am- I wanted to mention about Amelia’s group that they, they were all santeras, religious practitioners, very embedded, and musicians. Some of the oth- I think some of the other groups have come more out of a dance, dance performance aesthetic. So I would say that’s a different between Obini Batá and Amelia’s group from the past.
[53:00] But there are other groups, there’s also other women’s groups around Cuba. There’s Obini Irawo in Santiago. There’s Obinisa Aché in Cienfuegos. One of their members now lives in- near Houston, Texas. One of the Obini Batá players lives in Miami. There’s groups- there’s a group in Cárdenas, I think. So the are different women’s folkloric groups around Cuba. Actually, and I was able to meet- I met some of these players and I also met, I had a met Nagybe Madariaga Pouymiró, who is the women who played añá drums in 2015. I met her, I met a bunch of them in Santiago de Cuba in 2013 when we went with a Bay Area women’s group that was fusing Afro-Cuban and Brazilian percussion with African American spirituals. And we played in the Fiesta del Fuego and also that year they had an encuentro of all these women’s batá groups and we were on the same bills with them so we got to meet with them and interact with them a little bit, so…
[54:09] So, anyway, the folkloric performance of batá drums has become much more accepted. Although there are still- I have talked to some of those women about, “What about añá, or what about religious performance?” And some of the response is, “I respect añá and I make that very clear, and I would never presume.” So that seems to be, pretty much the, I’d say, the consensus among a lot of the Cuban women players that I’ve had a chance to talk to. They’re- Vicky Jassey wrote a dissertation about this and probably has more detail about that.
[54:55] In terms- so, and then in terms of yes, there’s no prohibition. Women can become religious singers and there are some very powerful, amazing women singers like Naivis Angarica in Havana. There’s also a young woman named Yayma I don’t know her family names but I can look them up. There was Amelia Pedroso who I’ve mentioned who passed away in 2000 my teacher. There are- and then their, some of their US godchildren and students, like a woman named Jadele McPherson in New York, who also has- she has Cuban heritage as well. But she’s, you know, an excellent akpwon and she is the goddaughter of Naívis. So being- yes, being an akpwon is something that’s open to women, but I understand, from having- talking to Amelia’s godchildren that, you know, that was- to get to that point, was- involved a lot of struggle and dedication, going to tambores every day, and kind of breaking into the circle. So there’s no religious prohibition.
[56:15] Also I understand from Michael Spiro that in Matanzas that it’s more, maybe it’s more accepted, or even more accepted because the women singers there are very strong, you know. Strong people, forceful people with a lot of knowledge. So that’s a position in the triangle of dance, drum and song that is open to women after some struggle.
[56:45] Then, in terms of pedagogy, I would say, I- you know, I think that to keep this tradition, there’s had to be a lot of discipline, and discipline- discipline and hierarchy are part of what have maintained the music, which is a very complex music. And I’d say that a major teaching technique is humiliation, honestly. Like, you come to- you come to play a gig, you come to play a ceremony, or you come to rehearsal, and you’re playing wrong you- people will take you off the drum, you know, like, “No, that’s not it. Get up.” And that, that has a value. And I would say, honestly that that- you know, I guess in my personal experience, that’s kind of an effective teaching technique for people who have strong personalities or you know, who have thick skin. So, in a way, to me, that’s a masculine- I sort of associate that type of teaching technique with masculinity. Although it doesn’t- you know, of course, these are not nat- that’s not a natural association, that’s cultural.
[58:16] But anyway, so, over the years I’ve been a teacher, and I’ve developed, thanks to my godmother Carolyn Brandy who was in California for over forty years and now lives in Philadelphia where I came from, which was a crazy exchange. But anyway, Carolyn started this drum camp in the mid-2000s and she invited me, in the second year, she invited me to do a workshop and introduce the students to the batá drums and then every year after that, through last year, 2019, I taught at the annual camp, taught a batá class. And we would do- there would be like twenty, twenty-five students.
[59:06] Sarah: It this the camp in Philly?
[59:08] Elizabeth: No, it’s a camp in- it was in the Bay Area because Carolyn used to live in the Bay. So it was an annual women’s drum camp with multiple traditions represented- Venezuelan music, Brazilian music, Ghanaian music, shekere, dance classes, you know. Different women, excellent women teachers. So I taught a batá class and I had- I developed a way of teaching a large group. Basically doing it like an orchestral style with an okónkolo section, itótele section, and iyá section. Of course when you’re teaching- so it’s very non native to the batá. It’s not- it’s a good method for getting an introduction, it’s not a good method for learning, overall, over time. But it’s a way to introduce people to, you know, give like a thumbnail sketch. “This is technique, these are the roles of the drums, this is your posture, this is a little bit of cultural information about these drums and where they are from.” All the students were women so I’d always say something like “You know, women haven’t played-” give a little information about women’s relationship to the drums and then teach some basic rhythms, like “Ok, let’s play Ogun.” Or, “Let’s play x,y, or z, something simple.” So that was, you know, that’s a very non native way of teaching that drum that I’ve done.
[1:00:48] And also I think- and then I’ve also done a lot of teaching in small groups because that’s my preference, to teach two or three people so we can really get into this repertoire, really learn it. Really learn the rhythms, really work on technique, really practice. So that’s been the bulk of my teaching has been in small groups.
[1:01:06] And I would say that I don’t- I’m probably a little too permissive with people, a little too nice, worried- a little too worried about people’s feelings sometimes. Although certain- some of my students, they really remember things when I’ve said something kind of direct. Like I said to one of my long term students, I was like, “You just have to learn this and practice it,” which is not, you know, that’s not a controversial or offensive statement, but I think that, we were talking before we put the video on about, you know, teachers coming from other countries and teaching Afro-diasporic traditions here and how they kind of have to learn how Americans learn in order to be effective teachers because the native learning environment is you go to a tambor every day you listen. Then maybe you develop a relationship with a teacher and you go to their house and you listen. And then one day you get to sit down on the drum and play, you know? It’s a very sponge-like process that takes place over years. It doesn’t involve tape recorders, it doesn’t involve transcriptions or any of that. So- and it does involve humiliation and discipline. So I don’t humiliate people.
[1:02:41] And I also realize that you kind of, in order to learn the batá drums you really have- you kind of have to be obsessed or you have to be in an environment where they’re in use because there’s, there’s- you know it’s just too out of context for a lot of people if they don’t have that, you know, if you’re not either obsessed or you don’t have an environment where you can go and hear it all the time or go play all the time. So dance- for us, for a lot of US students, the dance classes have been the environment provided by La Mora, Susana, Pupy, Yamilé, Buffy and the other teachers I’ve had the privilege of playing for. They’ve provided that environment for us.
[1:03:35] I also want to- this is what I wanted to say was- I think I described trajectory for you the first time we did the interview as an evolution from being like, “Hey, why not? Why can’t I do that?” And being just kind of breaking- trying to break through some social tensions that I was feeling, like, “Why can’t I be part of this, you know?”
[1:04:03] That was my initial impulse. But I believe the niche that I found is kind of like being, having a place in a community of dance students and just being like, being the anchor at dance class, who is always trying to make sure that there’s enough musicians there to play for the class, who is just- now I have an eight year working relationship with Susana so if she moves her eyes a certain way, I kind of know what- you know, like we’ve worked together a lot, so a lot of times I know where she’s going. Or she’ll recycle certain movements and ask me to play the same thing in the same way for them, you know. Or she’ll- she recombines elements so I’ll be like, “Oh, I saw that before, I’ll do what I did before for that.” So that kind of thing. And also, in addition to playing for her classes, I’ve played with her company over these years.
[1:05:07] And Susana’s a super special person in my development. I met her in New York in the early 2000’s when she was over there teaching and I played for her. I got to- again, it was kind of a thing like, “Nobody’s going to show up. We need drummers. Can you come from Philadelphia and play for Susana’s class because nobody will come.” So a lot of times we’ve benefited from those things where like, nobody else will show up, or nobody else will do it. We’re, “Ok, yeah, we’ll do it.” And I- Susana was part of a project in the early 2000s in New York called Obini Ashé that was a seventeen woman show that had a few performances around New York, including one on the the day of a blizzard at Symphony Space. In 2003, I drove on the Jersey Turnpike at 40mph for four hours to get to the show. So anyway if that’s not dedication, I don’t know what is.
[1:06:07] So have I- I know you have to go, and I thank you so much for allowing me to tell you a little bit about my journey.
[1:06:17] Sarah: This has been amazing. I hope that there is an opportunity to do more because, you know, you have so much knowledge and so much experience and it’s really valuable to- it’s valuable to have it recorded and accessible to others who might want to learn about all these different issues we’ve been talking about- batá, religion, women in folkloric traditions, the dance class community space is a really interesting one. Anyway, I do have to go though. Thank you so much, E.
[1:06:56] Elizabeth: Thank you for indulging me. It’s been a pleasure and I look forward to talking to you. And thank you to Raíces for including both of us in this project. I so appreciate it.
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