Secrets Kept

Exploring the rhythms of Africa and the Caribbean at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida

Drums line two walls at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida's exhibition "Ritmos de Identidad: Fernando Ortiz's Legacy and the Howard Family Collection of Percussion Instruments." They fill the cases that sit in the middle of the room and cluster about the door. Batá drums, the sacred instruments transported to the New World from Yorubaland in West Africa, patter and palaver through speakers set in all directions. Photographs of men with drums resting on their laps hang on the walls. Images of men and women, hands flying across drum skins, flicker across the screen of a flat television. Here, neatly arrayed, is the rhythmic history of Africa that the slave trade brought to the Americas hundreds of years ago.

This show celebrates the work of two of the most passionate chroniclers of that history, Fernando Ortiz and Dr. Joseph H. Howard. Ortiz, a Cuban ethnographer who lived from 1881 to 1969, was among the first scholars to study African culture in the Americas. He invented the term Afro-Cuban as a way to recognize the vital presence of African culture on the island. In his famous 1940 book Cuban Counterpoint, he wrote about a process he called "transculturation," describing what happens when two very different cultures come together to create a third that is entirely new. His ethnographic masterpiece, the five-volume Instruments of Afro-Cuban Music, recounts in minute detail the history, function, and sound of the wide variety of instruments that survived the middle passage to the Caribbean.

A large portrait of Ortiz hanging near the entrance to the exhibition shows a portly, white-haired man with thick spectacles seated in his study, almost buried beneath a mountain of books, files, and bundles of papers. The heads of two batás peek from among the papers. As Ortiz's daughter explains in a videotaped interview shown at the exhibit, Ortiz would invite master drummers such as Trinidad Torregrosa, Raul Diaz, and Julio Collazo to play at his house so that he could transcribe the language of the drums in European musical notation. The drummers wrote with their hands on the skins. The scholar wrote with pen and paper, recording the rituals and beliefs of Afro-Cubans in a series of works published between 1906 and his death 60 years later.

The museum initiates a new generation into the mysteries of African percussion
Steve Satterwhite
The museum initiates a new generation into the mysteries of African percussion

Details

Through January 21, call 305-375-1492
Historical Museum of Southern Florida, 101 W. Flagler St., Miami

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Just inside the door to the exhibition lie three batá drums built by Torregrosa -- not for Ortiz but for Howard (1912­1994), an oral surgeon, amateur percussionist, and avid collector born in Venezuela to parents of African-American, European, and East Indian origin. Howard referred to Ortiz's Instruments of Afro-Cuban Music to plot his collection. A portrait on the wall opposite Ortiz shows Howard, a hepcat in a knit turtleneck sweater, standing in front of the set of Torregrosa's batás, with one hand cupped against the skin of the conga in front of him and the other raised, about to strike. His head is turned slightly to one side, his eyes closed as he surrenders to the rhythm. Drums -- the same drums on display at the museum -- surround him, lined up on shelves, hanging from pegs on the wall, and scattered about the floor.

Over the course of his long life, Howard collected more than 300 instruments from around the world, publishing his research in 1967 in the book Drums in the Americas. Howard had his own phrase for what Ortiz called "transculturation," calling the coming together of cultures both in his own family and in the family of drums the "fruit of the cross."

"Ritmos de Identidad" contains both the parent instruments and their progeny. On one side of the room stand the drums of Africa. The fotomfronsfrom Ghana measure nearly five feet tall, parallel lines etched into their wooden bodies leading upward to long pegs that jut out like the petals of a flower. The pegs hold taut the strings that stretch the skin just so, to make the tones sound sweetly when the drummer's hands graze the skin. Beside the fotomfrons, the atumpans sit short and squat, a narrow wooden base holding up the fat round belly that gives each a deep, resounding boom.

From Ghana, too, comes a trio of drums. The painted wooden sogo starts off a conversation, then is answered by the kaganu, their dialogue cut through by the constant chatter of the kidi. Next to the Ghanaian drums, just as their kingdoms were once neighbors in West Africa, stands a family of jimbés from Guinea and Mali. These drums also feature tall cylinders, but instead of wooden pegs, cut-metal plates strain to give the jimbés their tone. Nearby is the ngoma from Uganda, the nebero from Ethiopia, and the turu from Nigeria. Set back in a corner, the bambala from Western Congo looks out across the room through round, slit-eyed faces carved into a dark, hollow log.

On the opposite wall, the American descendants of these drums resemble their African ancestors but wear different colors, variant carvings, and changed shapes. In a family of three, the rada drums of Haiti echo still-remembered conversations from Ghana and Dahomey. On the garifuna from Belize, thick ropes tied around the pegs stretch the full length of the drum, supplanting the short strings used in West Africa. Short, smooth boxes, called cajas, made do in Cuba when drums were outlawed or could not be found.

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