Secrets Kept

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

"Ritmos de Identidad" came to Miami via the Smithsonian Museum, where Miguel Bretos curated the show. Steve Steumpfle of the Historical Museum adapted it for South Florida by providing more context for the instruments, including listening stations that feature recordings of local Caribbean percussionists and a rare audiotape interview with Ortiz from 1965. The show also features material pertaining to Lydia Cabrera, Ortiz's onetime sister-in-law and a fellow student of folklore. Among the items on display is Cabrera's near-encyclopedia of Afro-Cuban lore, The Mountain, an account as chaotic and wild as Ortiz's investigations are orderly and scientific. Where Ortiz cataloged and explained the secrets of the gods, Cabrera let herself get caught up in the intrigue and gossip among the divinities.

Seeing the drums neatly lined up, standing at attention, it's easy to forget how much Afro-Caribbean religion depends upon mystery and to imagine that all of the secrets have been revealed. In an essay written for the first incarnation of the exhibition, titled "The Scholar and the Collector," which opened in California at the Los Angeles Craft and Folk Art Museum in the summer of 1999, Cuban writer Antonio Benítez-Rojo imagines that the silent instruments "all awaken at midnight" to play on their own. "If many days go by," he writes in the voice of the drums, "and nobody invites us to speak, we speak for ourselves, although we speak very softly."

At the opening of the Los Angeles show, Julio Collazo discussed the speech of the drums. A master drummer and respected babalawo (priest of the Afro-Cuban religion Santería), Collazo spent his youth taking part in the sessions at Ortiz's study, but that day in Los Angeles, he was reluctant to relay even the most widely known information about Afro-Cuban rituals. He dodged questions about the way the drums invite the gods to descend into dancing bodies. Instead, this gray-haired elder disclosed, "[The Afro-Cuban informants] did not tell Ortiz everything." Swaying back and forth in his chair, he told of the many requests he had received to share his knowledge of the sacred. "People tell me, "Julio, you know so much, you should write a book,'" he said. Suddenly sitting still, he continued, "I could write many books, but I will not. And I will not tell you anything more than I already have, or else you will make a book out of me!"

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


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

The many books written by Howard and Ortiz only begin to tell the story of Africa in the Americas. The drums themselves have more to say, having been passed down from hand to hand beginning in the sacred Yoruba city of Ife-Ile, then passing through Havana on the way to Miami, New York City, and Los Angeles. "Ritmos de Identidad" offers as much of that story as you can see and hear without submitting yourself to the long apprenticeship and continual trials by fire of the sacred traditions through which the secrets of Africa have been transmitted and, yes, transculturated here in the New World.

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