The Rise of Female Batá Drummers: Gender, Sexuality, and Taboo in a Cuban Ritual Tradition
Why would a woman dedicate herself to learning a cultural practice that is not her own? Especially when she is largely forbidden from participating in it?
I still don’t have a real answer, although I’ve been playing batá for fifteen years. This Cuban tradition is derived from a Yoruba spiritual practice carried from West Africa during the slave trade. I am a British percussionist and singer, a white woman, who fifteen years ago became captivated by the sound of the batá drums—their beautiful, complex, interlocking rhythmic melodies, and the accompanying call-and-response chants. I am just one of a growing community of women from around the world who play batá, even though religious gender taboos prohibit us from full participation in the musical tradition.
I was first introduced to the set of three hour-glassed double-sided batá drums in 2003 in a mixed-gendered workshop in the U.K. As a beginner, I found both the gender taboos and the boundary between sacred and secular confusing, especially in the U.K., where women were already playing on non-consecrated batá during Santería rituals, also known as Regla de Ocha. Santería is a religion that has grown exponentially in Cuba and the United States and is now gaining followers throughout the globe. I was one of a small group of women who performed at these ceremonies. In 2009, a distinguished Cuban batá player, priest, and owner of sacred batá came on the scene and forbade us from further participation in rituals. Experiences like these made me question my desire to play and I tried giving up several times, but the music kept pulling me back.
Compelled to find out more about the tradition, religion, and gender prohibitions, I began asking questions. Today, while I find the gender taboos of batá challenging, the experience of taking part is incredibly rewarding musically, spiritually, and socially.
This journey has introduced me to my long-term partner, percussionist David Pattman. I have since performed in ritual ceremonies as a singer and drummer in Cuba and Europe. My desire to understand batá taboos has also led me to enter the world of academia. I completed a master’s in performance and a doctoral thesis on gender, sexuality, and change in Cuban batá performance. Although my spiritual relationship to Santería is primarily through its music, I was compelled to undergo two formal preliminary initiatory steps into Relga de Ocha in 2015. While these experiences have placed me in a unique position to explore the boundaries of the gender batá prohibitions, I do not attempt to transgress them. Instead, my experiences and studies enable me to pursue playing batá while respecting its core musical religious traditions.
Enslaved Africans brought the batá tradition to Cuba during the mass migration of the transatlantic slave trade. A fraternity of heterosexual men called omo Añá (meaning “son of Añá”) are the primary owners of the batá and holders of the drumming tradition.
In order to become a member of the Añá fraternity, men undergo an initiation where they jurarse (take an oath) to the oricha (deity) Añá who is believed to dwell inside consecrated batá. Initiates then have permission to work with and play these sacred drums, often referred to as fundamento. Olúbatá, omo Añá with many years in the tradition, know the entire musical canon, drum-making, and the consecration process. These men are the gatekeepers who pass their knowledge to subsequent generations.
There are at least twenty-two deities in the Cuba pantheon. Añá is believed to communicate with these deities when the consecrated batá are played, their musical sounds transformed into aché—spiritual energy or life force. Musical rituals using fundamento batá are essential for the initiation of Santería devotees, called santeros. Regardless of their gender or sexuality, most santeros are presented to Añá in a musical ceremony as part of their initiation. Through the sound and vibrations of the fundamento, Añá facilitates divine communication and helps to “bring down,” in the form of spiritual possession, other orichas (deities in human form) during ritual ceremonies or tambores.
Santeros also use fundamento in ceremonies to perform an ebó, a ritual offering prescribed through divination to a designated oricha, who may in return provide health and well-being. Aside from these spiritual attributes, a musical ritual using fundamento can bring social prestige to the host of a tambor and purpose and unity to the religious community as a whole.
Taboos restricting women are now largely confined to ritual performances on fundamento, but not exclusively. Central to female batá taboos is the belief that women are irreconcilable with consecrated batá because they menstruate. Menstrual taboos are not unique to Santeriá; they show up in Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, and Buddhism, as well as other African religions systems that journeyed to Cuba such as Palo Monte from the Congo region and Abakuá from southeastern Nigeria and Cameroon.
The social theorist Simone de Beauvoir wrote that menstruation could be understood to represent the “essence of femininity.” Yet menstruation can also lead to severe social controls on female behavior due to religious myth and dogma. It lies at the heart of exclusion from positions of religious authority and certain ritual activities like music-making. Religious beliefs can perceive menstruating women, or the blood of their menses, as powerful, dangerous, dirty, or contaminated.
In the Cuban batá tradition, the perceived malevolent power of menstruation requires cult members to physically prevent women from making contact with sacred batá drums. Contact with Añá is believed to cause women serious harm or even death. Equally, women’s bodies are believed to pose a danger to the deity of the drum. For example, menstrual taboos are extended to male ritual drummers, who are prohibited from having sexual contact with a woman the night before a ceremony. Several of the omo Añá I spoke with during my research in Cuba explained that they believed female contamination through sex can cause the tension of consecrated batá drumheads to loosen, making them difficult to play. They follow protocols carefully as the relationship between a santero and his or her oricha or a drum owner and Añá is a symbiotic one; each is somewhat dependent on the other for continued well-being.
Gender taboos in the batá tradition extend to gay men who are equally prohibited from coming into contact with fundamento. In the course of my research, I was unable to identify any religious ideologies behind this taboo. However, my research was limited because of my gender and time restrictions. Olúbatá Javier Campos claimed this taboo arose because of the close connection between Añá and Abakuá. The Abakuá are another heterosexual male-only fraternity who administer strict protocols that prevent openly gay men from entering the cult. Olúbatá Irian “Chinito” López and omo Añá Piri Lopéz (his nephew) suggested the sexual taboo comes from a perception that heterosexual men would be vulnerable to unwanted sexual advances if gay men were permitted to enter into the fraternity.
I believe the prohibition may stem in part from the value given to heterosexual masculinity in Cuba and the gendering of religious roles in Santería. As acceptance into the Añá cult is dependent on the maintenance of an immaculate heterosexual identity, it becomes somewhat risky for omo Añá to associate closely with openly gay men. Rumors of drummers having close relations with gay men can lead to them being shunned by the fraternity. Restrictions based on gender and sexuality also exist within Ifá, the priesthood that serves the religious community through the art of divination. Nonetheless, globally, aside from the Añá and Ifá brotherhoods, women and members of the LGBTQ community make up a sizable number of Santería’s religious practitioners, many of whom hold religious positions that wield significant power.
In Nigeria, where of the drums originated, scholars Michael Marcuzzi and Amanda Villepastour found no evidence that women are restricted from making contact with consecrated batá. These prohibitions appear to be one of many substantial changes that took place during the religion and musical tradition’s reinvention in Cuba. Displaced communities, especially those who have been violently persecuted, are often driven to protect aspects of their traditions and identity. This can lead to cultural practices becoming more conservative in the diaspora than those in the motherland. Nonetheless, although religious ideologies regarding menstruation underpin female batá taboos, I was unable to identify why these limitations are not lifted for women who do not menstruate or want to play aberikulá (secular batá) in Santería rituals.
The famous Cuban ethnographer Fernando Ortíz first introduced secular batá in 1936 at an ethnographic conference aimed at elevating African-derived cultural practices among the white Cuban elites, who were viewed by many as racists. Initially, female batá taboos extended to women playing non-consecrated batá, despite their being no specific religious ideology supporting the prohibition.
However, over the last forty years, women playing aberikulá in secular and artistic settings have become more widely accepted in Cuba and beyond. Opinions as to whether women can play aberikulá in Santería rituals is divided among Olubatá in Cuba. Twice I have been invited to play in such a ceremony.
The emergence of women playing aberikulá led to a proliferation of all-female batá groups in Cuba from the early 1990s. Drummer Aleida Soccaras Torres told me that she started learning the batá around 1978, which is the earliest account of a Cuban female batá drummer I have collected. Socarras comes from a family of batá players, and that provided an access that most Cuban women did not have.
While being proscriptive and stratified, Santería lacks a central governing authority that controls religious practices and beliefs. The transmission of spiritual knowledge is undertaken by initiated priests who frequently assume authority through years of advanced ritual involvement. However, religious practices are open to interpretations causing them to vary in either distinct or subtle ways. Despite giving the impression of being fixed, belief systems are in a state of perpetual motion. Over the last forty years, practitioners have significantly modified a number of batá taboos in order to adapt to social, political, and religious changes: the initiation of white and foreign men into the Añá fraternity, allowances for women to play aberikulá in public, and, since the mobile phone age, the filming of Añá rituals.
More recently, in Santiago de Cuba in 2015, a priest and fundamento owner authorized three women to play his batá. Researcher Ruthie Meadows and I documented this historic event. One of the three women, who openly campaigns for other women’s rights to play Añá, is female percussionist Nagybe Madariaga Pouymiró. Two weeks after the event, Pouymiró announced the group’s historic break from tradition to an audience of Santería practitioners and researchers at an international religious conference that was part of the Festival de Caribe. Pouymiró told me that she was afraid the announcement would put her in danger as she claimed to already have been physically attacked by men some years earlier because of her unorthodox views. Olúbatá Angel Bolaños said there would be no violence toward women who play Añá, but he questioned why women would pursue playing fundamento when members of the Añá community would refuse to play with them and no one would hire them to play in religious ceremonies. I am relieved to say that when I last spoke to Pouymiró in 2017, she did not report any such violent incidents.
Nevertheless, it appears that internal power struggles and the untimely death in 2017 of one of the women who played the consecrated batá have undermined the group’s initial aim of challenging batágender prohibition. I have heard people blame the young drummer’s death on her playing consecrated batá, highlighting how some practitioners believe Añá has the power to inflict fatal retribution on those who transgress the gender taboo. Rather than deconstruct and challenge female gender taboos, it seems that this tragic death will bolster beliefs in the incompatibility of women and Añá. While most omo Añá and female religious devotees appear to uphold menstrual taboos, I met a number of male and female batá drummers during my fieldwork in Cuba who were critical of the prohibitions. In particular, many questioned why the taboo continues to be observed even when women reach menopause. These opinions, however, represent only a small minority and do not form part of a wider public debate or organized campaign.
Sisters Iris (okónkolo), Dayami (iyá), and Eneida Pelladito (itótele) in Guanabacoa, Cuba. Photo by Vicky Jassey
With the international #MeToo movement and a renewed interest in gender discourse and feminism, we find ourselves in a period of unprecedented challenge to patriarchal control systems. With the ordination of female priests into the Anglican Church over the last few decades, and more recently the lift of the century-old ban on menstruating women entering Kerala’s Sabarimala Temple, attitudes are clearly changing on a global scale.
Are batá gender and sexuality narratives relevant to these discussions? If so, who has the right to comment? The guardians of the tradition made up entirely of heterosexual men? Initiates of the religion who may not necessarily be part of the batá tradition? Are researchers or those marginalized by the strict gender controls invited to the table? These questions can prompt strong emotional responses.
My limited experience of bringing this discussion into the public domain has resulted in fierce and, at times, unpleasant criticism. Not surprisingly, the answers vary widely depending on which group I ask, highlighting the sensitivity and complexity of ownership claims to culture and ritual practices. Interestingly, I have found the strongest responses often come from those born outside of the culture.
Despite how it may appear, my research and interest in discussing gender taboos and batá in the public domain is not driven from a desire to be a conduit of cultural change. I understand that the processes of transformation are much bigger than a single person’s opinion, and attempts at altering the status quo can backfire or lead to a whole new set of ethical dilemmas. My drive comes from an awareness that despite the large body of publicly available works on batá drumming, authors rarely discuss gender taboos in detail.
My aim is to add nuance to existing information on gender, sexuality, and batá as well as represent a growing community of people who dedicate themselves to Cuban batá drumming despite being prohibited from accessing the core of the spiritual musical tradition.