Batá drums may be best known for their roots in the religious and ceremonial drumming of the Yoruba tribes of West Africa. From the construction to the rhythms played, Batá drums are a culturally rich instrument with distinct ties into spiritual practices. Beyond West Africa, Batá drums are also played by those who practice Santeria, and can be found in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the United States.
The hourglass-shaped, three-piece set of Batá drums are used to invoke the presence of the Orisha in Santeria and Yoruba customs. Because of the nature of these ceremonies, the reverence of the Batá drum is maintained through their construction, as well as ceremonial cleansing and preparation of the Batá drummers. The drummers lay the Batá across the lap, striking each head with the hands. The larger head is used to play open tones, while the smaller head is played with the fingertips for a slap tone. Each drum in the set has its own personality. The largest drum, the Iyá, creates the deepest rhythms and leads the other drums and drummers. Both the Itótele and Okónkolo, the smaller drums of the set, build on the energy from the Iyá, enhancing the rhythms with higher pitched beats and a more complex rhythmic tone overall.
Batá drumming is polyrhythmic, with a wide array of meters and tempos all combining together in a celebration of music and spirituality. When drumming, it is expected that one hand plays an entirely different rhythm than the other, moving together in an unstructured, yet rhythmic harmony. With three Batá drums, the rhythm can easily invoke a trance-like state, encouraging the movement of dancers and the manifestation of the Orisha.
While more venues are inviting the sounds and styling of Batá drumming into the world’s view, these percussion instruments remain a reverential testament to the faith of a dedicated population. From the streets of New York, to the tribal lands in West Africa, Batá drums have a special place in the connection between rhythm, music and spirituality.