Postcard from... Havana


It wasn’t that long ago that Cuba’s rich percussion scene was a boys’ club. Perceived as too weak for the physical demands of drumming, and unsuitable for an instrument considered a means of communicating with the gods, women were barred from using “bata” drums belonging to the National Folkloric Ensemble. Instructors were warned that if they taught women, it could cost them a place in a travelling tour or a major performance.

But doors slowly began to open for female drummers, and today the island is seeing a boom in women percussionists as the generation that first started playing in the 1990s comes into its own and inspires younger talent to follow. “I threw myself into the unknown,” said Eva Despaigne, the 60-year-old director of Obini Bata, Cuba’s first all-female bata orchestra, which takes its name from the Yoruban word for woman.

Under Afro-Cuban beliefs, the two-sided bata (pronounced ba-TAH) are sacred, used for connecting with Santeria spirits. Tradition dictates the drums be made only from the hides of male goats. And, above all, they are to be played only by men. Despaigne patiently worked to persuade male batistas that her desire to play was not for religion, but for art. Little by little, she began to win them over. AP