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London dances to the rhythm of the Yoruba drums

How the British capital has welcomed a centuries-old culture, and how to open a door to reach the heart of this secret and sacred language.


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Mario Lopez Goicochea


The voices of the musicians let the melody escape through the crack in the door ajar. With no percussion accompaniment, this part of the ceremony (oru sung) takes precedence over the others.

It is private and sacramental. It is followed by the Igbodu oru, a set of silent prayers that can only be expressed through the power of the three bata drums. This section is also unique for both those enshrined in the rite and for newcomers.

Immediately after, the oru of eya aranla comes, where voice, percussion and dance come together to open the circle to all those present, believers or not. The order of the chants is the same as in the two previous orus. Finally, the amazing güemilere comes in, the celebration in which neither order nor disorder doesn’t matter, only the celebration of the orisha which is being played to.

However, the previous scene does not take place in los Pocitos, Cayo Hueso, or los Sitios, which are neighbourhoods of Havana. It takes place in Brixton, an area in south London, the capital of the UK. But how is this possible?

The answer to this is provided by David Pattman, a musician and omo añá (master drummer), a distinction which is the highest among the percussionists of the Afro-Cuban style of music known as Santeria, which has its origins in one of the most influential cultures in the colonial and post-colonial Cuba: The Lucumi or Yoruba.

Pattman says that he began his career as an artist in the world of salsa over a period of 20 years, but always wanted to go beyond the mere presentation stage. It was his intention from the beginning to know the secrets of the drum, the rhythmic dictionary that is not only played but also reveals the essence of many African cultures.

David, who was born and raised in London, began as a drummer at the precocious age of 11 in 1972, and has since had a successful career in groups such as Roberto Pla and Snowboy.

For the novice who is unfamiliar with the Yoruba culture, they may be surprised to see David, nicknamed El Rubio del Sabor (literally meaning the Blonde with flavour) in the Afro-Cuban field, sitting with the itótele on his lap, or making sparks come out of the iya (the most important of the three bata drums).

However, according to Pattman, there is nothing strange about a phenomenon that justifies the status of London as one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. He adds that the essence of the Yoruba is to include and not to exclude; it accepts everyone regardless of race, nationality or gender.

This last comment is one of the reasons why Santeria, as it is called in Cuba, has been as popular as or even more popular than Catholicism, the ‘official’ religion on the Caribbean island (Cuba is a secular state). From its origins in the late eighteenth century when it started as the manifestation of syncretism between Christian and Yoruba saints, worshipping deities such as Eleggua, Oshun and Chango has always been maintained as a decentralised and spontaneous act.

This is the same trait that can be seen in London. It is a scene which as David describes, is small, but where there is much respect for dancing, singing and drumming. To the aforementioned Brixton, other neighbourhoods in the four corners of the capital must be added. And it is not just in this city in which the orishas are played to; there are other celebrations in Brighton, Leeds and Norfolk.

David mentions another aspect that distinguishes the presence of this African culture in the UK: The act of learning. In the same way as Pattman was sworn in as omo añá in 2004, there are about eight or nine drummers with the same title in Britain that, according to him, have gone to Cuba to study the rituals, songs and traditional ways of making the old bata drums ‘talk’, many of them which were built on the island by slaves who were determined to maintain their heritage and beliefs in spite of the whipping and beating.

According to Pattman, learning this secret and sacred language is the ultimate goal of the Yoruba drummer. As he says, it’s not the distinction of being a drummer; it’s worth it for the doors it opens onto another world.

In this case, it is a world that consists of three main symbols: The Bata drums, divided into the tiny okónkolo, the medium itótele and the giant iyá. Symbols which, thanks to David and other musicians of equal calibre, have already secured their place in British cultural heritage alongside the Scottish bagpipes, the Brazilian Berimbau and the Indian Sitar.

To Pattman this situation is nothing special. As he says, London has always been a diverse and cultural city. In his words, the culture of the British capital lies in its very diversity.

And yet, it is still amazing that a phenomenon such as the Rule of Ocha, which is the unification into a single liturgical body of different Yoruba cultures or the Rule of Ifa, the sacred order of babalawos (priests), should have followers in a society that is becoming more and more secular.

Perhaps it’s because, David reflects, those who are deeply involved in Lucumi culture, regardless of similar religious affiliations or not, respect it as a set of ancient traditions that have remained almost intact despite centuries of persecution, prohibitions and prejudices. In addition, Pattman states that on a personal level, learning the Bata drums brought a different kind of discipline. As he says, many drummers can play the iya, but how many can make it ‘talk’?

The future is promising, according to David. There are more people learning Yoruba songs and dances in the U.K. And of course there is already a new pool of musicians who want to learn the ancient rhythms that the slaves chained to the Lucumi soil brought to largest island of the Antilles. But this time, the echo of the three bata drums will be heard not only on the Havana coast, but also on the Thames in London.

(Translated by Sophie Maling – Email: sophie_maling@hotmail.com)

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