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Grupo Oba-Ilu - Drums Of Cuba : Afro-Cuban Music From The Roots

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Artist: Grupo Oba-Ilu

Album: Drums Of Cuba : Afro-Cuban Music From The Roots

Label: Soul Jazz

Review date: Apr. 4, 2008

There seems to be a technical oddity about the new Afro-Cuban drum record by SoulJazz. Depending, apparently, on how it syncs up with online CD databases, it may draw down incorrect track names and/or traditions, which shouldn't be of any major importance to the casual listener, but to folklorists and percussion formalists, there is a risk that track names (which bear the names of rhythms that ultimately are linked to certain ethnic and religious traditions) are not properly assigned and therefore rhythms are not properly identified.  For example, a rhythm associated with the track name "Oggun" (the Yoruba deity of war and iron, among other things) is actually a rhythm named "makuta," from the Palo tradition more closely associated with the forces of the dead and originating from the area around the Congo.  This could be a fatal mistake for the novice if he or she were to put too much faith in the nomenclature herein: not be unlike inviting the Devil to show up on Easter Sunday.

All of this should, again, matter to some and not to others.  Those not intimately indoctrinated into the parallel histories of Afro-Cuban rhythms and styles will find a fairly comprehensive survey of the rhythms brought to Cuba as they were learned in Nigeria, Cameroon, the Congo, and other areas (as well as ethnicities) of sub-Sarahan West Africa.  Though many of the rhythms are solely associated with Orisha worship as it evolved in Cuba and the Americas,  only a few selections  on Drums of Cuba are actually  accepted tools of that tradition.  Others are actually the rhythms of other traditions, including Abakua (thankfully included, as there are not many good recordings available of this secret society's music), Iyesa (somewhat related in that the Iyesa are often thought to be an ethnic sub-group of the Yoruba), the Arara, and, as stated above, the cultural-religious tradition of Palo.

What is perhaps most extraordinary about Drums of Cuba is the quality of the recording and the mastery of the musicians behind it.  Grupo Oba-Ilu, composed of master drummers from Havana, display a fluency across the different instrumentations required of these styles, including the bata drums featured on most of the Yoruba/Orisha rhythms, the beaded gourds and congas on the guiro track (another Orisha form, but more commonly played at a less formal evening event than a sacred Sunday afternoon ceremony) and the different drums associated with bembe and Abakua.  The fact that the same drummers recorded these ultimately very different rhythms is as good a testament as one will find to the practicality and resourcefulness of Cubans in general:  over time, some of these traditions have started to blend together at the edges, and in fact it's not uncommon to find a babalawo (high priest of Orisha worship) who belongs to an Abakua house (a men's society sometimes compared to the Freemasons).  Drummers often reside on the lower rungs of Afro-Cuban religious society, so it is out of survival that drummers in Cuba master every possible rhythm to assure their place in ceremonies.  Recorded in the official state recording studio of Cuba, this collection also serves as good evidence that despite the economic hardships facing the island nation, they have not fallen behind in the technologies or methods of the modern recording sciences;  the bata sound alive (as opposed to the wooden clankiness of so many anthropological field recordings) and dynamic, the precision of the agogo bells is given its due, and congas display a range from subsonic bass taps to the scratch of fingernails and palms whispering across the goatskin heads. 

Purists and ethnomusicologists may take issue with the track name mix-ups, but most will find this to be a comprehensive survey of Afro-Cuban rhythmic tradition, expertly played and quite competently recorded.

By Andy Freivogel

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