Román Díaz, an olù batá (master drummer), scholar, and composer who moved to New York City from Havana in 1999, is a mainstay in avant-garde jazz and Afro-Cuban music circles. On November 10, as part of the Outside (In)dia series at the David Rubenstein Atrium, he and a full squad of batá drummers, together with vocalist Melvis Santa, will join Brooklyn Raga Massive for a musical conversation that explores the universality of rhythm and the joy of authentic collaboration. Percussionist and Brooklyn Raga Massive member Giancarlo Luiggi sat down with Román after a recent rehearsal to get his insights into the roots of Afro-Cuban music.

Interview translated from the Spanish by Giancarlo Luiggi.


Giancarlo Luiggi: Can you begin by telling us about the origins of Afro-Cuban music?

Román Díaz: Afro-Cuban music has its antecedents in the music and traditions and social systems of the African groups that arrived in Cuba during the colonial slave era. The strongest and most widely known of these traditions are from the Yoruba and the Carabalí peoples from Nigeria, and the Congo, from the region of Congo.

There are also other groups, a bit lesser known, like Iyesa, Arará, Gangá, Takua, Makuá—a series of groups that, being smaller, were assimilated. In the case of Arará and Iyesa and others, they were incorporated into the Yoruba group. Now they are also spread out throughout the island of Cuba. And in the eastern part of the island, the entire region of Oriente has a very strong Franco-Haitian influence. That influence has antecedents in the Dahomey culture, and has a familiarity with Arará and Congo traditions as well, and this is the reason we see they have voudou.

Now, in the region of Camagüey, we also see this series of groups with Haitian antecedents. In the center of the island in Cuba, we also have various groups, above all in places like Cienfuegos, where the Congo tradition is very strong. So we see there are cabildos [cultural associations]—the cabildo Congo Reales, the cabildo de San Antonio—which are very active groups and representative of that part of the island.

In the region of Matanzas there are an infinity of groups with African origin, like the Brícamo, Arará, and, of course, Yoruba.

GL: These traditions are not only musical but also religious. For those who might not know, how are the Yoruba practices characterized?

RD: Well, the Yoruba tradition in Cuba is represented by what is known as Regla de Ocha or Santería, whose fundamental base is the Yoruba pantheon of deities, or Orishas. There are various deities, but the most commonly known are Eleguá, Oggún, and Ochosi. These Orishas have a strong relationship to nature. This is the philosophical and religious worldview of the Yoruba. So, we have Eleguá, the Lord of the Crossroads; Oggún, the Deity of Work; Ochosi, the Orisha of the Hunt. Also Inle, the God of Medicine; Yemayá, the Goddess of the Sea; Oshún, the Goddess of the River; Shango, the God of Fire. They are also linked to the elements: Air, Earth, Water, Wind.

GL: What are the musical instruments that are used in Regla de Ocha ceremonies?

RD: Well, each group has its drums. In the case of the Yoruba, we have the shekeres, which are known as güiro, the Bembé drums, as well; there are the cajones; and there are the Batá drums. There are three Batá drums: Iyá, the center drum, Okónkolo, the smallest and highest pitched, and the Itotele, the medium-pitched drum, which establishes a conversation with the Iyá.

GL: Can you describe this phenomenon of the conversation of the drums?

RD: The Batá drums are in the category of "talking drums." That is to say, they are drums that speak languages. In some of the chants, the same phrase that is interpreted by the singer vocally is "sung," rhythmically, by the drum. The voice of the Akpón (lead singer), the drums, and the feet of the dancer are in a close, intricate dialogue, and alignment.

GL: What is the role of each of the Batá drums, the Iyá, Itotele, and Okónkolo?

RD: The Iyá has the responsibility of establishing the rhythm, according to the song, the Okónkolo acts as the clave (the conductive line of the rhythms that will be interpreted), and the Itotele follows the rhythm and establishes the conversation with the Iyá. For each of the deities, there exists a set of songs, dance, and toque (ceremonies of drum, song, and dance) based on the patakines, the rich and complex oral-history knowledge about each Orisha. Of course, much depends on the knowledge of each group, and the possibility of creating new songs and such.

GL: So each group can develop new songs and new dances to a deity?

RD: There are established patterns, both rhythmically and melodically, but each epoch has its own way of representing these patterns. And we have seen through historical audio recordings how songs in another past era were slower, the drums were tuned to lower pitches. As the artform has moved forward, we hear the drums tuned at a higher pitch, as well as the registers the singers sing in. We see many young people who are studying, and you see the new recordings of Abbilona, and the exchange between the songs of Africa, such as new interpretations of the Orishas' histories and such, and those who are involved in this have incorporated it into their repertoire.

Our written knowledge of these traditions goes back to 1836. The first interpreters were of African descent, and they developed themselves in cabildos, for example, the Cabildo Changó Tedún. Later, in 1937, these toques came to light in the public sphere in the first conference of Afro-Cuban culture organized by Fernando Ortiz at the University of Havana. [This article by Dr. Ivor Miller mentions the 1937 Fernando Ortiz conference.] The vocal interpreter at this first public event was Mercedita Valdes, with the drummers Pablo Roche, Aguedo Morales, and Jesús Pérez. After this first conference in 1937, there arose radio programs and the like where these folkloric traditions were represented, now in an artistic format. Now, there are many more people, more well-known interpreters because of the possibility of being in one way or another linked to radio broadcast.

Now, in the present moment, the Afro-Cuban religion cannot be said to be from only one region in Cuba, because it is internationally represented. There are many religious houses right here in the United States, in Miami, in Venezuela, Puerto Rico, New York.

GL: And to give another perspective, what other genres have been influenced by Afro-Cuban music?

RD: Well, Afro-Cuban music, what can I tell you? All Cuban music has at least a small influence on other genres. Or from the point of view, looking at it from the Batá, one can identify, or feel oneself identified with any other rhythm one can listen to. There's always something. So Afro-Cuban music has influenced a great deal, not only in music, but also the character of people, the food, the way of speaking. It has influenced many things! And around the world, we have seen Afro-Cuban music make great contributions in jazz, from the music of Machito, Dizzy Gillespie, Mario Bauzá. . . we see all these groups have found a great influence in Afro-Cuban music. Tito Puente, all these people. All the history we have seen here in New York.


Giancarlo Luiggi is a percussionist and a member of Brooklyn Raga Massive.


Join Brooklyn Raga Massive and Román Díaz at the David Rubenstein Atrium on November 10 for a live demonstration of the continued influence and relevance of Afro-Cuban music.