HAVANA — It wasn’t that long ago that Cuba’s rich percussion scene was essentially a boys’ club, dominated by men due to macho attitudes and religious tradition. 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 shut out of rehearsal spaces and 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 traveling tour or a major performance.
Over the years, doors slowly began opening for female drummers – just as women gradually took on greater roles in politics, academics and other areas of Cuban society. Today, experts say, 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. “I have suffered many headaches.”
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. Players must undergo a lengthy consecration ritual. And, above all, the sacred bata are to be played only by men.
Despaigne, however, was determined to fight convention. As an Afro-Cuban folkloric dancer, Despaigne saw the drum as a means to experience her art at a deeper level.
“It is the fundamental instrument of the genre. I figured by playing it, I could broaden my development as an artist and have greater expressiveness,” she said.
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.
After breaking off from the National Folkloric Ensemble in 1994, Obini Bata spent years on the margins of acceptance. With time, however, more women took up the hourglass-shaped drum and also became percussionists in other genres such as jazz and big band.
“From the 1990s to today, the girls have begun studying percussion (more) and the number of those who have graduated is great,” said Mercedes Lay, a percussionist and musicologist who works with the governmental Center for Research of Cuban Music.
At a recent show in Havana, the six women who make up Obini Bata pounded infectious beats on leather-skinned drums with their carefully manicured hands and danced in colorful blouses and headscarves. The performance was part of the government-organized musical festival Cubadisco, underscoring Obini Bata’s firm arrival in the musical mainstream.
Female batistas are still banned by traditional Afro-Cuban priests, who see their drumming as sacrilegious.
But women drummers’ growing acceptance is evidenced by their inclusion in rumba and rock groups, as teachers and in bands touring overseas.
Acclaimed players include Yissy Garcia, a jazz percussionist who comes from an accomplished musical family, and Naile Sosa, an energetic rock ‘n’ roll drummer who has collaborated with local stars such as David Blanco.
Yaimi Karell, a 33-year-old who plays with the popular island Afro-pop fusion group Sintesis and also teaches percussion, said women drummers have proven themselves and gained the respect of their male peers.
“There has been a very big opening for women,” she said.
Part of breaking down the barriers has entailed overcoming the perception that women were physically unsuited for the drums.
“In percussion it’s not, as people sometimes think, all about strength and speed. It’s a matter of technique and taste,” said Raul Fernandez, a social scientist at the University of California, Irvine, who researches Cuban music. “Even among male percussionists, often one who plays with lots of vigor and speed doesn’t play as well as one with better technique and taste.”