How Santería Seeped Into Latin Music

Jan 6, 2015
Originally published on January 7, 2015 9:35 am

All this week, Morning Edition is talking about drums and drummers. The third installment in "Beat Week" explores the beats used in Afro-Cuban Santería ceremonies. Our guide is Felix Contreras, co-host of NPR's Alt.Latino podcast and an Afro-Cuban drummer himself.

Note: This piece is better heard than read. For examples of the music and a drumming demonstration, listen at the audio link.


If you wanted to put it in extremely simple terms, you could call Santería a mashup of mythology from west and central Africa and Christianity. Santería ceremonies are for calling out to the spiritual world, and that spiritual connection is made through music.

At his home studio in Oakland, Calif., percussionist and bandleader John Santos sets up a trio of batá drums, the hourglass-shaped drums traditionally used in Santería ceremonies, and explains where their unique sound comes from.

"The Yoruba language is a tonal language," Santos says — that is, speaking a word with a different inflection can give it a different meaning. "So the drums are made to imitate the range of sounds, traditionally, of the voice of the person who commissions the drums to be made."

According to Santos, Santería rhythms came out of clandestine spiritual ceremonies and into Cuban society in the 1930s, when Cuban musicologists could no longer ignore the country's African heritage.

The sacred and the secular have shared a place in Cuban music going back to the 19th century — and, in fact, sacred music with roots in west Africa informs a lot of Cuban popular music.

Santos says that for many practitioners of Santería and the musicians who draw on those traditions for inspiration, the intricate and subtle, interlocking rhythms, as well as the haunting and profound melodies of the chants and ceremonial music, reflect an emotional and musical power that remind us that there is something greater than ourselves.

"When you put them together, they create a weave of rhythm that is absolutely magical and irresistible," he says. "You cannot listen to that music and stay still. It's music that just moves you from the inside out."

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's Beat Week on MORNING EDITION. Over the last few days, we've heard from some of the world's most influential rock and funk drummers. Today, the beat goes on with rhythms you might have heard from Latin jazz and Cuban music.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED LA LUPE SONG)

MONTAGNE: Heard in this song by La Lupe, those beats have their roots in Afro-Cuban Santeria ceremonies. They are rhythms that began in West Africa centuries ago and still inspire musicians around the globe. Our guide is NPR's Felix Contreras, host of the NPR podcast Alt.Latino and an Afro-Cuban drummer himself.

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: First, some background in the most simple form, Santeria could be considered a mashup of West and Central African mythology and Christianity. It's obviously much more complicated than that, but it gets us started. Santeria ceremonies are for calling out to the spiritual world, and that spiritual connection is made through music.

JOHN SANTOS: All right, this drum is pretty - pretty close.

CONTRERAS: Percussionist and bandleader John Santos is in his home studio in Oakland, California, setting up a trio of bata drums, the hourglass-shaped drums traditionally used in Santeria ceremonies.

SANTOS: So I'm going to mount them on the stand now. And we'll see what they sound like together - all three.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMS)

SANTOS: The Yoruba language is a tonal language. So (speaking Yoruba) means something different than (speaking Yoruba) because of the inflection. And so the drums are made to imitate the range of sounds, traditionally, of the voice of the person who commissions the drums to be made.

CONTRERAS: And as an example, he sings the toque de bata or the bata rhythm for the orisha Ibeji or the deity Ibeji.

SANTOS: (Singing in Yoruba).

The drums play (imitates drum beats).

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMS)

CONTRERAS: According to Santos, Santeria rhythms came out of clandestine spiritual ceremonies into open Cuban society in the 1930s, when Cuban musicologists could no longer ignore the country's African heritage. The sacred and the secular have shared a place in Cuban music. In fact, Santos says the sacred music crossed over and gave birth to most of the popular forms of Cuban music. And for a couple of Latin jazz examples, let's start with some music from John Santos.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED JOHN SANTOS SONG)

CONTRERAS: And for something a little different, there was an album released last year with a rhythmic heartbeat that was supplied by what was not there. Cuban-born pianist David Virelles crafted music that imagines the rhythms, while playing just a subtle hint of what they sound and feel like.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED DAVID VIRELLES SONG)

CONTRERAS: John Santos says that for many practitioners of Santeria, as well as the musicians who draw on those traditions for inspiration, the intricate and subtle interlocking rhythms of the ceremonial music reflect an emotional and musical power that reminds us that there is something greater than ourselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANTOS: When you put them together, they will create a wave of rhythm that is absolutely magical and then irresistible, and you cannot listen to that music and stay still. It's music that just moves you from the inside out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONTRERAS: Felix Contreras, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.