Venezuelan Percussionist Plays Afro-Cuban Music with Customized “Obba Drum”

William Hernandez is a Venezuelan percussionist who is in love with Afro-Cuban music. In November, he and the well-known Cuban group Los Muñequitos de Matanzas performed together using his own adaptation of the cajón—a box-style instrumentwhich he also calls the “Obba Drum.” It is a box with which one can play various musical styles and create the sounds of many different instruments, some of which are used in Afro-Cuban music. The musician created this personalized cajón in a period where he was going through a bout of depression after the loss of his child. He explains, “I never thought that at the hardest moment in my life, I would make an instrument that could give so much joy.” Irina Echarry (Havana Times) interviewed the artist:

HT: Do you construct other types of drums, like congas and batas?

William Hernandez: I used to make bata drums, but I don’t any more. Now I only make cajóns, because the bata drum is complicated. I make the bata in one piece, so it’s too much work for what people want to pay for such an instrument. The cajón that I make is original. No one had ever made one like it before.

HT: How did you learn to make drums?

WH: Well, that arose out of necessity. Who better than a musician to make instruments, it’s a need. But it’s not easy, it’s a gift. Like being a musician is a gift, so is being able to make instruments. What happens is that sometimes we’re afraid to do things, but what I’m more afraid doing nothing.

HT: What are the advantages of this cajón?

WH: It’s a very lightweight instrument, it weighs 11 pounds and it’s easy to maneuver. It’s designed to be played sitting at a height of 26 inches, which is the height of a piano bench. In that way the spine is completely straight. It has a very smooth surface to avoid damaging the percussionist’s hands. On its surface one can generate different sounds and rhythms: guarapanchangueo, bolero, the three bata’s, high and low congas, funk or rock. You can play everything, from flamenco and Peruvian to reggaeton, and some Afro-Venezuela music. To play a rumba, you hold the clave in your left hand and the right hand makes a tumbao and three hits. It’s an aid for the percussionist-artist to improve their abilities.

HT: It seems great for young musicians who don’t have a lot of money. Here it’s difficult to acquire a conga or a set of bata drums, but with this it would be much easier for them.

WH: Well, yes, let’s see if an agreement is struck between Venezuela and Cuba with the ALBA market, but since I haven’t received the support of the Venezuelan government, I’m doing all this with my own money. If they would support me it would be great to bring my instrument to Cuba to market it.

HT: You said you weren’t well versed in Afro-Venezuelan music. Why not?

WH: Because I’ve lived 27 years playing Afro-Cuban music, and music is like food: you’ll eat what you like. I don’t live Afro-Venezuelan music but that doesn’t take away me being Venezuelan or make me more Cuban than Venezuelan, because music is the world that doesn’t belong to anyone, it doesn’t belong to a color or a race or a religion. When I make a cajón I don’t think about whether it’s going to be played by someone who is black, white, yellow or green – I don’t care. What I think about is that it’s a necessity for me and a contribution to African music.

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