Possessed By Joy: A North American Drummer in Cuba

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Professor Harris Eisenstadt (for NPR) writes about his moving experience in Cuba, where he attended a series of religious ceremonies. [His photo above shows an Eleggua shrine in Matanzas, Cuba.] See full article and supplementary videos in the link below.

In Afro-Cuban religious ceremonies, it’s common for participants to become possessed by spirits. All sorts of people are possessed: older ladies and teenage boys, lifelong adherents and new initiates. Most are handled expertly by other ceremony participants, who flank the person being “mounted,” make sure he or she doesn’t injure anyone, usher the person out of the ceremonial room and help him or her out of a trance.

[. . .] In January, I took a two-week study trip to Cuba, supported by a research grant from SUNY Maritime, where I’m a humanities professor. I spent 11 days in Matanzas and three in Havana, studying Afro-Cuban folkloric music every day and attending traditional ceremonies or secular rumbas most nights. I don’t speak much Spanish, so I was lucky to get some amazing contacts (including a translator and guide, Antonio Pérez) from two Americans with extensive experience in Cuba. One of those Americans, Los-Angeles-based drummer Chuck Silverman, has led research trips to Cuba for 25 years — he fielded literally dozens of my phone calls and generously offered counsel. I could not have done what I did without him.

Matanzas is about two hours east of Havana. Cuba’s 11th most populous city, it has the feel of a big town. I stayed at three different casas particulares (privately owned bed and breakfasts) within walking distance of the neighborhood where I took most of my lessons and attended most ceremonies. Havana, by contrast, is unmistakably a big, sprawling city — full of traffic and bustle. I have been to other world capitals in less than working order — Cairo and Dakar come to mind — but Havana is its own version of heartbreaking. There’s 500 years of history there (it was founded in 1515), crumbling under the weight of island isolation.

My story is not really about Havana or Matanzas, per se. It’s about a North American jazz drummer and composer on an information- and inspiration-gathering trip to a place that felt much farther away than it actually is. I went to gather rhythms, songs and forms to write a new book of music for a new ensemble; I wasn’t looking to become a drummer for Afro-Cuban ceremonies or rumbas. I was after a more personal, poetic assimilation of musical materials from Africa and its diaspora. Cuba was the perfect place to find what I was looking for.

AfroCuba is not a literal place. The term comes from Cuban scholar Fernando Ortiz, and perfectly encapsulates the country’s inescapable African-ness. Below are five things I learned in AfroCuba.

5 Things I Learned In AfroCuba

1. Sometimes it’s better to stop recording.

2. Music can be deeply woven into the fabric of daily life.

3. Young musicians will always move traditions forward.

4. Technology can make some things less secret, but some secrets are still off-limits.

5. If you want to be dramatic, you can always start slowly, then build.

[I highly recommend going into the link below to read more and to watch the corresponding videos for each point the author makes.]

For full article, see http://www.npr.org/blogs/ablogsupreme/2014/03/05/285931990/possessed-by-joy-an-american-drummer-in-cuba

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