This is a tutorial on how to build and mount contemporary but traditional rope-tuned batá-drums from Cuba, which are used in Lukumí Orisha rituals. The tutorial is also available as a video - relax and sit back, listen to the instructions and get to see lots of photos from the process of mounting.
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The sound produced by unconsecrated aberikulá drums (Yorùbá aberíkùrá, person with unsanctified head) is more authentic than the sound of ilú-batá (Yor. ìlù, drum) which have the modern metal tuning system of tumbadoras or congas. Those may be ideal for the stage, but lack the sound of drums used in rituals. The sound of traditionally tuned batá-drums is very different from the many popular recordings you might know, it’s more touching and energetic with a deep bass on the caja.
Here I want to demonstrate a technique of mounting rope-tuned batá-drums. This is about drums, that look and sound like Añá-drums, but it is not about the secrets how a consecrated drumset would be made. This is left for the initiates.
The batá-drums in Cuba have their origin in Nigeria with the Yorùbá people. Here you can see a small survey of my batá-collection. On the left a Nigerian iyáàlù bought in Osogbo, followed by an iyá bought in Havana with rawhide-tuning, followed by a contemporary Havana-style iyá with rope-tuning (its heads are not yet dry on the photo, that’s why the rope is not yet fixed to the body). On the right finally a modern Cuban batá drum, also bought in La Habana.
Today`s batá in Nigeria have a second layer of skin on their heads. This never was part of the Cuban traditon, maybe it was invented after the era of the slave trade or the Cuban tradition comes from parts of Yoruba-land where you can find ìlù bàtá with only one skin on their heads up to today. The Nigerian batá is also played with a bílálà, a small leather stick, on the chacha-head. In Matanzas town Cuban drummers sometimes make use of a leather stick on the culata of the iyá-drum, called chancleta. It is also made of leather but shaped differently.
As you can see the Havana-style batá-drum is also completely made of rawhide, calf- or thin cow-hide, and the leatherstrings are made of thicker cow- or bullhide. This requires lots of hard work, cutting a whole skin into one long string. Once the leather dries up it gets very stiff and the drum can not be be tuned anymore, so people nowadays tend to use rope instead. The Havana-style cintura, the linear threading on the chacha or culata side, will serve as our model for the batá we are going to construct. This can also be done with rope only as you see on the photos above.
You won’t find any of these diamonds on traditional Havana-batá, like in the Matanzas-threading-system, where they used just rope already a long time ago. But in the modern way these two techniques from the city of Havana and Matanzas are combined. We keep the beautiful appearance of the traditional Havana rawhide pattern and combine it with the great effishacy of Matanzas rope tuning. We will build a contemporary batá-drum which will sound and look like a ritual drum used today.
Get your local carpenter to produce the drum shells. I have researched various batá-drum forums in the internet, taken measures of drums by myself and compared those with historical information out of the books of Fernano Ortiz. So I came up with measures I would consider very traditional - and “right”.
I do not like those new forms of the drum shells, which tend to be very curved with a round bodied iyá-drum. On historical Cuban images or also on contemporary handmade Añá-drums you can see that they are kind of straight and linear in their form. Also in Nigeria the drum shell for a batá can hardly be called curved. So do not exaggerate in getting your drums very roundish and hourglass-shaped. Keep them well balanced between the chacha and the enu part. Here you can see my complete batá-set, okonkolo, itotele and iyá, painted with lacquer.
The measures I used are like this:
The okonkolo is 515 mm (20.3 inches) long, the chacha head is 130 mm (5.2 inches), the enu is 180 mm (7.1 inch).
The itotele is 690 mm (27.2 inches) long, the chacha head is 150 mm (5.9 inches), the boca is 245 mm (9.6 inches)
The caja is 730 mm (28.7 inches) long, with the culata around 175 mm (6.9 inches) and the boca 310 mm (12.2 inches). The heads are still drying on this photo.
The wood type depends on where you live, basically it should be a hard type of wood to get thin drum-shells that are durable but not heavy in weight. For drums the wood-type is not that important like for other musical instruments, where the wood is vibrating and producing sound. More important for a drum is the shape, so talk to your carpenter about it, or ask local drummakers. As these won’t be sacred drums, it doesn’t have to be cedro from South American rainforests. Use local trees. I did one set in Austrian oakwood and another one in alderwood.
Make the rims nice and smooth with sandpaper, also the inside of the shell should be plain and even, but not polished like the outside. A very hard and dense type of wood combined with a very even surface on the inside is likely to produce ringing overtones. My drumshells are around one centimeter thick, that’s not even half an inch, equally all over the body, what is very thin and makes them light-weight.
Than the aros, the rings or hoops, are another important topic. Traditionally and ritually prepared in Cuba they would be made out of fresh branches from a Guayaba-tree. We make the rings professionally out of raffia palm fiber, which is also called rattan. Raffia palm is very flexible and won’t break even when you apply tension to it later while mounting the heads. Get into your local handcrafts or furniture making supply store, and buy rods of rattan. They come in different diameters and sizes, I used ones around 1 to 1.5 cm, around half an inch, smaller ones for the smaller drums, bigger ones for the caja.
Soak them over night in water, then bend them around irontubes or whatever you can find, fix them and let them dry completely. They won’t break, even in very small diameters. The tubes should have a diameter a little bit smaller than your drums are, because once you open up the dry rattan rings, they will pop up a little bit and get slightly bigger. It is easy to make a small ring bigger, once they are dry, but it is hard to make them smaller.
Cut them, as you can see here, to have a big overlapping surface where you can put the glue on, and use woodglue to put them together, fix them again with clamps and let them dry.
The cross section of the ring is now 100% rounded, as you bought the rods. You can polish the rings on the inside a little bit to get more space for the rawhide later on and the rope that passes through the ring. Remember your rings should be bigger than the drum diameter is, because between the ring and the drumshell is where the leather and the rope goes. There must be enough space, otherwise you can not mount the drums. Especially your cowhide will get very thick when fully soaked with water.
Nowadays almost all the Cuban batá-drums have cowhide on them. There is no specification on what to use exactly today. Traditionally, according to the literature, drummers in Cuba used a young male goat for the chacha-head and an elder male goat for the enu, or if they could get one of the few venados, deer, from the bush. Cowskin was used only for the threading. Fernando Ortiz writes it was even prohibited using other animals than goats, like rams, bulls, or even female ones like cows and she-goats have not been in use. Also in Nigeria today only goat-skins are used for the batá-drums, and antelope for the threading. I heard all kinds of suggestions in interviews with Cuban batadrummers. Some still mount goatskin on their chacha heads or prefer even mule for their enú, no one talks about the sex of the animals, which in former times all died as sacrifice to the Orisha.
One can imagine that a goat skin has another sound than a cowskin has. This really makes a difference. I do not follow the common rule of mounting just cowskins on the batá. For this set I used goat and calf for the small okonkolo, calf and cow for the middle itotele and a thinner cowskin for the big iyá. A goat skin is very different from a cowskin in its diameter. If you use cowhide only, try to find at least thinner cowskin or calfskin. Try goatskin on the chacha-head, I really like its dry and sharp slaps! I think it was the influence of the modern tumbadoras, that led to the use of cowskin only. With the loss of the ability to speak Yorùbá on the drums, the melodic sounds, different pitches and the musicality in playing got more important.
Soak the skin in water overnight or at least for several hours. By soaking, the skin becomes thicker and the goat skin is very fragile when wet.
Get prestretched ropes in your local sailing supply store. It is important to use high quality rope, that doesn’t stretch and elongate once you pull it. Do not buy cheap rope, it will stretch later and you loose the tension. In sailing supply stores they have all kind of diameters and colors. I used a five milimeter sailing rope, that’s less than a quarter inch. Very important: do not use rope that has a core and a cover around it, use only rope that is threaded completely into one piece.
In those saling supply stores you get grips and handles, which are very useful, as you will see later on. With a handle like that you can easily pull the rope wherever you can grab it, this saves lots of times later. The lever you can see in the photo is the ultimate gear for getting your drum tensioned and only recommended to people with some experience. It is a professional tool from djembe-drum-makers. It is very useful, but as a batá-drums have two heads, you can easily destroy all the work you have done before by pulling it too hard on one side, that effects the other side as well. But it is a great tool you will find only at true professional's drum-making workshops!
So we now have the drum shells ready, the soaked leather, the rope – let’s get into the theory of tensioning Havanna style bata drums! These are the only tools you need from right now on.
First decide how often you want to go up and down with the main rope around the batá-drum. It starts with five times, as my traditional Havanna-leather-stringed iyá has, and goes up to ten times, what I have seen. I did my okonkolo and the itotele with six, what is quite usual, and the iyá with eight times going up and down. Later you mount the drumhead in this way. You will have to cut two holes into the rawhide at every point where the rope goes through inside of the rattan ring. One hole is on the upperside, one directly on its opposite at the bottom. There’s an easy way of getting these measures.
Draw a circle on a piece of paper, which consists of 360 degrees, and divide it by your chosen number, how often you want to go up and down. I took six (okonkolo, itotele) or eight (iyá) times on the photos, what is quite “traditional”. Iit is easy to calculate, for example 360 divided by six is sixty degrees. So mark six sections, each one in a sixty degree angle, to have an equal distance between the holes you will cut later. My second set I did with eight times going up and down on all the drums.
An important point to know before we go on: for six double-holes on the enú side of the drum, you need seven on the chacha side. Because this is where you start with the first knot to anchore the rope - you need one extra double-hole right there. This hole and the one next to it are punched in an equal distance from where only one hole alone would be on the chacha. On the enú-head you will mark your holes directly on the predrawn line with a felt pen, to have all of them in equal distance. On the chacha, instead of marking one hole directly onto the line, mark two holes (or let’s say four, two double-holes) in equal distance to this line, leaving some space in between them.
With this knowledge in mind transfer the sections to a transparent plasticfoil you put on top of the paper. For every drumhead you need one of those plasticfoils. Put the foil on your drum, wrap it around the ring and imagine it to be your rawhide and mount it as you want it to look like later when finished. This step helps you to determine exactly where your holes should be. Push the ring a little bit down. You do not want to hit the ring later when playing. Mark your holes on the foil with a felt pen. If your drumshell is perfectly rounded, you can mark all the upper holes only, what is easy. Then you just have to mark one hole from the bottomside, as it is difficult to write down there in the narrow space beyond the ring with a felt pen. Using a ruler or tape you can transfer this distance to all the other holes later that are missing on your sketch.
Take your plastic foil with your hole markings, lay it on the prepared skin, and punch your holes. I used a small metal tube with sharpened edges and a hammer. You get professional punching-tools in all sizes in leather-shops, but as I just needed it for a few drums this was the cheapest solution. Then cut your drumhead out, roundish, and leave some additional inches around.
With your personal assistent you are now working on one side of the drum, passing the rope onto each other. Sit down on the floor or at a table and start the threading process. Cut the rope into the length you will need for going up and down around the drum and add some extra length for the threading of the cintura and the tensioning afterwards. Yes, you are right, that’s a pretty long rope!
When you cut the rope, heat it up with a lighter, melt it down, let it burn on a small flame for some seconds and dampen it out with a piece of paper you have prepared before - not with your fingers. So its tip gets hard and stiff and is easy to thread. Do the same later with the first knot you are going to make soon, and seal it up forever.
Make the first knot in the chacha and then hand over the rope to your assistent, who is pulling the whole cord at first through the bottom hole, passing by the ring, going through the upperside, then going down through the next section and handing it back to you. You now do the same, pulling it through this ominous second hole close to the one with the knot, then you change direction and go back down again. From now on you will always continue just by passing through the skin one time, in two opposing holes, not two times like you just did. Your colleague starts now to pass the rope through the small section of rope which will later be on the upperside of your ring and goes back down through the next two holes etc.
Go around the drum until you reach the end, what is next to your starting knot, and make a loose knot you can open again later before the threading of the cintura starts.
In this stage of work everything has to be very loose, do not worry about that. That’s normal, you can not start tensioning, unless you have at least finished the first round. Then with every round you get more tension into the ropes, pulling harder and harder. Use your sailing rope grip to grab the rope. Be careful with the goatskins, they easily get damaged. Start at the knot at the chacha, and work through the complete length of the rope, pulling the slack out of it, carefully, increasing the tension with every round, very slowly. If you hurry, your ring will be pulled down on one side, and you have to open all up once again. It is tricky mounting a drum whose heads are linked to each other, you will see. Wet your skins, if they get too dry and you need too long for this.
Once you have at least done three rounds pulling the cords, you can put the drums aside and let them dry. The overlapping leather should be fixed with some cord or clamps, so that it stays like that when dried. Your dry cowskin will become extremely hard, so put it into shape right now and cut it. There are some batá-makers who let this overlaping part really big, but I think this is annoying while playing and does not look good.
Let the drums completely dry for several days. After one day you can squeeze around the drum middle with additional loose rope, just to tension it a little bit while drying. Then, once completely dry, loose the additional rope and you can again work around the drum, now pulling them harder and getting the maximum tension into it before starting the threading process. The rope should be very well tensioned and will not touch the shell of the drum in this stage.
Then it is time to start the knotting of the Havana style chacha part with the remaining rope. This is a question of aesthetics. Many rope tuned bata today do not feature this traditional part of the knotting and directly start with the Matanzas diamond-technique we will do later. But I think it is necessary, because they should look beautifully and old school, and not messy. The diamond-technique adds a lot more tension then this technique, but there must be a reason, why the batá was developed like that, and I stick to this tradition. It is beautiful. And as the two heads are linked to each other, but you can only tension them both, I think this threading helps in getting more tension into the chacham-heads. At least that's my theory.
Open the last loose knot you did on your rope and start with the first tie like in this image, and then continue with the same pattern and work around the culata. After doing some rounds along the chacha in this linear knotting, from five on the okonkolo up to eight on the iyá, you can start to do the diamonds, which will increase the tension a lot.
When I saw this the first time I thought of a drum many percussionists know today, the West-African djembe drum from Mali. Its threading pattern looks almost the same, but it is not. On a djembe the ropes would be crossed, which is also very effective and durable. But here in the Cuban technique from Matanzas they are just pulled together.
After the first round, you can either change direction and go back this way like in the image, or you go back through one rope and continue same direction. Only in the second line the first diamond will appear to be complete.
Use the rest of the cord afterwards to cover up the diamonds – and your drums will look beautiful and are almost finished! From time to time, when the tension looses, you can do some additional knots, until one day you will have to change the skin again. I saw drums where people attached leather strings around the rope-tuning, to have their bata look more archaic. But as this is mere style, without any function, I do not like it, but maybe you do.
The fardela, or idá in Yorùbá language, is still missing on the iyá, the mother drum. This is the black paste, which on the one side must stay very flexible not to fall off and on the other hand it should not be too sticky. Traditionally this is a very strong and male-energy medicine, consisting of secret ingredients only Orisha-priests can make. Musically this ring dampens the overtones on the iyá-bass, and sometimes even on the itotele-enú you can find a small point or ring of it. In Nigeria it is always a small dot, not a ring like in Cuba. There are recipes on the internet, containing cooked stuff like chewing gums, bees wax, palm grease, starch and flour, mucilage, animal glue, iron powder etc. Modeling clay or play dough would be an easy alternative for you to try out. I used Oasis Fix Adhesive Tack known in floristry, a very sticky and waxy paste, and put some soft black modeling clay above it, what works perfect. Mine is quite small compared to some Cuban fardelas, but I thought I can always make it bigger later if I want to.
And finally the chaworo, the belt with brass bells, is another feature you should add to sweeten the sound and not to invite the deads, but the Orisha. Only when playing for deads, the chaworo is not used on the batá, so be sure that you can also take it off again, when you do not need it. Here you can be very creative, combining different style brass bells, to add some sweetness of the Orisha Ochún to your sound.
Añá-drums have also a small iron ring attached to one head, linking Añá to Osain and Ogún, through which the Orisha is fed and crafted. As your drums are not consecrated, you do not need this, as you won’t show off with your drumset pretending it was a consecrated set. Some people attach those rings, but I would not, as it is only confusing your set with real Añá drums.
So it's done! Have fun constructing your very own set of contemporary Havana-style ilú-batá! I can say it is a new experience playing drums you constructed by yourself. Another small step into the world of Añá and Orisha. Let me know if this plan worked out for you or if you have any improvements in the mounting technique to add! Mo dupe, ire ooo!
Thank you to Will Myers. A friend of mine found some old-school gifs in the depths of the internet Will Myers shared a long time ago,. These instructional images how to mount batá drums laid down the fundaments of this tutorial. Muchas gracias, Sr Myers, your work inspires many of the future bataleros and helps to spread the beautiful art of traditional Cuban batá music.