We had the honor to speak with Thomas Altmann, a professional jazz drummer and percussionist. Since 1976 he is active in Latin American, especially Afro-Cuban music in Germany. He teaches and performs in numerous bands, orchestras and studio productions, Thomas is the founder and was director of the performance ensemble Ayé Ilù (1994-2005). He is omoañá, olórisha initiated into Obatalá and babaláwo. He runs two websites predominantly in German language, is author of several articles and publications and best known perhaps for his book "Cantos Lucumí a los Orichas".
“Cantos Lucumí a los Orichas” contains musical transcriptions of contemporary Afro-Cuban songs. They are written and pronounced in Lucumí/Lukumí, the remains of Yorùbá language in Cuba from the times of slavery. Lukumí is used in the context of sacred ceremonies for the Orisha, mostly in fixed phrases for songs and prayers that were passed down since generations. (We published a detailed article on this blog, see “The Incomplete Yorùbá Guide to Lukumí”.)
The 275 songs in this unique book are dedicated to different Orisha and are published in a liturgical order, like a song cycle would be performed in a Cuban ritual for the Yorùbá deities. The book contains musical transcriptions for Eleguá (30 songs), Ogún (16), Ochosi (7), Obaloke (1), Oricha Oko (3), Inle (5), Babalú Ayé (11), Osain (11), Obatalá (22), Odduduá (1), Dadá (1), Oggué (1), Aggayú (7), Ibeyi (3), Changó (36), Obbá (5), Yeguá (5), Oyá (28), Yemayá (30), Ochún (39), Orunmila (6), Cierre Eleguá/Echú (6) and Cierre Olokun (1). Thomas Altmann is a versed batá-drummer, every song comes with the names of the appropriate rhythms and lots of background information on the history, performance contexts, musical instruments, Orisha, and includes a glossary of Lukumí terms.
Moussa: In 1998 you published the first edition of "Cantos Lucumí a los Orichas", a songbook with Afro-Cuban chants in full musical notation. It is largely based on commercial recordings. Today we have access to thousands of videos of Afro-Cuban rituals on platforms like Youtube. Is there still a boundary between the secular, folkloric music for the public and the spiritual, religious sphere for the initiates? Looking back, after almost 20 years of "Cantos Lucumí", and the current popularization of Santería, what are your thoughts?
Thomas: Good question, central issue. Katherine Hagedorn has written a book on the subject, and Australian Kent Windress has a dissertation forthcoming about Añá on YouTube. There are dozens of strictly ceremonial chants and rituals out on YouTube, as well as the complete manuals and tratados of Ocha and Ifá, including the Enciclopedía of the Oddun of Ifá as PDFs on the internet, with random additions of Osamaro Ibie’s texts. To be clear, while I believe that a study of the teachings of the odù-Ifá should not only be allowed but encouraged to anybody who is willing to learn, descriptions of rituals, ebo etc. do not belong in the hands of aleyo. As the late Michael Marcuzzi – ibae – once put it: "They don’t need it." Because aleyo don’t have the aché to work Ocha or Ifá, it’s useless to them. They can’t handle it. They might create a possibly dangerous mess at best. The same refers to Añá. According to what I was taught, Orisha are not to be captured, filmed or recorded. Añá is an Orisha. Possessed humans are Orisha. Orisha are present in iyawó. You can find all this on the internet, which is not O.K. Period.
People who are involved in the religion are pursuing their religious affairs without considering the cultural or folkloric performance scene at the same time. These are separate territories. Musicians who play religious ceremonies might be members of folklore ensembles as well, but that’s just a gig. They make some extra Pesos with it. If they can play tambores accurately, then folklore work comes relatively easy to them. They may play the same toques and sing the same cantos; but out of the ritual context and order, the liturgy is without function. It’s all about art and aesthetics. Some musicians say that there are songs that are sung within a ceremonial context exclusively. Personally, I haven’t heard a song in a ceremony that I didn’t know from one of the records I own, let alone YouTube. There are ceremonial songs or suyeres of the oddun (odù) that are part of the oro cantado and are out on various records, too. Do you remember "Guaragüí" by Arsenio Rodríguez? "Popo po mi" – that’s a sacrificial chant. The number is from the 1940’s or 1950’s maybe, re-recorded by Larry Harlow in the 70’s. I wonder whether anybody ever felt offended back then.
This said, let me add another aspect, which may sound controversial to you: For me, as a batá drummer and priest who is living far away from a vivid religious environment, the same forbidden exposure of rituals and ceremonies that I am scolding serves as almost the only point of contact that keeps me linked to the cult. Which means that I am utilizing all the internet footage myself, and even more so, as Cuban practitioners are traditionally reluctant to teach you everything you ought to know right away. So in many instances, I am depending on free information from books, CDs, and video clips, even though they cannot fill each and every void. Maybe all the secret things are on the internet only for initiated people like me …
As far as my book is concerned, I wish I had all of today’s material at hand when I wrote it. All that Abbilona stuff and the Orisha Aye series came out right after the publication of my book. Neither did I have Jerry Shilgi’s Song Anthology as a reference for my work; I received it afterwards, as I made many important contacts only through my publication. So my book would definitely look different if I would write it today, from the perspective of a priest and private scholar.
The reason why Afro-Cuban Orisha music and religion is so popular today is linked to the Communist Revolution. The Communists founded research and performance institutions like the Conjunto Folklórico Nacional and used the Afro-Cuban heritage to form a new identity for the island. Your book is based on recordings, commercial CDs, and the spreading of the Santería religion and Afro-Cuban music worldwide through the exodus from Cuba. What’s your view, as a babaláwo in Cuban tradition, on communism and this part of the Afro-Cuban history and Orisha traditions?
Simply put, without the propagation of Lukumí music as a part of Cuba’s national culture, people like you and me would have considerably less access to the liturgical corpus. I would perhaps know less than 25% of the songs and toques batá that I know now, and most probably I would still be an aleyo today. However, the Giraldo Rodríguez record was pre-revolution, as was the emigration of Francisco Aguabella and Julito Collazo to the U.S.A. It must also be assumed that even without Castro, the work of Fernando Ortíz, Argeliers León and others would have been continued and developed, albeit not opened up to the present degree. Lydia Cabrera would have published her works on the island, instead of Miami. Certain developments would have taken place anyway.
I have an issue with Cubans who have been so indoctrinated by the communist propaganda that they themselves are confusing the religion with patriotism. Whoever needs to find pride in being Cuban, German, or whatever nation he/she happens to belong to, that’s their private affair; personally I think it’s pointless. But religion has to be global, if not cosmic. If it is national, then it ceases to be a religion; then it becomes a folkloric activity without religious relevance. The Orisha and the odù are the same all over the world; that’s a theological axiom. They might be dealt with in different ways in different cultures, but they are not the national property of the Cubans alone. The Nigerians have their way, and so do the Brazilians. Ocha-Ifá is practiced in Venezuela, and in Spain, too. It is also practiced in Italy and, to a lesser extent, in other European countries. It would be ridiculous if the Germans tried to copy the Cuban variant exactly; they would face more problems instead of less, and this is happening a lot. Some of the priests in Europe are rather busy keeping up their cubanismo than interpreting and adapting their religion according to the circumstances – which is exactly what had to be done out of necessity when the deported Yoruba entered the island of Cuba.
Today self-publishing is a common practice. It must have been more difficult when you wrote “Cantos Lucumí”. It was available at descarga.com for a long time, a company dedicated to Latin American music and culture, that closed last year. Where can I get a copy of "Cantos Lucumí a los Orichas" today?
Oh, I didn’t know that Descarga shut down. That’s a pity. When my book was ready, the first thing I did was to present it at the Frankfurt music fare. I did not have experience in international trade, and I did not trust the online business either. Typically, all the German publishers rejected my work and made me feel a bit silly. One day, a German percussionist by the name of Uwe Schmidt, who was building chékeres, approached me for lessons, and it turned out that he was acquainted with Bruce Polin of Descarga.com. He offered me to introduce the book to Bruce, and Bruce liked it. I gave Bruce the license to re-print it by himself, so I didn’t have to ship heavy loads of books across the ocean. Then Bruce delivered to David Brown’s Folkcuba store. That was it. At first, I had written the book for my ensemble Ayé Ilù, then I thought that other people might find it useful, too, and suddenly I found myself in the company of priests, musicians and scholars all over the world. Amanda Vincent (alias Villepastour) was the first to review my book for the British magazine "Straight no Chaser".
As I said, I would write the book from a different perspective today, and, most importantly, I would avoid many of the mistakes I made. I readily admit that it is still a work to consider for reference, but for the reasons I mentioned, it has become historic. I declared it public domain and told people to go ahead copying it from someone else. Some people say I should re-work it and publish an edited version. I am not saying I will never do that, but at the moment I am involved in other things.
You are running one website dedicated to the Orisha and Ifá religion, eriwo.de. The article there on Obatala is one of the best and most detailed works on this Orisha that I have ever read. It is interesting that you expand the Cuban knowledge with many details on history and spiritual practice in Yorùbáland. Did you ever get into a conflict that affected your practice as an olórisha, finding yourself in-between two different traditions?
Not at all. First of all, I wrote the treatise when I was babalawo already. My ritual practice is modified Cuban Lukumí. I consider the African Yorùbá tradition in a theological respect. I think that, while sticking to his/her own ritual code, every priest in Cuba or Brazil should know about the "homeland" aspects as an addition to his/her diasporic tradition, because it broadens and deepens the understanding of an Orisha or odù or certain ritual details. It would also help in recognizing the essential traits of a spiritual or divine entity and in identifying the essential ritual elements. Obatala is the same deity all over the world, in Cuba as well as in Nigeria and in Germany.
The “Obatala-Zyklus” was actually something like a sacrifice, a labor of love for my Orisha, on the occasion of my move to Ifá. I wrote it in German, because German happens to be my language, it’s a great language, and I speak it much better than any other. Writing in English or Spanish places me automatically in the position of a stranger. I don’t want to feel like that each time I write a religious text.
How important is Yorùbá language for you in your practice? As a Cuban babalawo, researcher and musician, who also knows about the language and its tonality, how do you make use of Lukumí? Are you following strictly Cuban traditions, or are you also "re-yorùbánizing" diaspora expressions?
It depends. Basically, I am using Cuban Lukumí text. What I definitely try to avoid are Spanish words. Then some passages are so obviously distorted that I have to do some research to put things right. Oral tradition is fine but can produce funny results after a long way. The worst mistakes, however, seem to come from the unsuccessful attempt to write down Lukumí text in libretas and copy from them. Where possible, I keep the text I learned from my padrino. When I feel uncapable of simply mimicking a text that I cannot make any sense of, that’s when the work starts. In this case I have no other choice than to compare with alternative versions and look words up in my Yorùbá dictionary. I wish the texts I learned in Cuba were tight and clean, but it isn’t always so.
Many of our readers live in other parts of the world, where Orisha communities are part of the daily life. How can they imagine Germany to be as the home of an Olorisha? You founded the group Ayé Ilù with singers, batá drummers and dancers. Is there an infrastructure, a vital exchange between different houses or traditions?
We have quite a few aborisha, olórisha and babalawo here, and of course I know some of them, Cubans as well as Germans. There is at least one network I know. Some people know and get along well with each other, so they share the ritual work.
My group Ayé Ilù was founded in 1994 and existed until 2005, so it preceded my own priesthood. It was officially and declaredly designed and announced as a cultural performance ensemble. However, woven into the group work, during rehearsals, or even on extra occasions like the days of the saints, I would sometimes invite the members for a meal or a lecture, and we would talk about the respective Orisha, or the religion in general. The money we earned with our performances was tiny because the ensemble was really big, like ten to twelve people. The preparation for each performance, which was always dedicated to one particular Orisha, used to take about a year. On each performance, somebody read patakines – I have to use the Spanish form here – and explained the nature of the Orisha to the audience. Also, there was always a table of attributes and typical offerings to the Orisha set, although there was no representation of any Orisha present. We played for the Orisha in his/her metaphysical form of existence. The Orisha was not supposed to come down, and he/she never did. We addressed him in the orun. For some of us, like myself, it was a semi-religious affair. Again, if you work for one year to perform once for 20 bucks each, it is practically a sacrifice. The whole thing did not bear any resemblance to a Cuban ceremony, but it was a clean and honest religious uttering of Orisha veneration for Germany at that time, without forcing anyone in who wanted to stay out.
Presently I am living here with my Orishas and my Ifá, but I don’t do any work with them. There are very few priests with whom I’d like to collaborate here. I feel best being on my own, which is unusual if not impossible in religious communities in the Americas. If my work as a musician allows it, I learn some odù or write an article. I’m a head man, a brain guy. I don’t see my task primarily in extensive ritual work. I am rather interested in the theology and cosmology. And I feel a strong bond to the batá. Someday I might also give consultas and perform simple ebo. But in the first place I have complied with Orúnmila by making Santo and Ifá. Now I have the aché, which nobody can take away from me, and I am the one to decide what to do with it, and when.
I think the research on Santería rituals influenced its performance practice. Through the state-run Orisha dance groups rhythms became played faster as usual, the role of the lead-singer was reduced and more emphasis put on the choir. Academic resources were important for the Afro-Cuban history. I guess you know every note from your transcriptions - have you ever encountered musical recordings and realized that your transcriptions have been used in the production of Orisha music projects? Do you think that your work, or the work of scholars, influenced the performance of Cuban Orisha music?
I might disagree with you here. When you are talking about Santería rituals, do you mean toques de santo? You know there are other rituals. Honestly, I cannot find any significant influence of ethnomusicology on ritual performance practice. And as the musicians working in folklore ensembles are generally informed by their ritual practice, the same is also true of these secular ensembles. The tendency to play everything faster, more flashy, and danceable has probably always been there. Ortíz reported it in the 1950s. Younger players are by nature constantly trying to challenge the rules and limitations set by their antecedents, and they have a greater desire to party. I don't think that musicological research has anything to do with that. Today, there is more freedom to improvise, like in Ñongo, and sometimes the actual toque is obscured in an overabundance of floreos. I witnessed one instance where the participants had a hard time to find their place for the choir phrase. There is a time to party, but some of the toques should be kept sencillo in my opinion. Drummers should be mature enough to know when to keep a solemn pace. However, without the urging and experimenting of the youth, nothing would ever evolve.
In folklore work, akpón and coro have to be equally accurate by musical standards. In a ritual setting, the participants (guests) are often either lazy, or their intonation is completely impossible, which is natural, because they are not trained vocalists. "Wrong-but-strong" is preferable over laziness, but you wouldn’t really put that on a stage. Also, a professional choir would often sing in two or more voices, not just in unison. The akpón, the solo singer, is the leader of the wemilere, and he has to have the vocal capacity and the ritual expertise to call down the Orisha and navigate the ceremonial development. The aesthetics that apply to ceremonial solo vocals are not necessarily the same for folkloric acts, but nevertheless the same singers are used in both areas. What is also different in folklore performances is the requirement to count measures and accompany a fixed choreography.
Any history profits from historiography, as it stores memory in written form. However, historians observe and describe. Their documentaries are not meant to feed back on the history itself. By the same token, I sincerely hope that Cuban singers follow their own oral tradition as they have done for centuries. If they use my book, I suggest they compare my notations and lyrics with the various versions that are in ritual use. I have only transcribed what was already there. I am certainly not stupid enough to try to teach Cuban singers their own songs. Chances are, however, that most songs largely correspond to my transcriptions. I do not know every note of each song I transcribed. I know of some choirs that use my book, but so far, I have not heard a recording that was clearly identifiable as being based on my transcriptions. Remember, I have not created these songs myself.
There is this article „Mode, Melody, and Harmony in Traditional Afro-Cuban Music: From Africa to Cuba“ by Peter Manuel and Orlando Fiol. They quote your transcriptions. The songs „Yemaya Asesu“ and „Kai kai kai“ are identified as a kind of “Catholic hymn” in its musical structure, a typical product of creole acculturation. Did you come across similar things when you were transcribing Lukumí music? Any influences of other ethnic styles, rhythmic concepts, Westernized harmonies, etc.?
I remember being contacted by either Peter Manuel or Orlando Fiol. To be honest, I was not really interested in the harmonic aspect of the songs. As I said, I just transcribed what was there. In the process I realized that the harmonic or modal character of the repertoire was quite multifaceted. However, I was not able to name the respective scales or chords back then, and even today I would have my problems. I have learned some harmonics lately, but it is simply not my daily business; so I’m glad that there are other people doing this work for me.
One might speculate that Yorùbá vocal music could have been influenced by European and Oriental music still in Africa. It wouldn’t make a difference. In Cuba, this is Lukumí music, no matter who influenced it where and when. I’m not sure whether the tonality of the songs gives enough indication of European or Creole origin. I don’t know about "Yemayá Asesú", but in fact, "Kai Kai Kai" seems to be regarded as an unwanted creole addition to the "pure" African heritage by some olórisha. Even more evident, however, is the creolization in songs with Spanish lyrics, like "Yeye, yeye ma wo con su’ manilla’ de oro".
I read on your other website - jazzpercussion.de - that you have bought your first Cuban batá drum set in 1988. At that time, I guess, hardly any German percussionist knew about Orisha. How did you become aware of this musical genre and Santería?
I was a founding member of the band Papaya, later re-named as Tremendo Cumban, likely the first Salsa and Son band in Hamburg. For a period, we even had the famous Jesús Guerra as a singer, who should be known to everybody who is familiar with Cuban music tradition. He lived in Hamburg at that time, and we played his hit "El tiburón" with him. Our pianist traveled to New York in 1981 and brought back two sets of conga drums and a pile of records, among them Giraldo Rodríguez’ "Afro – Tambores Batá" and the the first double LP of the Grupo Folklórico y Experimental Nuevayorquiño, which had two batá recordings on it. Also, Patato’s "Bata y Rumba" was available to us. I remember I noticed the batá intro to Irakere’s "Juana 1100". Perhaps, there was also the Conjunto Folklórico Nacional record with Jesús Pérez circulating.
Believe it or not; I wasn’t the first German batá player in 1988. Around 1983 I got in touch with a group of percussionists in the Frankfurt-Darmstadt area who had just learned a couple of rhythms from Jon Otis. One of them, Ralf Moufang, had a great set of Gon Bops batá. I was excited to see that it wasn’t impossible to reproduce the things I knew from the records. For more information, you can read my article "Re-Percussions of Añá in Europe" on my website www.jazzpercussion.de.
I decided that I would not play these rhythms without learning as much as possible about their religious background. The first books I read were Hubert Fichte’s "Xangó" and "Petersilie", in 1981. Around 1990 I read Luisah Teish’s "Jambalaya" and Migene Gonzalez-Wippler’s "Santería". I also had Fernando Ortíz’s "Africanía", which I had received as a present on my first journey to Havana in 1984, but my Spanish was not good enough to really make it a comfortable read. I remember being disappointed by the batá transcriptions in it, which bore but little resemblance to my recordings.
Over the years I became a researcher, solely based on literature, that also became gradually more serious. I was already accepting the whole package, not just the music only. However, actually becoming initiated was no option for myself until 2005.
Some years ago there existed a batá drums group on Yahoo, I remember the lively discussions, its archive is still accessible. You compiled a list of batá rhythms, the standard repertoire used in Havana’s Orisha rituals, it is published on your website eriwo.de. Today there are many musical notations of Oro Secos or Oro Cantados available. Other books deal with performance techniques, Cuban batá history or even biographies of drummers, I compiled most of them in the article “The Orisha drummer’s reading list”. Is there anything missing from your point of view? What would be a topic worth further research? What book would you like to read about Orisha music?
I miss the golden days of internet forums and newsgroups, pre-FB, believe me … What has not been covered so far are the toques cantados and especiales of the Matanzas tradition. Some of them are demonstrated in the "Lenguaje del tambor" DVDs produced by Tina Gallagher. There are so many great books out, and I can tell there is still another one to be published soon. Young drummers should listen more to different groups. I have seen drummers and entire groups outside of Cuba working exclusively off of books like mine or the ones you mentioned, which can lead to ridiculous results. YouTube is fine, too, but don’t forget good old drum lessons with a competent teacher. On the long run, there is no substitute for a visit to Cuba.
What I would like to check out are the complete batá recordings by Asch and Courlander for Folkways Records in 1940, the roots. There must be something more than the bit on the album "Cult Music of Cuba". But even now there is a plethora of recordings available to us. The only way to live up to this treasure is to learn, to practice and to play and sing. I even had a couple of Orisha dance lessons about 20 years ago, but I’m simply not a natural born dancer.
And drummers should seriously study the religion, know all the Orisha they are playing for. There are enough books on the market about that. You know what? I love heavy coffee-table books with a lot of color photos. I can spend hours just watching the pictures and study every detail. Visiting and interviewing drum makers about the secrets of their trade, and taking photos of every stage in the construction of several sets of batá from the tree to the mounting of the skins and the attaching of the fardela – a book like that would make a nice birthday present for me.
Thank you for this interview, Thomas!
You are welcome, Moussa!
Thomas’ website on music www.jazzpercussion.de
Thomas’ website on Yoruba religion www.eriwo.de