Ensemble Plays Afro-Cuban Beats

Eight students, each wearing a white shirt with a red kerchief tied around the neck, gathered around the red
and black batá drums in Pomona College’s Afro-Cuban Drumming Ensemble performance. The ensemble lit up an otherwise chilly and damp night in College’s Thatcher Music Building on Dec. 1 with a performance showcasing a variety of rhythms, call-and-response pieces and building tempos. 

Director Joe Addington began the event with a few remarks to prepare the audience for the night. The culminating project of Pomona’s Afro-Cuban Music Ensemble class, the evening provided an opportunity for students to both show off the skills they learned over the course of the semester and perform with the special musical guests Lázaro Galarraga and Jesús Lorenzo
Peñalver, as well as Kati Hernandez, a dancer. Galarraga is considered by many to be a master of his field, known as Regla de Ocha or Santería.  

“We are lucky to have him with us
today,”Addington said.

The music featured during the
performance, and central to Regla de Ocha
is the Orisha, or that which praises deities or gods. The first
piece was played in the Arara tradition, praising the Orisha Elegua or Afra, the Orisha of crossroads.

“This is a very complex rhythm,” Addington said. “It’s amazing what the students were able to learn and
accomplish, only meeting once every week this semester.”

Four drummers played the largest
batá drums, entering one at a time and gradually forming a more and more
complex rhythm. The students who were not drumming sang by the side,
forming a call and response with Galarraga and Peñalver at the lead.

“I thought it
was really cool,” said Emily Scottgale PO ’17, who attended the performance. “I like how they integrated outside performers with the student
drummers.”

The infectious rhythm of the drums
had nearly all of the audience members nodding and dancing in their seats, and the
excitement did not die down with the end of the first
piece.

Next was an exercise in stick
control, in which the performers started with a simple rhythm, adding complexities and gradually increasing the tempo along the way. The students had completed this drill in the course, so the performance was almost like a class period with an added audience. 

Throughout the next pieces,
Hernandez danced alongside the drummers to represent the
different Orishas being praised in the songs: Elegua in red and black, Ochún
in a yellow dress with a fan and Chango
in red and white.

During the piece praising Chango, the drummers began on batá drums and then performed a
difficult switch in the middle of the piece to the Guiro style, played on beaded gourds called Shekeres.

The entire performance was characterized by complexity.

“It looks easy, but it’s not,” Addington said.

Those challenges were what
appealed to many who took the class, including Miguel Pulido PZ ’18. He was featured in a solo during the Cha Cha Cha demonstration, in which he and the rest of the performers sang from Guantanamera.

“What’s really great about this class is that it allows you to
explore a new and incredibly complex way of playing music, which involves
playing a different rhythm with each hand,” Pulido said.

The last piece was performed in the
rare style of Olokun, the Orisha of
the deep ocean. According to Addington, the style and the rhythms were very
rare and were taught to him by a teacher who passed away five years ago.

Despite the complexity of the rhythms and
the task, the music remained joyous, and the audience was held captive for the
entire hour-long performance.

“It provides you with such a
different realm of music than what is normally offered at schools,” Lizzy
Freedman PZ ’18 said. “Playing with other people is really special, and it really opens you up to a lot of new experiences. We are really lucky.”

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