About the Iyesa Drums

Iyesa Modu

This Chapter was founded in Matanzas City in 1854. It was created by twenty-one babalawos, officers of the cult of Orula, divinity that has the power of guessing.

Those twenty one babalawo founders were all from Africa, who the slavery teatrise had rooted out from their Iyesa land, being gathered by luck once they were free. And they found and joinedeach other in Matanzas in another chapter that for some time were gathering men arriving from Yoruba region: the Santa Teresa Chapter. It was this chapter the one that baptized the banner of the new San Juan Bautista Chapter that started gathering black Iyesa men.

Today (1977) it is presided by Juan de Dios Garcia, son of another president, Ciprian Garcia, who in his turn was the son of the first King of the Chapter. The new chapter grew out under Oggun's advocation, a powerful warrior, and owner of all iron objects, cutting edges and the forge. This Oggun arere is kept in the house at Salamanca 187, Matanzas, represented by the image of San Juan Bautista, to whom is compared since the phenomenon of syncretism took place in America where slave shipments came, intermingling their various African religious beliefs with the Catholic from the Spanish colony.

There existed other chapters integrated by black Iyesa, and among them there were two in Havana that have already disappeared. Up to today we know that only this San Juan Bautista from Matanzas is functioning.

Grandsons and great-grandsons of those twenty-one babalawo founders integrate and keep today the old traditions from Iyesa land modest kingdom one time located in Yoruba land to the West of the important city of Oyo, that exerted a powerful hegemony over the other Yoruba groups.

It is preserved in our native tradition that in Iyesa land there were two capitals, one was Ulecha, from where women came from, and the other was Ibocun, land were men came from. Ulecha was a rural land while Ibocun was an urban land. According to our information, from Iyesa land come divinities like Osain, guard or keeper of the house's entrance, besides hunter Ochosi, Oggun, Orula and Ochun.

In general Iyesa music is, or at least as is kept among us, much less simpler and unified than those of Bata Drums, and even from the music that is accompanied by guiros (chekeres) those instruments that are covered with a mesh of beads or seeds that rattle when they are shaken up.

These instruments are more powerful in sound than any other ensembles of Yoruba origin. Three two skin drums integrate them. The biggest one is called caja or mayor. These drums are considered as having a genuine line Iyesa of Ancestors. A subsequent Cuban native addition is the drum that is placed afterward, of a low frequency sound called bass, and which is only played in certain beats for determined saints.

Three more percussive instruments are added to this group. Two cencerros or aggogos of different volume levels and sonic qualities, having the first a more brilliant sound and the second a somewhat more muffled sound, with a third, used when funeral chants are sung, a small guirito (small chekere) covered with a mesh of beads or seeds.

The green color of the drums' body is the green color of Oggun arere. Green is also the suit with which is dressed the image of San Juan Bautista, and they trim it with palm trees' leaves chosen with a very deep green. Groups of green bushes also adorn the green-painted wardrobe where Oggun is kept. This divinity is found in those three-legged old iron kettles where the rest of the attributes are placed in.

The bodies of these Iyesa drums are made of cedar, the skins from goat leather and the stretchers with canamo isleno (special hemp). Let us take due note of the cordage system. It is the most frequent N type or zigzag, but instead of having a direct link, that is, instead of linking directly on the rim of the stretched skin formed by a willow ring, the zigzag or N-stretcher is hooked to a line of bands passing theough the rim of tension and the drum of the body, without intercrossing, in the same way that it is done in other types of drums from Africa. The numbers of these secondary bands do not have any ritual significance, and they are distributed without much precision over the skin circumference. The tension is completed by means of a transversal cord closing the Ns, holding them in pairs until attaining the desired tension.

All this operation of pulling the drum, that is, to check the skin and stretch it, is done with dry cords, making the skins somewhat moist. After that, the procedure is to wet the cords, so when they get dry, the skin stretches even more until it looks like a piano. If a greater rituality is requires, the skin is sprinkled with a mouthful of aguardiente, so the voice of the drum becomes more comminatory.

In order to finish the adjustment of the sound they next proceed to force the tension by means of strikes done with a special hammer. These drums as all sworn or sacred drums, cannot be stretched by means of heat, because in them reside a determined power, a sort of divinity, capable of ordering, of begging, of talking, that they jealously keep their secret, from which only knows the person who constructed the drum, with all the rites that a timber has to ho through to become the body of a sworn drum.

Also, as they are sworn drums, they must eat, and the officials offer it a cock, black or indio, some coconut, tender corncob and aguardiente. They should also be offered one or more flaming candles while they are eating. Cencerros, the guirito and the sticks with which they beat the drums, form part of this ritual meal too, which is offered with determined invocatory prayers.

Once finished the meal, they proceed to clean and stretch the skins. The number of sticks, oppa-ilu, with which they are struck, is larger than the ones that are going to be used due to a matter of virtuosity, because each performer chooses the ones he prefers according to size and weight. With Iyesa drums, as with all our antecedent folklore music coming from Africa, it occurs that always combining the same type of drums, of the same family or of the same order, the drum player tries to fill with sound the surroundings, as if preocuppied or paid attention to the matter of having each drum with a sound that clearly differentiates from the rest, leaving on purpose different timbre sounding in the group. With bata and Olokum drums this can be easily noted because they sound with a wider and richer frequency spectrum as they try to get different timbres with their playing techniques.

With drums like these, on the contrary, on which they are not played hitting different parts of the skins to get different sounds from them, the total sound spectrum is reduced. on these drums it is noticed a greater sound separation between the caja and the other two drums.

The other Iyesa drums have a well-differentiated function. Between the second and the third drum a second plane is formed with regular and constant rhythmic embellishments, that is to say, they have a metric function.

The bass, that fourth drum added in Cuba, almost always is played together with the caja, supporting it, surely because the former caja players did not have the eloquence and warmth in expressing the tongue that practically today is kept exclusively ritualistically, far as they are now if not in biological generations, in spiritual generations from that first drum player of the very Iyesa land, who must have appeared as one of the founders of this chapter.

The same thing happens with the two cencerros aggogos that are coupled in only one rhythmic figuration with an intention or expression different from those of the drums.

The rhythmical designs of the cencerros, limited to two different formulas or modalities, as far as we have been able to know up to now, also form regular and short designs, but with very short values and with an expressively comminatory sense. All these rhythmic figurations, although articulated among them with great regularity, obey to different expressive intentions, and are articulated in a way that rhythmic structures are superimposed, very much differentiated within the binary regularity proper of every music that closely has the dance made on marked steps.

In these Iyesa beats, drum players distinguish two great differences and that is what determines that the beats can be divided in two groups. First, the beats called by them strong beats, rough, with a lot of noise, like the beats to Eleggba and Oggun, and secondly like the beat to Ochosi, described as a lighter one, "they sound like little rumbas", we are told. Some of the beats are more determined, quick, with more segmented rythmic figurations and more precise timing; the other ones are more flexible, of a less segmented rhythm.

We are able to notice that after a song has been started, with a base offered by the soloist singer apwon or akorin the caja comes in, indicating many times the rhythm to the second singer, joining in afterwards the rest of the instruments. The bajo always follows the vaja. Once a beat for a determined saint has begun, the same rhythmic figurations are maintained, unless the singer stops singing, holding out then the sequence of the beat. With bata beats it does not happen like that because it is not used to interrupt the march of a saint to invoque different passages of the life of the divinity.

They possibly are customs adopted in Cuba or brought form the african land. A choir vasallo answers, singing, the soloist apwon who always uses a constant motive a phrase taken from the main singing. This alternation of a soloist with the choir is one of the most characteristic style elements of the Cuban music.