Juan Carlos Blanco Riera's Apprenticeship Blog
Menelike Turner, Apprentice (right) and Reynaldo Atesiano Matos (left) playing Batá drums for Afro-Cuban dance class taught by Juan Carlos Blanco, master artist
Menelike & Juan Carlos have been deeply involved in their studies of Afro-Cuban Yoruba Batá drumming throughout this apprenticeship process. I’ve had the opportunity to observe several classes over the past few months. The overall feeling of rehearsals tends to be relaxed with a lot of smiles and laughing even though Juan Carlos maintains a very high expectation for correct technique and timing. This video represents a perspective in to the process from learning rhythms with songs to playing them for live dance rehearsals and classes.
-- Roxanne Rojas de Blanco, Blog Editor
February 2010- “Learning a New Language/ Aprendiendo un Nuevo Idioma”
This month focused on developing the basic techniques for playing Batá.
What is surprising to you so far?
Menelike: How similar but different this drumming is from West African. It’s like learning a new but familiar language. It takes getting used to, especially the relationship between the three drums: the Iyá (or lead drum), the Itotele (middle drum) and Okonkolo(small drum). Rhythms are very interesting because they are complicated yet simple. It’s a humbling experience, like learning to speak all over again.
Juan Carlos: Classes are good. Menelike is learning the foundation right now. Sometimes he gets frustrated but he never stops trying. This is the most important thing.
April 2010- Beginnings/ Comienzos
This month focused on the way rhythms begin. There are very specific calls that the lead drum initiates and is responded by the other two drums.
What has been hard about this month of classes?
Menelike: I’ve learned that the beginnings are crucial to start these rhythms correctly. We have had to practice this through hours and hours of repetition. Once we start, I can keep things going pretty good. But it’s the starting that is hardest for sure. What has been easy for you? Menelike: I have a good sense of rhythm so once I get going I can zone into a groove.
Juan Carlos: It takes time to learn the calls to each rhythm. I try to show Menelike by singing the melody with my voice like my teachers did for me. Also, I make him start over if he makes any mistakes until he gets it right.
May-June 2010- Deeper Conversations/ Conversaciones mas Profundas
These months have been dedicated to refining the conversations that take place between the Iyá and Okonkolo drums. Once a rhythm initiates correctly there are several calls and responses that should take place between these two drums that are called conversations. Menelike has been working on the rhythms for various Yoruba Orishas (deities) including: Eleguá (trickster messenger of the Orishas), Oshún (Goddess of love and richess who lives in the river), Changó (God of thunder and King of Oyo), Ogún (God of metals and work), Oyá (Warrior goddess of the tempest), Babaluaye (God of health & agriculture), and Yemaya (Universal mother goddess of the ocean).
What are the most important lessons for you this month?
Menelike: I’m working hard on learning how the rhythms and the songs connect. I still can’t sing while I play because I am focused on getting the drumming right. Also, I’m learning how do the two drums (iyá & okonkolo) talk to each other while the rhythm flows. This part is really special part of Batá drumming.
What’s it like to play for dancers? Is it different for you?
Menelike: Yes, it actually helps me to play better because I can understand the whole picture. You know, how things fit together. If the rhythm isn’t right then the dance doesn’t look right. Dancers also give us more energy when we play for them- that feels good!
July 2010- A Little Break/ Tomando un Descansito
Menelike took some time away from this project to focus on his family but will be back to his lessons and performances in August.
August 28, 2010: Performance for Noche Cubana @the World Beat Cultural Center
Menelike will perform with visiting master artist Miguel Bernal, former lead drummer for the renowned Havana folkloric company Raices Profundas.
September 25, 2010: Performance for Noche Cubana @the World Beat Cultural Center
Menelike will debut as lead Batá drummer for Omo Aché at this monthly celebration of Cuban music, dance and culture.