Posts in Xangô

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Mestre Amen Santo and Mestre Val Boa Morte

(Mestre Amen Santo and Mestre Val Boa Morte)

Yesterday I had the most amazing rehearsal!

Working with Mestre Amen, and having known him for many years, I have come to learn and appreciate to expect the unexpected…

Since the beginning of the year, as you know, Mestre Amen and I have been working on building my repertoire of candomblé rhythms and songs. For the last several weeks, we have been working on a special public presentation to be performed at Capoeira Batuque’s annual batizado, or graduation ceremony taking place all this week and coming weekend.

I arrived at the new studio space of Brasil Brasil Cultural Center for our weekly meeting. We were supposed to be joined—for the first time since beginning this apprenticeship—by a few cohorts so that we could complete the drum section and run the program with a couple of dancers. These rhythms are properly executed only when played by four musicians playing percussion and singing, including three atabaques (drums) and one agogô (double bell).

I was expecting to see my fellow capoeira colleagues and longtime students of Mestre Amen joining us to complete the group for the rehearsal. Once inside the studio, I found Mestre Amen, and two visiting mestres, Mestre Val Boa Morte from Australia (Capoeira Filhos da Bahia), and Mestre Tonho Matéria from Salvador (Capoeira Mangangá). Both gentlemen are originally from Mestre Amen’s hometown of Salvador da Bahia and accomplished musicians. Mestre Tonho, in fact, has even performed with the legendary Bahian groups Ara Kêtu and Olodum.

While we waited for the dancers to arrive the mestres began to play around on the drums. Still thinking that the colleagues I was originally expecting were going to arrive at any moment, I approached the drums. Then, in his most typically casual manner, Mestre Amen asks me to sit at one of the drums to play the part. Mestre Tonho and Mestre Val then flank me on both sides, each taking a drum with Mestre Amen commanding the agogô. I could almost see a smirk on Mestre Amen’s face as they simply launched right into the repertoire that we would be performing for the batizado.

Mestre Amen Santo, Mestre Tonho Matéria, Beto González, Mestre Val Boa Morte, and friend

(Mestre Amen Santo, Mestre Tonho Matéria, Beto González, Mestre Val Boa Morte and Salamata Diallo)

For the next hour and a half, I had the privilege of accompanying three mestres, all masters of their tradition. Aside from the occasional gaffe, I believe I actually held my own.

(playing samba de caboclo)

(playing for Xangô)

I couldn’t have asked for a better lesson! 


Our apprenticeship continues at new Brasil Brasil Cultural Center

Beto and Mestre Amen

(Beto González and Mestre Amen Santo)

I am thrilled that Mestre Amen’s BBCC/Capoeira Batuque has found a new home. The new space is about twice the size of the old location, beautiful, airy, and bustling with energy and creativity! Mestre Amen and I continued our lessons after a pause for him to pursue the new space, travel, and make preparations for the upcoming capoeira graduation ceremony in June.

The break allowed me some time to reflect on what I have learned so far, where I would like to go, and to realize how little I still know. The candomblé repertory is so vast, I will only be scratching the surface after this year’s apprenticeship. I have also confirmed to myself that learning the basic rhythms of the canon is only part of the process, and it is actually the easy part. After learning the various rhythms, the context for which each one is played (or for which specific orixá, or deity, a rhythm is played for), and learning two of the three parts, there is still the lead parts and the vocals to consider. As I have found (probably not to Mestre Amen’s surprise), even the basic repertory takes many, many months to learn, and years to master.

The candomblé rhythms are played on a set of three atabaques, which are conical drums of West/Central African origin. They are not unlike the familiar congas, and in fact, we often use congas instead for reasons I will outline below. The complete set of atabaques are tuned in three pitches (as are congas). However, where the congas are sized differently by the diameter of the shell but the same height, the atabaques are sized differently in both diameter and height. The atabaque (low to high or large to small) are called rum (pronounced “hoom”), rumpi (“hoom-PEE”), and rumlê or just (“hoom-LEH”).


(set of Umbanda atabaques, from left to right: lê, rumpi, and rum, next to a conventional conga drum) 

Playing with congas, as opposed to the traditional atabaques, allows us to sit more comfortably, whereas we would have to stand or sit in high stools to play the atabaques. The congas also allow for easier tuning, and better sound control. The artisanal atabaques in the photo were purchased in Rio some years ago and are actually from the Umbanda tradition, which is a highly syncretic variant of candomblé that fuses Catholicism, Kardecian Spiritism, and indigenous lore, and is sung in Portuguese. Umbanda is much more prominent in Rio than in Mestre Amen’s hometown, Salvador da Bahia, and thus why I was able to easily find these rather than the atabaques found in Bahia, which are a bit smaller in diameter. Aside from the use of congas we also often resort to the use of regular drumsticks instead of the traditional agdavi, sticks made from long, thin branches. Commercial drumsticks are more readily available, are consistent in size, and don’t break as easily. There’s actually another interesting reason for using thicker, heavier drumsticks. Playing the rhythms with these is harder and more fatiguing to your arms, but when you switch to the thin and light agdavi, they feel so light!

The parts I have been learning are played on the small and medium drum, rumpi and . The lowest pitched rum is reserved for playing the lead parts of the master ogãn (master drummer). Though I am still far from being able to partake in learning the lead parts, on occasion, Mestre Amen insists that I try playing the lead parts. For the rhythms that are played with sticks (the Yoruba-based rhythms for the most part) both the rumpi and lê parts are identical, with the lead rum doing variations based on the orixá’s (interpreted by the dancer) movement. For the rhythms that are played with the hands (the Candomblé de Angola rhythms, or the secular rhythms of Bantu origin such as samba de roda) there are usually distinct parts for both the rumpi and lê, with the rum again doing the lead parts.

In order one to learn the lead parts, it is essential to watch how dancers interpret the movement of the orixás. I have sat in on drums (playing support parts only, never the lead drum) for dance classes many times in the past. But now that I am more consciously trying to learn the rhythmic patterns that echo the footsteps and gestures of the orixás, I have watched dancers with a different perspective.

Shelby Williams-Gonzalez  Shelby Williams-Gonzalez

(Shelby Williams-González dancing orixás)

I am looking forward to our upcoming performance at Capoeira Batuque’s batizado (“baptism” or graduation ceremony) later this month. I will be joining several of my musical cohorts and capoeira colleagues with Mestre Amen in a repertory dedicated to the orixás Xangô, Iansã, Oxum, Ogum, Omolu, and Oxóssi.