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The return of the drummer

The old man finished his lunch and stared out for a while out through the wide window of the paladar. It was just about noon and the restaurant was at this time of the day only half full. . Salsa music played at a reasonable noise level, from a radio with tinny speakers, on a nearby shelf. He drank the little coffee left in the cup and lit a cigar. The cigar was a new habit.  How and when he had picked up the habit he was not entirely sure. It was sufficient nevertheless that the object fitted the environment. Did he arrive here in Havana the previous day? Two days ago?  Three days ago?  He could never really remember. He was constantly in transit. Next week he could be in Brasilia, or Caracas, or even back home. He puffed gently on the cigar. It was an expensive cigar, illegal in the country from where he had just recently transited.  Again puffed  on the cigar;  the activity seemed to relax him.

            The old man finally got up from the rattan chair of the paladar; he left money on the table as payment for the food and leisurely strolled out into the street. He wasn’t sure how much money he put on the table, but it certainly was more than he was required to pay

Gracias Señor, the proprietor said; but the old man was not listening. He had more urgent missions.  His brown suit was dusty, as was his black brogue shoes. He took a glance at his reflection from a wide glass front of a shop. He definitely was remarkably much stronger than his physical appearance suggested. How old was he really? The old man was never one for paying attention to how good he looked. Where was he staying? His hotel was probably somewhere around the corner or hundreds of yards away. Just like the matter of his itinerary and his age, this also was not at this time important. The old man loved to roam. He paused for a while to read a colourful poster which advertised the annual Fiesta del Tambor, or Drum Party.  He nodded appreciatively; he definitely had come here at the right time of the year. The old man loved happy dance and drum parties.

In the street, all around him, the buildings were crumbling, succumbing to the harshness of salt in the humid air, the temperamental weather, and to overpopulation. This was not a local problem, he knew it was the curse of the entire country. The dilapidated pastel buildings stood alongside vintage cars dating back to the 50s. Compared to the glitz of Miami where he had just left; he felt like he was in a time-warp. Not that this was a disconcerting feeling, because he was a veteran time traveller and he was used to time warps.

; Here on the street of Havana Vieja, he was a yuma, a foreigner as everyone who saw him would instantly know because of his complexion. He was black but not in the local lustre as in these parts. Nevertheless he had walked this particular street before, last night maybe, last year maybe; again he couldn’t be very sure. Or was it maybe because it looked so representative of all the other cramped quarters in the city, from where one could frequently hear the welcoming noises of the tamboreros , skilful drummers playing their sacred instruments  in Yoruba Santería ceremonies. . Here, in these parts, the energy was real and for the old man the energy was infectious.

The music which emanated from the many dwellings in these parts and indeed all over the island, told a story of the mixed heritage and cultures especially the African and the Spanish elements. The African influence, most notable in the percussion, came from Yoruba slaves brought to the island several centuries before. Drums, presided over all the religious ceremonies in these parts. They were the mediums through which the syncretised Santería religion , summoned the Orisa, the   manifestations of the supreme divinity. But the old man was not here for religion. In the place where he came from, he was religion.

In a house along the street, a tambor, a ceremonial gig was in progress. The old man was drawn by the unmistakable voice of the Bata drums: whether he heard the drums played in America as part of jazz ensemble, or for Samba in Brazil, or for Salsa in Cuba, or as  ritual music in the native Yoruba enclaves of West Africa . Here  in the street of Havana where he was presently roaming,   the voice of the Bata drums was as ever unmistakable and arresting. The Bata drums were one of his favourite drums.

The door was open. The old man stood in the doorway for a while quietly observing. As he resolutely stepped inside, his presence froze all activities into silence. This was not merely because he was an uninvited intruder; but more because they could sense a presence that was nearly unmistakably divine.

            ‘Can I play for a while?’ he asked one of the tamboreros, in fluent Spanish.  The person recognised this as a demand rather than a request. 

            The old man took off his jacket, carefully folded and placed it on the floor. Then he sat in a chair and cradled the big drum given to him lengthwise in his laps. He struck both of the covered ends hard .one with his open palm of his hand. The other with a strip of hard leather, testing the timbre. He loved the way the drum responded and he gleefully nodded his head. Then he began to play. The other tamberos watched stupefied for many minutes. Never had they seen the drum played with such dexterity, never had they heard the voice and parables of the Bata drum come so clear and so complex. Then one by one they joined with their own drums.  The dancing was fast and furious; each dancer thoroughly soaked in a mysterious ambient spirit. The old man played for nearly an hour before stopping.

            He stood, gave the drum back to his benefactor, wore his jacket and bowed to the entire audience, like a maestro at the conclusion of an astounding stage performance. Then the old man stepped out of the house, ignoring the loud ovation behind him.

            ‘Padre, where are you from; what is your name?’, one yelled after him.

            The old man paused; but only for a few moments.

Mi nombre es Ayangalu. My name is Ayangalu’, he replied without looking back, continuing his journey, faster away along the road.

            The entire gathering came out into the street to watch him go. Faster and faster the old man walked each step he took like the thudding sound of the Bata drum. Faster and faster he walked, until he seemed at last to dissolve away into the ocean of Havana’s topsy-turvy urban landscape.

From The Bata Dancer – a nonel by Rotimi Ogunjobi