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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Batacumbele, "Con un Poco de Songo"

"Con un Poco de Songo"
Disco Hit (1981)

1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die

For those coming off of the recently written entry on Ray Barretto, hold up. Yes, Batacumbele is another Puerto Rican ethnic ensemble. No, it's not just another Salsa outfit. Barretto was a whiz on the conga, but his being raised in America led him to practice a more jazz-influenced sound. Batacumbele and lead percussionist Giovanni Hidalgo not only work in the African polyrhythms present in Puerto Rican music, but they also work in a healthier dose of ethnic tradition than Barretto did.

The central element to the ethnic identity in Batacumbele's music is the Batá drum, a Nigerian instrument brought over to Cuba during the slave trade. This percussion instrument is designed in a similar fashion to a conga, with two heads on opposite sides of an hourglass shape. Batá drums have one distinguishably larger head however. Members of the Cuban Santeria faith used the drums to convey messages to spirits by playing different assigned rhythms. Moon exaggerates the stir caused by Batacumbele in the early '80s for using the instruments in a secular purpose, as the instrument had already been played on Cuban and Puerto Rican radio stations from the '30s onward.

Although the group uses the drum (alongside other traditional percussion instruments, including the conga) in a "profane" manner, Hidalgo and company don't forget the original intent of the drum: to send messages. Whether or not Hidalgo is beating out a message to some spirit is beyond me, but his rhythms take on an essence of morse code during passages like 2:30-3:30 during the track "A La I Ole," and group vocals add to the ethereal feel of a religious ceremony on songs like opener "Se le Ve."

Batacumbele is far from a tribal get-together however. The group incorporates nearly as many jazz instruments as Barretto's group does. The flute, oboe, trombone and piano all take turns on passages throughout the album. Perhaps the most off-putting moment is on "Danzon Don," when the song opens with a regular ol' snare drumroll.

Ultimately, the difference in timbre between a conga and a Batá drum is going to be lost on most listeners. That's alright. A polyrhythm is a polyrhythm, and whether or not you can identify the source is not going to prevent you from shaking your hips to "Con un poco de songo."

INTERESTING FACT: The Batá drum, originally being a sacred instrument, comes with many guidelines for its construction and usage. The head of the drum can only be made with the skin of a male goat or non-castrated deer. Drummers were to wash themselves, pray and abstain from sex in the period leading up to a playing ceremony.

"A La I Ole"

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