Tonight I had my first Iya bata lesson. It was the second lesson where a new and dedicated congolese drumming student came and joined us during our bata lesson. She’s been so dedicated her shoulder started have overuse issues, so she’s not playing bata but learning clave’. To cubans, learning clave’ figures right up there with breathing, so our cuban master teacher is delighted.
The Iya is the largest of the bata drum family , the Papa bear so to speak, though the Cubans call it the Mother. I’ve been playing the baby bear, or smallest bata drum, the Okonkulo for over a year. My teacher sat me on a chair, put a piece of carpet on my lap, tuned the Iya with a wrench and placed it on my lap and then took the strap and hooked it to one side of the Iya, passed it under the chair and hooked it to the other side. I was glad he stabilized me with it so the much larger and heavier drum didn’t roll off my lap.
When we started, I felt completely at sea. I have small hands with short fingers, and while I know my right hand is pretty strong, my left hand felt like it was tiny and made out of feathers. The Iya is leader, cues the other drums and has base tones. When my teacher plays the Iya, he does it with a lot of power, using his long sinewy arms and hands to great effect. Whatever he was thinking to have me play it is a mystery.
I floundered a lot at first, focusing on how to find a way to make my left hand make a decent strike. As usual, the teacher expected me to pick things up in no time at all. And he did his constant telling us all to “GO SLOW” when in fact we were not rushing, simply trying to get the timing of phrases correct. Invariably, he will say to not “go Fat”( fast) and then he will seem to do that very thing in the next instant. Slow for us is different than slow for him.
After some time of feeling pitifully inadequate and irritated at his exhortations, my left hand started to actually work better. This was after it stopped feeling like a feather and felt like raw hamburger. The Iya has basic grounding rhythm phrases but there is a lot of room for improvisation , and my teacher did not hesitate throwing in all kinds of riffs as he repeatedly demonstrated, sitting on top of the Iya on my lap.
I began to realize he was a bit excited and happier than usual, perhaps because of being able to have a new and dedicated student. The other person who has been a mainstay was playing the drum she is used to playing, and I slowly started to make progress.
Then he said that I was picking up the most difficult stuff fast. The new student heard him say this and repeated it and he was paying a lot of attention to me. I have spent so much time sitting and waiting while he worked with the other student and it used to really burn me. I’d sit there feeling bored, cheated and left out. But the reality is that cuban masters, even furiously demanding, perfectionistic ones, do not grow on trees, especially in Half Moon Bay. I’d come to believe I was learning other things and just accepted the situation the best I could.
But this turn of events was a real surprise. I know for a fact I have a genetic aptitude for melody and lyric memory, but I bolster that now with lots of hard work, listening and real humility. No amount of talent will sustain itself alone. I could see the other student was feeling left out and I could understand why. She had to sit and wait while he lavished attention on me and the newcomer.
I have learned to never assume I know how someone else who is drumming is going to feel and to resist getting invested in my own feelings and reactions, positive or negative and/or being caught up in other people’s. As difficult as that is, it leaves room for real satisfaction when something really good and right happens among the group or for me.
My cuban master rarely gives us any kind of praise. He will occasionally tell us we are doing OK. What is good about that is that we know if he does say anything we are playing correctly. This also means that when he is happy we are really doing it right and we can be confident in that.