Last night I got to dive back into the Iya bata drum again. This is a huge change and challenge for me, because I’ve been playing the smallest and highest bata drum, the Okonkulo, for over a year. I’ve been pushed to my utmost limits doing so, have paid some dues in red, ripped up hands, pain, tears, extreme anger and sheer grit big time. The Okonkulo is mostly a timekeeper, essential for the trio, but it does not lead, and most certainly does not play improvisational riffs like the Iya. My cuban master calls the Iya the “mother” drum.I think of it as the Big Daddy because of the intensive way he plays it.
My teacher, as ferociously cuban/ perfectionistic as ever, has delighted me with actually smiling and demonstrating his happiness at the relatively shorter time it takes for him to teach me the correct pieces for the Iya, and this has caused a new imbalance in our little group. I have to use more aggression physically and emotionally to play the Iya, thus I am more stirred up and less restrained as I was playing the Okonkulo.
The other student, strong on the itotele now has to do what I’ve spent wearisome hours doing on the Okonkulo for over a year: playing the same thing over and over again while someone else gets all the attention she used to get. There is also having to simply sit and do nothing.
The new student has decided she will take cajon lessons separately from the master, in order to compensate for her feeling of powerlessness of being low on the bata class pecking order. The itotele player thinks she’s good enough now to lobby for controlling the drumming agenda and directing the teacher what we play and for how long. There is a great temptation here for me to get both very threatened and riled up by this, I can see it coming.
I’m still blown away that I have this opportunity at all. I need to find a way to get over that disbelief, as it is a real obstruction. I’m thrilled my cuban master believes in me, and stunned that my left hand is actually showing promise with the precise, snapping chops required. I know I have the ear, and the ability to correctly pickup the rhythmic delivery, sing and play. There is also the fact that the Iya I am playing is a borrowed instrument that could be taken away at any time.
While my drumming comrade’s itotele bata drum skill and stamina are increasing, her capacity to retain overall complex orisha song rhythm melodies correctly is not high.
Yet there would never have been a bata class without her dedication and commitment to showing up and bring a full set of good bata drums for us to play, which I am most grateful for.