Tonight I got the cuban master all to myself because the other student is out of town. I was handed the largest bata drum. I strapped it around my butt, and laid it across my lap. I’m starting to know a riff or two, so I began whacking it with a bit of confidence because it’s not so alien and hard for me as when I started playing it not so long ago.
The good feeling I had from having a little confidence was short lived, soon crushed by my teacher. He picked an Iya phrase from an orisha song about Ogun, the Yoruban warrior/iron entity, worked me on it repetitively, and coldly nitpicked me to death with it. I actually did quite well because my hand and focus skills are increasing, but I was not cut a second of slack. Nothing I was doing was good enough though I was doing exceptionally well.
I rarely speak back to my teacher, even when I think he’s being unfair, usually just keep trying, but soon he had me snarling at him because he repeated stuff I understood as though I didn’t, and criticized my efforts beyond anything reasonable, even as I was improving. He has a way of using a bellicose, exaggerated scorn to rail on something at times which becomes humiliating and insulting.
This went on for some time, and I had a moment of sheer hate about how he was treating me arise. This is always the edge: when his ruthless perfectionism begins to approach the point of no return. I did not blow up, I did not try harder, having already done all I could, I simply continued and finally the torture stopped.
He picked up the Iya, handed me the middle sized bata or itotele to play. I never ever get to play the itotele, because it is the express territory of the other student, who has to fight hard to learn and take a lot of heat. After getting stronger on the Iya and being put through the ringer, I had power and even some skill to spare on the itotele’. Once again I had that flash of satisfaction, for my teacher began playing the Iya and using his considerable experience, power and creativity to go to town on it, because I’m steady and not so bad on the itotele’.
And once again he put me in the catbird seat of searing pressure to play perfectly. A sequence I’ve never played was now run through relentlessly. I know the itotele’ rhythms by ear well, having been forced to sit not playing and listening for long class hours while he chiseled them into the other student’s brain over and over again. But someone yanking you back and spurring you at the same time over miniscule, fanatic adjustments occludes melody memory and rendered me into a floundering idiot. I fought my way through, once again, survived. The lesson ended abruptly with a sudden silence. I was offered tea, drank it and took my leave.
I have next to no idea who my cuban master thinks I am. I can’t begin to fathom him or anything he might feel or think in relation to me and my bata playing. I’ve gotten an exceptional drumming education in a very short amount of time. The real price of it is never being able to take anything for granted and not knowing if I am ever going to be able to do anything with it or enjoy it. And I cannot argue with Mr. Cuban fanatic’s ability to get results.