Cuba Trip Info

Art, Politics, and an Education in Havana

ENA Update 2005

ENA Update

The National Art School in Havana, February, 2006

by Don Skoog

     The still-unfinished Music building is called el gusano (the worm) by everyone at La Escuela Nacional de Arte (ENA). Its winding hallway slinks around the perimeter and off into the fields where no one goes. Normally, I take my batá lessons at Myra’s house, across from Casa Fina, but this year we were forced to move to el gusano because Myra’s neighbors were complaining about the noise. From gusano I can see the Hotel Palco through a curtain of foliage. That’s where we stay, just across the street yet far from the lives of the students who practice here.
    I prefer the hallway to the classrooms, whose curved walls meet the vaulted ceiling at small windows, barred like jail cells. To me, they feel like the dungeons of some ancient Spanish castle––striking but not comfortable. It’s a new building, some forty years old, which has aged before its time. To walk its halls is to live its story, and I love taking my lessons here.

   My teacher, Alejandro Carvajal, sits on the low, stone wall, smoking a cigarette while I unfold a ten-page batá score. I’ve taped the pages together and anchor the edges with my water bottle and backpack so it won’t blow away in the breeze. He always smiles when I’m fussing with my papers. He knows I need them but he just can’t seem to take it seriously. He teaches me patterns––calls and responses––not technique. To him, the melodies of the drums are echoes of the divine. To me, they are a puzzle to be solved. He imparts them to me as language, but I perceive them as rhythm, so there is impediment in the exchange. He hears the words from the beginning of the sentence, but I hear the rhythm from the beginning of the measure. It’s always a problem, and so we must compromise.
    My other problem is that I’m trying to write out the toques while I’m still learning them. Since my understanding is limited my notation is inaccurate, but as I encompass each rhythm the paper becomes more meaningful. Alejandro is interested in the process too. It’s foreign to the way he learned them but he’s become both accustomed and invested in the idea. After all, both student and teacher should learn from the lesson.
    Sometimes, I bring other students to study with him. It helps him, them, and me. He makes some money, they learn some batá, and I get to watch him teach. They struggle with the same issue. While he starts at the beginning of the melodic exchange, they try to start at the downbeat, which is often in the middle of the underlying phrase. Or they start in the middle, which they perceive as the beginning. The misunderstanding makes everyone crazy because they don’t know why it’s a problem, and it’s hard to explain. As I watch my countrymen suffering through the lesson I’m struck by how much everyone has learned just to where they can bridge the gap. And while we will never be Cuban, or he American, together we mold an understanding that creates common ground.

   It is shocking to realize how many batá patterns there are, and how complicated they can be. Look at it this way: a new student starts with a simple call and response (patterns with names like Obanlá). Having mastered it you think “not so bad” until you find out that this call and response can be one small part of a larger toque that can have as many as twelve sections. (A toque is not just a rhythm. It’s a set piece which can be reasonably simple or ridiculously complicated, depending on its structure.) Three different drums and twelve sections, that’s thirty-six separate rhythms (not counting the many variations played by the largest drum) in one toque. “Still not too bad,” you think, until you discover that the batá drummers medley these larger toques into even larger sets. The set I’ve spent the last several years on is called the oru seco which contains salutes to twenty-two orishas (Santería gods) that can consist of as many as twenty-five separate toques––some short, some really long––that segue one into the next. My best guess is that the oru seco represents about twenty-five percent of the toques played in Cuba. It’s no wonder no one has written them all down.
   According to Alejandro, in Havana there are different batá lineages whose drummers have developed their own playing styles within the larger tradition, and there is some variation within each lineage. If that isn’t enough, the city of Matanzas has its own batá tradition, different from Havana. To move there would be to start over.

   Alejandro is a tall man. When he teaches he leans over you, playing the drum backwards from the other side. He stares you in the eye like a snake charmer. It’s hard to look away. You can tell how well you’re doing by the expression on his face. At times, he’ll wrinkle his nose at you (the Cuban sign for “What?”) as if you just spoke Chinese on his talking drum. He’s very patient, correcting mistakes and guiding you back onto the groove until the patterns lock together and the melody begins to sing. Then, and only then, he smiles.

My goals this trip were to revise my transcriptions of the oru seco and to interview Alejandro. The transcriptions took up all our time, so the interviews will have to wait, but we did finish this round of revisions (a process so endless it seems a permanent part of my life). It took five trips to complete the transcriptions. Last time we finished them, this time we revised them, next time we’ll be done, I hope.
   The next day, Alejandro and two of his students, an Argentinean and a French kid, played the entire oru seco while I recorded it. This time, I sat on the low, stone wall, watching his face as he moved seamlessly from rhythm to rhythm, raising his eyebrows and nodding to me at a certain part, his expression clearly saying “Remember how badly you played this? Here’s the right way.” At times he’d shoot a glare at the French kid because he was a little out of sync, or he would nod at the Argentinean sitting next to me on the wall. His nod said “Good job. Stay with me.”
   I felt privileged to be sitting in front of the master who had chosen to give me a private demonstration, and I felt accepted by his students, both farther along than I am, who were happy to help me down the path they had already walked. And I felt proud that for the very first time I could recognize and name every toque in the set without looking at the music. I was joining the family. For a moment, I wanted to cry.

    I am a teacher. I make my living judging and analyzing my students’ playing. While they (and their parents) judge me as well––if they’re not happy they find another teacher––I generally hear only the compliments. Those with complaints take them elsewhere, so it’s healthy for me to be the one seeking approval, the one trying to meet another’s standard. It’s inspiring to be challenged again.
    Teaching and taking are two sides of the same coin. When I was in college, I would take a class then run upstairs and teach one. I never really differentiated between them. One was input, the other output, but both were part of the same process. As a professional, you take more responsibility for your input, relying less on others. You can focus more on what you really want to learn, but what you want to learn and what you need to learn aren’t always the same thing.
    Some months ago, my old marimba teacher came to me in a dream. He told me to sell my house, throw away my drums, and free all my students. He told me to rediscover my beginners’ mind and let go of everything I thought I knew. I was to move to a new place, owning no thing and carrying no baggage. I was to begin again. I awoke with an electric shock, surprised and lightened by his orders. But the elation faded as I realized I was still in my old bed, in my old life. The more you create, the more you acquire, the heavier the burden can become. In that moment I longed to be new again, to know nothing, to put myself in the hands of a master who would guide my steps, to have a beginners’ mind that saw everything as new and wondrous.
   But I’m not yet at the point where I can set myself free from everything I’ve learned. I still have more to finish, more to acquire. Yet, in my lessons with Alejandro I’m forced to pass the responsibility back to him so I can be free to feel confused, so I can be free to confront my shortcomings, so I can be free to explore the unknown. Every teacher should also be a student. Every master should also be a novice. You can only teach what you’ve learned, so when the learning process slows the teaching process will too. Then, perhaps, it would be time to seek yet another master, one who could bring me back to beginners’ mind, to square one where all is fresh and untrodden. Then, perhaps, it would be time. Then, perhaps, but not yet.

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