Monday, November 20

Sounds of Schoenberg: The Afro-Cuban Batá drums


Before attending UCLA, third-year ethnomusicology student Melena Francis Valdes took a 15-year break from college to perform Afro-Cuban percussion instruments such as the Batá drums, conga drums and the drum set with musicians such as Stevie Wonder. (Marley Maron/Daily Bruin)

Before attending UCLA, third-year ethnomusicology student Melena Francis Valdes took a 15-year break from college to perform Afro-Cuban percussion instruments such as the Batá drums, conga drums and the drum set with musicians such as Stevie Wonder. (Marley Maron/Daily Bruin)


Each week, Daily Bruin A&E will explore the instruments of the World Musical Instrument Collection and their performers that all contribute to the musical landscape of the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. This week, we highlight the Afro-Cuban Batá, a set of sacred drums used to honor the African Yoruba Gods.

Four-year-old Melena Francis Valdes left her home in Havana, Cuba to move to the United States. The culture, Francis said, followed her across the oceans in her grandmother’s foamy café con leche and in the singing and chanting of the neighborhood festival.

These early memories of her home country prompted her to learn about Cuban culture, immersing herself in Afro-Cuban music and the Batá drums.

When her mother bought her a toy guitar and her brother a toy drum to take pictures with, five-year-old Francis wanted the drum set. Francis’ love for percussion began then, leading her to the doorstep of Francisco Aguabella, an Afro-Cuban folklore master, former UCLA ethnomusicology professor and the owner of the Batá drums she now plays.

Aguabella introduced Afro-Cuban folklore music to Francis. He taught her the first rhythm any Batá drum player has to learn, which is used to honor Eleggua, the god of beginnings and endings of life in the African Yoruba tradition.

“He was the first person I saw here in the (United States) from my culture who helped me with my identity,” Francis said. “I needed to know who I was and where I was born – and he was one of the main sources for that.”

With a desire to learn more about her culture, the third-year ethnomusicology student decided to come back to school and continue her study of the drums and its spirit and history.

In September, Francis transferred to UCLA’s ethnomusicology department after a 15-year break from college to pursue her passion for Afro-Cuban percussion.

During those 15 years, she performed percussion instruments like the sacred Batá drums, conga drums and the drum set with musicians like Stevie Wonder and Barry White. She even wrote anddirected her own musical, “La Ceiba,” which she said used Afro-Cuban music to tell the story of those who seek the strength and knowledge of their ancestors.

As Francis held the Batá drums on Oct. 28, she said she realized it was the first time since Aguabella’s passing five years ago that anyone had touched the instruments.

Francis said it was an honor for her to hold those drums, since she said Afro-Cuban tradition stresses the idea of elders passing on their knowledge to the younger generation.

“When I picked up the Batás, I felt (Aguabella). It’s like he’s not here physically, but he came,” Francis said. “He’s here spiritually – and we felt him. So there are things like that.”

Compiled by Carol Yao, A&E contributor.

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