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Bruce Poinsette of The Skanner News
Published: 28 May 2013

Sidony O'Neal and Alex Riedlinger

Two local documentary filmmakers are bringing the Afro-Cuban bata drumming tradition to the screen.

Alex Riedlinger and Sidony O'Neal will be traveling with the Seattle-based Omo Alagba, or "Children of the Sacred Elders" project for their performance at the historic 10th International Congress of Orisa Tradition and Culture in Ile-Ife, Nigeria. They will be capturing the experience to both expose viewers to the music and further the dialogue of the African diaspora.

"I feel like the process of making this film will be just as powerful as the drumming that we capture," says O'Neal.

She and Riedlinger are working in conjunction with producer Chaz Mortimer of Ibori Records to put out this film. Riedlinger will be doing all the filming while O'Neal will write and translate. Both are doing extensive research. Mortimer, in addition to producing, will be doing sound for the film. Their collaboration will be the first project for O'Neal and Riedlinger's vehicle, Ibeji Pictures. Recently, the group raised $6,840 through an Indiegogo campaign.

The Omo Alagba are a Lukumi Orisha band, which means they perform Afro-Cuban praise music that has roots in Nigeria.

Mortimer received grants to produce a full album of all the praise songs performed by practitioners to pay home to the Orishas, or deities in the Yoruba religious system. This is the first studio recording of the songs in their completion.

Omo Alagba features three drummers, a singer and a chorus.

The drummers play the bata drums, which are considered "talking drums." The drums have different tones and the drummers talk to each other through them.

Riedlinger says this tradition survived amongst the slaves and African descended Cubans.

Seattle's community of Orisha practitioners is very diverse, containing Cubans, African-Americans, Whites and Puerto Ricans. Riedlinger and O'Neal say they've gotten widespread interest for their project. In fact, Riedlinger says their first donor was a voodoo priestess in New Orleans.

The Seattle group has a particular importance to the tradition because they possess consecrated drums. According to Riedlinger, every consecrated bata drum has to be born from another. This occurs during a ritual where the sound is transferred from one set of drums to the next.

"These drums have their own ancestry," he says. "They traveled from Cuba to New York then to places like Miami and then to Seattle. Why this group in Seattle is very important in the larger diasporic community is because they have these consecrated drums. They can do the really complex rituals for healing in the community."

The documentary will trace the history of the Afro-Cuban drumming tradition to its roots in Cuba. At a certain point during the 1800s, most of the slaves that were brought to Cuba were coming from Nigeria, Benin and other Gold Coast countries. Spanish colonizers forbade drumming, since it was a means of communication. They organized slaves into cabildos, which were African ethnic associations.

These cabildos resembled community centers and enslaved Africans would use them for festivals and feasts. The Spanish thought it would be easier to control and convert the Africans to Catholicism if they were grouped together based on ethnicity or geographic origin. Each cabildo was assigned a different patron or patroness based on a figure from the Catholic pantheon. For example, one cabildo would be assigned Santa Barbara.

The Africans were able to communicate by masking their African worship in Catholic imagery. For instance, the crossroads is represented by the image of the cross. In the Orisha tradition, the communication between the divine and human beings is represented by the crossroads, which corresponds with the cross and the aforementioned Santa Barbara.

"These were the only times where the slaves could collect in large groups without the plantation owners thinking they were fermenting revolts," says Riedlinger. "This is the kind of space, in secrecy, where this tradition was fostered."

He says that around 1830, two enslaved Africans recreated the first documented set of bata drums in Cuba. They went through a complex ritual to sanctify the drums, which is now used in ceremonies, specifically healing ceremonies.

Neither Riedlinger nor O'Neal are practitioners. They say the process of documenting Omo Alagba has been effective in better helping them connect with their African heritage.

After growing up in the U.S., which is part of the Anglophone diaspora, O'Neal says that being around people that practice the Orisha tradition has helped open up conversations about her connection with Africa. She says the concept of lineage is particularly interesting.

"There's a practice of moyuba, of always looking and calling out the names of ancestors, and giving thanks for your lineage and always having that present with you," says O'Neal "there's a healing aspect of the tradition that goes hand in hand with the bata drums... The drums are alive and speak their own language to connect several different worlds."

For more information, visit the Omo Alagba website.

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