Unless you can travel to Cuba or Brazil, it's almost impossible to get serious instruction in the somewhat esoteric arts of Afro-Latin drumming. Your best bet is to apprentice with a master, which is what area drummers got a chance to do this Jan. 8-10 when Michael Spiro gave a series of workshops in Durham and Chapel Hill. The Bay Area guru attracted students from as far away as Nashville and Philadelphia for three workshops in Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian music and folklore.
The first two workshops focused on Cuba's secular and sacred music with a conga technique class and an orisha singing class, while a third highlighted the music of Brazil known as samba batucada. Students were strongly encouraged to tape the sessions, for further review and practice at home.
On Thursday night, congueros picked up a guaguancó rhythm and some exclusive Spiro techniques, while Friday's group spent the evening invoking Yemaya, Chango, and other orishas (gods of the Yoruba pantheon transported to Cuba by African slaves). Orisha songs, which contained stories about mythical exploits or aspects of each orisha, were sung in a variant of the Yoruba language, "Lucumí," and accompanied by "talking" batá drums that imitate inflected human speech. Spiro explained that song interpretations can vary from street to street in Havana, depending on which part of Yorubaland one's grandmother came from. Spiro then led the class in call and response singing, accompanied by a ritual combination of three batá drums and a chekere.
In a little over two hours, on Saturday afternoon, Spiro turned a group of some 25 drummers--of various skill levels--into a just-add-water samba band.
In Rio de Janeiro, the Escolas de Samba (or "samba schools") practice all year long to earn the best band standing at carnival time. "This is an 18-wheeler," Spiro says of the samba bands. "To move 7,500 people down the street for 90 minutes, you've got to push the beat a little bit or you're late." Batería instruments range in size from large drums to tiny tambourines and bells, but: "Don't kid yourself," Spiro warns. "This is all about stamina. When you see people playing the batería, it's not fun. Those folks are working hard. It's pure effort."
Spiro makes yearly pilgrimages to Latin America to study with drummers and has also trained in the United States with percussion legends such as Orestes Vilató and Francisco Aguabella. He travels frequently, giving lectures and workshops, and teaches every summer at the California Brazil music program. Spiro also regularly records with the ensembles Talking Drums, Mark Levine & The Latin Tinge (jazz), and Charanga La Moderna Tradicion.
Spiro's landmark recording project, Bata Ketu, recombines the Yoruba traditions found in both Cuba and Brazil, and with very few instructional books and videos available, the album has become the "real deal" for players eager to get their hands on an authoritative guide. "I'm proud of it, it had an impact," says Spiro. "Everywhere I go in the world, I find some drummer who has heard it." (As a further resource on Brazil, Spiro recommends the book Samba by Alma Guillermoprieto.)