Spotlight on Folklife: Batá Drummer Ezequiel Torres

by Tim Storhoff

This week, master Afro-Cuban drummer and drum builder Ezequiel Torres will travel from Miami to Tallahassee with his ensemble in order to highlight the relationships between batá drumming, dance, and the Orisha religion. His two-day residency in Tallahassee is sponsored by the Florida Folklife Program and the Center for Music of the Americas at Florida State University.

Ezequiel Torres. Image courtesy/used by permission of HistoryMiami.

Torres was born in Havana, Cuba in 1955 to a musical family, and in his teens he began working as an apprentice to some of the city’s master drum makers and players. Soon he was performing batá in ceremonies and started experimenting with creating the drums himself. By the late 1970s, Torres was teaching percussion at Havana’s Escuela Nacional de Arte and was the musical director for dance classes at the prestigious Escuela Nacional de Instructores de Arte.

The batá is an hourglass-shaped, two-headed drum based on an African prototype. Batá drums are always played in sets of three during religious ceremonies. These ceremonies are part of the Orisha religion, also known in Cuba as Santería, Regla de Ochá, or Lucumí. Dating back to the arrival of African slaves in Cuba, it is a syncretic religion based on West African Yoruba traditions that added associations with Catholic saints to its numerous deities. In religious ceremonies, each of these deities or orishas has their own rhythm played on the batá drums as well as sung vocalizations and specific dance movements. Torres and his ensemble will be demonstrating these at their performances and workshops in Tallahassee.

Since arriving in Miami in 1980, Torres has been an important part of Florida’s traditional music scene. He is recognized as one of the top batá drummers, drum-builders, and beaders in the country. In addition to performing regularly in Florida, he has performed in Houston, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Torres has worked with the Florida Folklife Program in various ways after he arrived in the United States. In addition to teaching, performing, and receiving various honors, he was interviewed for the Music from the Sunshine State radio program. You can download or listen to his interview and performance for folklorist Bob Stone on that program here. He has also been a featured artist at the Florida Folk Festival, and you can view his ensemble performing part of a song for the orisha Eleguá at the 2012 festival in the video below.

Blaine Waide, State Folklorist and head of the Florida Folklife Program, described Torres’s history with the program and part of the purpose of this trip, which includes his first performance in the state capital:

The Florida Folklife Program has been working with Ezequiel Torres for several decades.  He has participated in our Apprenticeship Program as a Master Artist six times, passing his expert knowledge of the Afro-Cuban batá drumming tradition to seven apprentices.  In 2008, we recognized him with a Florida Folk Heritage Award, and he is the most recent Floridian to win a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, which he received in 2010. Given his many notable contributions to maintaining a living Florida tradition in his South Florida Cuban community, we are excited to introduce him to new audiences in North Florida, and the state capital, where he will be able to share his knowledge and exceptional artistry with a public audience, along with local school children and graduate students at Florida State University.

The Florida State University College of Music’s Center for Music of the Americas is co-sponsoring Mr. Torres’s visit as well as coordinating his workshop at FSU. The director of the Center, Dr. Denise Von Glahn, said about this first collaboration with the Florida Folklife Program:

The Center for Music of the Americas at Florida State University is excited to be partnering with the Florida Folklife Program and Mission San Luis in bringing master Afro-Cuban batá drummer and drum-maker, Eqezuiel Torres, to Tallahassee for a two-day artist residency.  Mr. Torres’s visit exemplifies the goals of the Center, which include encouraging scholarship, performance, and the dissemination of musics found throughout the American Hemisphere, by reaching out across the university and our larger North Florida community.

On Thursday, September 6, Mr. Torres and his ensemble will give a free public performance and presentation in the Mission Room at Mission San Luis from 7-8:30 PM. On the morning of Friday, September 7 there will be a performance and student workshop at Ruediger Elementary School, and that afternoon from 2:30-4:30, he will give a student drumming workshop in Lindsay Recital Hall in FSU’s Kuersteiner Music Building, which is free and open to the public. For more information on this event and others, follow the Florida Folklife Program on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/FloridaFolklifeProgram. For an additional interview with Ezequiel Torres as well as a video, check out the National Endowment for the Art’s profile of him as a 2010 National Heritage Fellow.

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