Chronicles of a Young Awó: Part 4

Chronicles of Ogbe Ate

The decision to move back to my father’s home was hard. I had no meaningful resources saved (as much as I had tried…economic necessities had eaten up all of my resources gained as an academic counselor). It entailed giving up once again on a place, moving, and starting new. But something kept gnawing at me; I was sure that I’d be able to get back to a better state. When I moved back, at first, things were calm. But, soon, my father’s temperament began to clash with my brother and mine’s. I’m thoroughly convinced my father is either an omo-Shango or Omo-Oggun, as I believe my brother is as well. Our family conflicts soon dictated that my brother and I had to leave the house. Without many resources, we ended up at a small apartment with two bedrooms. Mine was no bigger than most people’s bathrooms…I daresay some prisoners have larger bedrooms. But I was just happy to be off the streets and made the best of it. I spent all my days reading, practicing music, looking for work, and occasionally, to get my mind off the indignity of having to live in those conditions, I would accompany my brother to a latin-jazz performance he was hired to work at every Friday. It turned out that was one of the smartest decisions I ever had taken.

I brought my bongos with me since the performing group was a quintet with timbales and congas. The musicians there, under the leadership of another afro-puertorican man, had no problems with me jamming, but…at first, they were wary of what I would bring to the performances. They were used to barflys coming in, trying to play on some broken down bongos, and totally ruining their performances. When we started playing, my expertise came through and we had a smooth set. During the break, I reconnected with two of the musicians (whom I had worked with extensively with my father’s own Latin band in the past). They made the formal introductions with this afro-puertorican man (let’s call him Oyugbon, because he’d later become my Oyugbon de Anya). He was not as tall or imposing as Mr. Carolina, yet carried himself with an air of control, as if he was conscious that he was royalty. I came to realize that he enjoyed dressing in well-fitting suits and loved to make an entrance. If I were to make a comparison, he was like those old school pimps who’d come into to NYC clubs wearing zoot suits and acting in control…except he wasn’t a pimp and he didn’t “act” in control. That’s just the way he was. And he deserved that reputation. He was a highly educated man with years of secular and Santeria ceremonial performing experiences….decades really. He was extremely confident, an absolute gentleman…one of those guys that like to throw classy and really creative piropos to the female patrons…and they ate it all up. Yeah, he had game.

In time, I substituted with the group on various instruments and when the bass player decided he wanted to pursue other projects, he recommended me as the full time bass player. That led to a streak of 2 years of performing steadily every Friday with Oyugbon, my brother, and various other musicians. Throughout the years, he soon realized that beyond the drums he knew I played, I was also a proficient Latin percussionist, and we bonded over discussions of musicians and percussionists from the Caribbean and the United States. Somehow, the conversation veered into the territory of the bata drums and how I wanted to learn it. He interjected, “yes, they are good to learn for hand independence…but…they’re another story all together…it’s not necessary for you to learn bata…you’re path is as a secular musician”. That answer struck me as odd, and I asked him, “do you play bata?” “Yes, that’s what I did for 15 years or so…all throughout NYC, Puerto Rico, and San Francisco…I used to play with Puntilla a lot”. At the time, I didn’t know who Orlando “Puntilla” Rios was, but I was intrigued that he knew how to play. “Hey, when can we sit down and you can teach me some bata”? “I can’t teach you….those are secrets of the Omo Anyas…people who are jurado in the tambor. I’m sorry”.

I had heard that mysterious term before. Years before, at Mr. Carolina’s store, we had hosted Giovanni Hidalgo at an impromptu private jam and during one of the breaks, they had asked not to be interrupted while they went downstairs to the basement. Soon, the sounds of weird drums came from the basement. I had asked Mr. Carolina’s son, the conga player, “hey, what are they doing down there?” “I don’t know much myself, but I think they’re playing bata….they’re doing secret stuff down there…you have to be jurado en el tambor to be there.” This little game of cat and mouse would continue for months, until finally, Oyugbon relented and said, “you want to learn how to play batas? First, do this for me…take out these two books and read them: The Gospel According to the Spiritist Doctrine and El Monte by Lydia Cabrera. Read them first…then we’ll talk.” I was so excited and focused on learning batas that I found the books on Amazon.com, bought them used, and began reading. In three weeks, I was done. I had also began to look for batas on craigslist.org (a website that markets all types of goods and services), and had found a trio of Cuban-made batas in Atlanta for $300.00. I didn’t think twice and ordered them. As luck would have it, they were Sonoc brand batas…a pretty good brand (as Cuban batas go). By the time we finally met to “trabajar Ellegua”, I was ready to answer any of his questions.

The next 8 months would be a life change. I had found employment as a music teacher and held a steady salary. I had met my future wife and was in a steady relationship with her. I had moved out of that depressing apartment into a spacious, well built, 4 bedroom house (the market price was great…below $130,000) in a safe neighborhood of a city. I loved its sideyard and imagined sitting out there during the summers. I even had found two Catholic statues hidden in its bushes, a Virgin Mary and a St. Francis De Asissi. The previous owners must have had left them. I wasn’t much of a Catholic (which is to say, nothing) but I figured I’d make my Catholic grandmother happy and have them in a nice place on the garden. Truly, I was living happy. It’s as if whatever penance I was paying was done.
Beyond our friendship as musicians, Oyugbon became my bata mentor, as we progressed through the Oru Seco (Ellegua, Oggun, Ochosi, Ibanloke, Inle, etc.). We would discuss theological points and Oyugbon was glad he could do it with someone who could have an intellectual background to look beyond the obvious and the “callejero”. I had done extensive thinking about many of the world’s faiths and their major theological viewpoints before our meeting and we approached Lucumi perspectives from within and outside the faith. In time, he invited me to come to NYC to meet his padrino in Anya…the man who had first taught him how to play batas and who was a respected Cuban oriate. A tambor had been organized and we were to attend. I jumped at the chance, not knowing what to expect. Before we arrived to pick up the other bata student that worked with us, he mentioned to me, “I’m about to pick up this other guy. Now…you had mentioned that throughout these months you had thought about formally joining this religion. You should have this discussion only with this guy…trust me when I say this, it’s very important that you discuss such matters with someone of integrity and trust…not just anyone out there because many will lie to you to make money off you. This kid you can trust…he knows his stuff.” I accepted his advice and we left to pick up this mysterious guy.

We arrived in a city halfway to NYC in a well-off neighborhood. When we arrived at the location, we beeped the horn, and out came the person who would be my future Padrino. Maybe it was all the imagery I had seen in books or in movies or in videos of Santeria rituals, but this guy did not look like a “babalawo”. He was halfway between Oyugbon and Mr. Carolina in height…maybe about 6’”1” or 6’2”. Slender, but cut…definitely had an athlete’s body. He was dressed in a fashionable sweater…the type a lot of ladies men would use at clubs with a popped collar under. He was wearing jeans. And he was a very handsome, young guy….easily my age or just a few years older. If anything…to me, he was like one of those pretty boys who you might see at a club with an extremely hot girl on his arm. With the exception of a very thick, almost centipede like mazo bracelet with green and yellow beads on his left wrist, there was nothing that indicated this guy was remotely connected with this secretive, African-derived practice. As he approached the van, Oyugbon stepped out of the van, said some weird words, and touched the ground, to which Padrino responded some other weird words and gave him an embrace. With that, they exchanged some harmless curse words about how cold the weather was (I’m pretty sure, “esta temperatura esta de pinga!” was included) and we were off to NYC.

When we arrived, we parked the van by the side of a dirty road and proceeded to walk throughout a low-income neighborhood until we reached a house with some people standing outside, dressed in white. We could hear drums being tuned up inside. We made our way to the entrance in the back and entered a basement with weird statues, candles, water glasses on its sides. Inside, regular Latinos dressed in white conversed and joked around. In the center, at the back, where four men, three sitting down with batas on their laps, and the fourth standing over them, reciting some sort of story to them. He was loud and he was commanding in his speech. We’ll call him “Antonio”. “That’s Antonio over there, talking to them. Come,” said Oyugbon. Oyugbon made all the introductions, starting with Padrino, “este es Oluwo” and they proceeded to repeat the salutory cycle I described before. And then he proceeded to introduce his two bata students. “these already know all the way to Inle…I’m sharpening them up. Jejeje….” “But…are they sworn?” “they’re on the path,” Oyugbon responded. “Well, we have to do the juramento”…he directed his question at me, “when can you?” “In my excitement, I said, “whenever you can. I’m ready”. Antonio and Oyugbon discussed some details and accorded to meet again 2 months later at my home to do the juramento. For the remainder of the tambor, I remained against the wall, looking at the drums and at the people shaking. I felt weird the entire time….as if I was an interloper in a secret culture I was not allowed in….I stuck close to Oyugbon and to Padrino and things went smoothly. At the end of the tambor, we said our goodbyes and headed out to our respective cities.

Anya was only 2 months away….

Awó Ogbe Ate

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