Path of the Panamanian Drums.Drums have "always seemed magical to me. Three years ago at the Jazz Festival in Panama, I felt that magic as I watched an eight-year-old girl move her hands over the drums so skillfully that what emerged was a deep and moving rhythmic conversation. The beauty of that moment could not have been captured by photographers or even videographers. The magic materializes in the energies present in a particular space: the energy of the earth below, the energy of the drum's own living wood and leather; the energy of the drummer; and the rhythmic energy of the music that envelops the drummer, the listener, and the listener-dancer. It reaches a point where you don't know whether the drumming is following the dancing, or the dancing, the drumming. The ability of drums to make time stop for a moment and bring together these different levels of energy is wily the drum is consistently present in so many cultures, times, and places; and why it is often considered a sacred object. As it happens, the girl I was watching that day in the Cathedral Plaza in Panama was named Milagros (miracles).
But this isn't just a story about a little girl and her drum. It is a story about drums and their energy and how this energy has been present in Panama since before the isthmus appeared on ally European map or was ever a country or a homeland in the collective imagination. When I was young, there was a TV spot with a catchy line that said, "Panama has nine provinces. Nine provinces has Panama." And they played it so often that our entire generation learned our geography by rattling off: "Darien, Herrera, siguen Los Santos ..." to the tune of that music.
Darien was at the beginning of that list but it was, and continues to be, the least known province for urbanites like me. It is the place where two drumming traditions converged: that of the Embera-Wounaan peoples and the Afro-descendent peoples. In the seventeenth century, the Embera and the Wounaan were migrating inside Darien province, moving from the Chocoana region in Colombia to the space left behind by the Kuna. At the same time, Africans were arriving in the area as slave labor. The Embera-Wounaan used very few musical instruments, but one of them happened to be the drum.
People who arrived voluntarily or involuntarily to this land had to survive using the natural elements they found in the jungles. One of the things they did was to reproduce rituals from their home countries that would help them to withstand the pain of separation from their community and their loved ones and to express the joys that bubbled up in spite of that. pain. Drums were an integral part of these rituals and were inseparable from dance and song. A particular swing of the trips or beat on the drums could indicate joy, sensuality, pain, or elegance.
For the most part, drumming has been the domain of men. Women are involved as dancers sensual and provocative, or elegant and gliding--and it is often female voices that add the lyrics and the melody, telling a story in song. Their voices intertwine with that of the drums in the syncopated beats played by the men.
The drums from the region of Azuero and Chorrera are undeniably African in origin, as are the cumbia and bullerengue rhythms in the province of Darien. But indigenous and European elements are also present. The Embera-Wounaan play their native tonoa (for use exclusively by women) but they also play a caja tambora and a tambor de cuba, probably borrowed from the African culture and a clear indication of transculturation. The greatest European influence on drumming and dancing is found in the region of Azuero. The pulsating rhythm that accompanies dame there is clearly African, but the caja hispana they play is similar to a snare drum, and almost definitely of Spanish origin. The dancers' polleras (long full skirts gathered at the waist) and their gliding steps also show the influence of Spain.
In the province of Colon, however, where escaped slaves, or cimarrones, settled in self-governing towns called palenques, the congo drumming tradition shows almost no European influence at all. Likewise, the bullerengue dance from Darien is completely African. It's an energy that takes you back to another continent and another time in history. Sound is only the umbilical cord connecting you a world of the past.
My journey down the road of drumming takes me to a meeting with Ricaurte Villareal, a music professor at the University of Panama and the teacher of Milagros Blades, the little girl whose talent had impressed me so much at the Jazz Festival years ago. Villareal's passion for the drums is contagious, and so I am encouraged in my questioning. I ask him whether the drums "choose" the people who play them. His own experience seems to indicate that they do. "When I was a child," the professor says, "I used to watch the drummers in my village, and I would practice secretly whenever I could, on a can or on a neighbor's drum."
Traditional folkloric music does not usually have a particular method or written form. It is transmitted orally in daily life as a child observes the world of adults at festive moments. Artisans learned to find the wood and shape it, to look for the deerskin, to tan the hide and dry it, and to transform the animal and the tree into a miracle of sound.
A person who wants to be a drummer must have the desire, but also the natural ability to decode the speech of the drums. He or she must be persistent, practicing and practicing until the drums begin to talk. Professor Villareal says that "it is not a simple thing to map out paths on the drums. Only an expert cartographer can find the right roads." Using an Azuero drum called a repicador, he plays several lovely examples of Chorrerano, Azuero, and Darien drumming. The drum speaks differently each time. I watch his hands and notice that the surface of the drum is really quite small. To be able to produce so many different effects, the drummer has to come to know in detail all the different sounds that come from each part of the drum skin, each part of the hand, and from shifting the position of the legs.
With the exception of Darien drums and Colon congos, Panamanian folkloric drums are played by raising and lowering the legs. The drums are pressed between the thighs and the feet hold down the base. As the drummer plays, he must move his legs to achieve the different kinds of sounds. I ask the professor to teach me a little. As I put the drum between my thighs I can already feel how the dram and I have merged into a single entity. The drum is not something outside of myself now; it is part of me. He asks rue to hit the drum with my right hand using the second phalange of my fingers. I try, but I hit the wrong place and it doesn't sound right. He repeats that I have to use my second phalange and hit it hard. Tiffs time it comes out better. If I hold it on the edge with my feet on the ground, the sound is higher. If I hit it in the middle with my feet raised a little, a lower tone comes out. "See. I've already taught you something," he says, laughing. I laugh too, because I understand that the path of the drum is a long one but that magic exists.
Surely, this union of body and drum is one of the ingredients of its magic. Incidente de cumbia [A Cumbia Incident], a poem by Panamanian Demetrio Korsi, speaks of a drummer who melds with his drum and drink (juma) to overcome heartache.
Como un clavo dicen que saca otro clavo Aporrea el cuero que su mano hincho. Mientras mas borracho su golpe es mas bravo Juma toca cumbia, dice Chimbombo. They say you have to use one nail to hammer out another So he beats on the drum until his hand swells. The more he drinks the stronger his beat Chimbombo says the juma plays the cumbia.
Drumming traditions are always changing and growing. In the nineteenth century, blacks from the Antilles migrated to Panama to work on the railroads and the canal. They brought with them the songs, rhythms, and lyrics of Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Barbados and by doing so, created another offshoot of Mother Africa in the world. Calypso, reggae, and jazz came with this next generation of migrants.
The Afro-colonial and Afro-Antillean traditions were cultivated in different spaces and are distinct from each other, but some Panamanians have sought common origins and built bridges between the various traditions through jazz. One such musician is Danilo Perez, a well-known jazz pianist and professor at the Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory. Perez is also the co-founder of the Jazz Festival in Panama. Close your eyes and listen to his music. There, behind the harmonic play of the jazz piano is the unmistakable contribution of the folkloric Panamanian drum.
The path of the drum continues, and its magic lives on in the beat of a heart that keeps pumping the generous blood of Africa into this so-called New World. The drum goes on choosing its players and emissaries, and those who are chosen--people like Milagros Blades, Ricaurte Villareal, and Danilo Perez--keep the magic going, century after century.
Melanie Taylor, a licensed psychologist with a masters degree in music therapy, lives in Panama City, Panama.