Trip to Cuba sparks creativity for Elon professor

  Jim Roberts of the Music Department studied Afro-Cuban rhythms and music in the heart of Havana.   

Jim Roberts, the director of the Elon World Percussion Ensemble, attended an Afro-Cuban study trip in central Havana July 8-18, 2016.  Roberts has been a member of the Elon faculty for nine years. He teaches drum set and two courses on the music of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

The trip was organized by maestro Ernesto “El Gato” Gatell and master dancer Yudisleidy Valdes. They are former members of the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional de Cuba, one of the premier touring groups of Cuba. The 10-day trip consisted of study on batá drums, congas (folkloric and religious) and songs from the Lucumí and rumba traditions. The trip was organized for participants to receive study with a variety of teachers. They included master drummer Maximum Duquesne Martinez, Ernesto Gatell, Eddy Garro, Bejuco, Pedro Chispa and akpwon singer Yeti Lou. 

Santería music is percussion driven with call and response vocals from a lead singer with a chorus. The music traditionally uses batá drums or guiro (shekere) for the music. “A lead singer/master of ceremonies akpwon sings in the Lucumí liturgical language which is a Yoruba dialect”  from more than 100 years ago in Nigeria and Dahomey, Benin.  It was brought over by African slaves and hidden from the slave owners so that the traditions would not be lost. 

Wikipedia defines rumba as “a class of secular, dance-oriented music styles that were developed by Afro-Cuban workers in the poor neighborhoods of Havana and Mantanzas. These syncretic styles would later be referred to as “rumba”, a word that also meant “party”. Traditionally, the three main styles of rumba are yambu, columbia and guaguanco. Each of which has a characteristic dance, rhythm and song.” 

The trip was 20-plus years in the making for Roberts. He has been playing and studying this music since the late 1980’s. This was a trip of a lifetime for him and was made easier by the recent opening of relations with Cuba and the United States. 

This semester, Roberts brings the music into focus for the members of the Elon World Percussion Ensemble. “We will study and play these rhythms in both traditional and non-traditional contexts, adding rappers and a DJ since we don’t have Cuban singers. They are doing that in Cuba as well,” said Roberts. “Wouldn’t it be great if could do a musical and cultural study abroad trip? The experience for the students would be like no other trip that Elon offers.”

As a follow up to the trip, Roberts also performed in guiro ceremony on Aug. 21 in Washington, D.C., for Ochun, the orisha “for love, femininity and the river, which represents purification.” Most of the members of the trip were in attendence and it was wonderful celebration of friends and family. One does not need to be a member of the religion to attend certain ceremonies and this celebration was open to the public. 

The World Percussion Ensemble accepts non-musicians who have a desire to play drums and percussion and would like a true “diversity” experience.  Mus106G meets 5:30 – 7:10 p.m. on Thursday’s and is open to anyone in the student body. 

More information on Jim Roberts can be found at