The group Obiní Batá has taught dozens on women how to play Afro-Cuban drums since it started in the early 1990s.

How a group of Cuban female musicians claimed a drum — and a tradition

The legendary group Obiní Batá is celebrating 30 years of music and women’s empowerment in Cuba. But the road to acceptance and success was not easy. 

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Obiní Batá, a legendary group of all-female musicians from Cuba, is known for playing the batá drum — an instrument that was once forbidden for women to touch, according to religious beliefs. 

Through their music and activism, the group has been fighting discrimination and sexism for 30 years. But the road to acceptance for women percussionists has not been easy. 

Some of the founders of Obiní Batá.

Some of the founders of Obiní Batá.


Courtesy of Eva Despaigne

Back in 1993, a group of women performing with the National Folkloric Group decided to put together an all-female show to celebrate Father’s Day.

Eva Despaigne, one of the show's organizers said the women wanted to honor their male colleagues with dance and music.

“It was the first time that women dared to play the batá drums in a performance setting,” Despaigne said. 

The women, who were all dancers, had to learn how to play instruments — including the forbidden drum.

Sacred drum

The batá or “talking” drum originated in Yorubaland, in modern-day Nigeria, said Susan Thomas, a musicologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and an expert on Cuban music. 

“These were drums that could mimic the tones of the Yoruba language,” Thomas said, adding that these drums were mostly used in religious ceremonies to communicate with gods. 

The double-headed drum, shaped like an hourglass, was introduced into Cuba by enslaved Africans in the 19th century; they incorporated them into the rituals of Santeria, a widely practiced religion in Cuba. 

“The drums are believed to house a spirit, Anya, and it's believed in Cuba that having that person touching or playing the drum who is out of balance with the power of Anya can cause problems,” Thomas said. 

Tradition dictates that only men can play the sacred batá drum. The idea is that women’s menstrual blood could be mistaken by Anya as sacrificial blood, Thomas explained, therefore making it dangerous for women to touch or play the drum.  

Overcoming obstacles

Eva Despaigne, one of the founders of Obiní Batá and current musical director.

Eva Despaigne, one of the founders of Obiní Batá and current musical director. 


Courtesy of Eva Despaigne

Despaigne said the group was aware of these religious beliefs but decided that playing the batá drum in an artistic context was different — and the show was a success. 

They went ahead and created the group Obiní Batá, or Women Bata, in Yoruba language. 

But not everyone was happy about it. 

“We faced a lot of obstacles at the beginning,” Despaigne said. 

Sometimes, the group would arrive for a rehearsal and discover that their drums had been hidden. Male instructors were warned not to teach women or it could cost them a spot on a traveling tour or a major performance.

Niurca Marquez, an artist and a scholar in religious studies at Florida International University, said these taboos go beyond religion and “bleeds into the roles that are typically assigned to men and women.”  

“Within music and the arts, I think we see a predominance of dancers, singers, but we don't see a large number of established instrumentalists — especially percussionists,” Marquez said. 

Opening doors

Even so, the women of Obiní Batá persisted, and the group gained popularity. 

The group has performed internationally multiple times, and trained dozens of women to play Afro Cuban drums. 

Percussionist and singer Brenda Navarrete posing with batá drums.

Percussionist and singer Brenda Navarrete posing with batá drums.


Courtesy of Brenda Navarrete

Over the years, doors slowly began to open for female drummers in Cuba, just as women gradually took on roles in politics, academics and other areas of Cuban society. 

Marquez said Obiní Batá provided much-needed representation over the last 30 years. 

“So, you have an entire generation and then, some that have grown up seeing other women play the drums,” he said, adding that this allowed other women to pursue careers as percussionists.

Brenda Navarrete, one of Cuba’s young talents, began her musical career playing drums with Obiní Batá.

“Obiní Batá opened a new world for me,” she said. “It gave me a different perspective about drums and women.” 

She often hears the compliment: “You play as strong as a man."

But women offer a lot more than strength when playing drums, she said. 

“Our touch is more sensual, sweet, and mellow. But it doesn’t mean it’s not strong."

Cuba today has a lot more women percussionists, but Thomas said there’s still a lot more work to do. 

“I wish I could say that these leading women artists had blown up the barriers for other women and that there's been a flood of women musicians after them. But I can't.” 

Men still dominate the percussion scene in Cuba. But thanks to the trailblazing Obiní Batá, Cubans finally accept that women can also drum.

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