Swiss musician chosen to save dying Cuban religion

In our regular "Sounds Good" feature, a Swiss musician tells how he was chosen to carry on a Cuban tradition at risk of dying out. The Yoruba religion uses music and trance (pictured) to communicate with the Gods.

This content was published on January 29, 2000 minutes

A Swiss percussionist has been chosen to carry on a Cuban tradition at risk of dying out. Six years ago, Adrian Coburg began to learn the skills needed to keep the Yoruba religion alive. Now he's one of the few missionaries of a religion that depends on music and trance to protect its adherents.

Increasingly aware of his mortality, Julio Davalos went on a mission to find someone he could trust to preserve the sacred Yoruban knowledge. As one of Cuba's last great Yoruban Bata drummers, he knew his death could spell the end for a religion, whose high priests need skills that take years to accumulate.

On a visit to Switzerland six years ago, Julio came across a percussionist called Adrian Coburg, who was looking to improve his knowledge and skills. The two men hit it off immediately, and Adrian became a disciple.

"I'm a religious man," says Julio, "and I have the ability to see whether a person is both suitable and able to grasp the message I have to give. With Adrian I felt that from the first moment we met. We knew from the beginning that we could work seriously together and that I could reveal the fundamental secrets to him before I die."

Julio began to teach Adrian the skills needed to play the Bata drum. This sacred instrument is central to the Yoruba religion. It has been used in ceremonies for hundreds of years, and is believed to help to expel bad things that come to people when they are in a negative mood or environment.

The culture derives from the African Yoruba culture, dating back to 1496. According to Julio, "Every person, whatever their creed, has a spirit within them from birth - the spirit of their ancestors. This applies to both believers and non-believers."

For five years, Julio and Adrian Coburg worked closely together, both in Switzerland and Cuba. As part of his training, Adrian went to Cuba. "I had to go because they wanted me to learn everything. There I received the privilege to drum with them in their rituals."

Yorubans use the Bata drums to communicate with their Gods. The songs and drum melodies are specifically grouped, depending on the message that needs to be conveyed. When a Yoruban dies, the drum summons the guardian of cemeteries. "This is a very specific drum melody," says Julio. "It contains the message to show the hearse the way to the universe. It reveals all deeds, both good and bad, carried out in a lifetime."

Adrian Coburg is not an adherent of the Yoruba religion, but as an accepted drummer, he is deemed an "investigator" of the religion - someone who communicates its messages to adherents.

Communicating with the Gods is a vital part of being a Yoruban. Julio says the music is a "direct call to the Gods to come down to earth as guardian angels to the chosen people". The Gods "enter the people and speak through them. At this moment one can fall into a trance".

Crucial to Yorubans is the Gods' ability to do away with evil. During religious ceremonies, drum melodies are played for the God of death. Together with the God of spirits, he carries evil away with the help of bells, which are wrapped around the largest drum.

For Julio, the most important thing is that the Yoruban tradition does not die. He's confident Adrian will carry it on, along with others.

To ensure the music's survival, the two men have turned to technology to preserve the sacred sounds. Together they've made a recording of the key melodies. "This recording will reveal the fundamental truth, which was brought to the people through a Yoruban missionary," says Julio. "Even if only a few musicians continue to play this sacred music in Cuba it will survive in places like Switzerland with musicians such as Adrian Coburg."

Image courtesy of Canadian Press

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