Drums of Candomblé

Zainabu Jallo

In Candomblé practices, drums are dominant and highly revered instruments. Moreover, outside the confines of African-extracted religious traditions, drums have permeated genres of Brazilian lifestyles and music into components that have become distinctively Brazilian. Candomblé and Capoeira – a fusion of martial arts drumming and music with origins in Angola – are said to be amongst the precursors of African drumming in Brazil. A progressive adoption of African elements into Brazilian music began from the beginning of the twentieth century with genres like Samba, Choro, Maracatu and Baião. Today, they have been further developed into sub-genres such as Sambalanço (a fusion of Samba and funk), Manguebeat (a fusion of Maracatu and rock) and Axé (samba reggae). Regardless of the variation, the idiosyncratic reverberation of drums in each cannot be missed.

Ogan Alexandre Buda talks about the meaning of atabaque-drums in Candmoblé
© Zainabu Jallo 2019

Within both ritual and non-ritual settings, African drumming in Brazil is associated with bodily movements in dance. In the ritual ceremonies of Candomblé, dance can lead to a state of trance. Ritual songs and dances in Candomblé are governed by the sound of drums from a set of three sacred drums known as the atabaqués, made of wood and iron hoops that support the stretched drum skin. The skin is derived from the animals sacrificed in the offerings to the Orixás. The rum is the largest of the three and has the lowest tone, followed by the medium-sized rumpiand and the smaller le, which has the highest tone. The sound of a bi-tonal bell called an agogô or gã often accompanies the atabaqué, as well as other instruments such as the piano de cuia (called xekeré in Bahia), a gourd rattle covered with a net of cowries, or beads which are more commonly used today.

To become charged with ritual powers, these conical drums undergo a ritual induction that has to be renewed every year, through offerings for the sustenance of their spiritual power. As sacred instruments, the atabaqués are said to be consecrated with healing powers assigned by Orixás. Along with polyrhythmic music and call-and-response chants honouring an Orixá in Yoruba language, the drumming produces a hypnotic state, in which the performer is possessed by an Orixá in an ecstatic encounter. One of the fundamental tenets of Candomblé is the deep-seated belief in the Axé – a spiritual force that controls the contingencies of everyday existence. For the faithful, music is the manifestation of Axé that guides the worshipper’s movements towards a corporeal take-over by the Orixás.

The Atabaque drums of Ogan Alexandre Buda. Photo © Zainabu Jallo 2019

According to their status as ritual agents, atabaqués are not considered as merely inanimate objects. They have set obligations just like people, each set of atabaqué representing a specific Orixá. The rituals are equivalent to those performed by followers of the Orixá, to which the drums are consecrated. They are dressed and undressed, gendered as either male or female, they can be unhappy or cheerful and even get hungry.

Uninitiated adherents of Candomblé or visitors are not allowed to play, or even touch the atabaqués. They may only be played by consecrated drummers, called alagbês or ogân, who are also responsible for the sustenance and preservation of the sacred drums. On feast days, the ogân must undertake a purification process before touching their atabaqués by bathing them with specific sacred herbs. They must also adhere to certain food restrictions and abstain from alcoholic beverages. On days when rituals ceremonies are not held; the Atabaqué are covered with white fabric or a colour dedicated to the Orixá to whom the drum belongs, symbolizing respect.[1]  And when the Atabaqués need to be taken out of the temple, the terreiro, for maintenance, the ogân has to take them to the altar in order to perform rituals to prepare them for their removal.

Outside of ritual settings, the Rum, Rumpi and Le serve as inspiration for the name and music of Okestra Rumpilezz. The orchestra was created in 2006 by Letieres Leite, a composer and arranger from Salvador, Bahia who fuses scores for Atabaqués with jazz. The orchestra has always been vocal about their connection to the ideals of Candomblé.

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Header: Photo © Roberto Pereira 1969 / wikimedia commons

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References

Cohen, Peter F. “Orisha Journeys: The Role of Travel in the Birth of Yorùbá-Atlantic Religions.” Archives de Sciences Sociales Des Religions, no. 117 (January 1, 2002): 17–36.

Henry, Clarence Bernard. Let’s Make Some Noise: Axé and the African Roots of Brazilian Popular Music. University Press of Mississippi, 2010.

Merrell, Floyd. Capoeira and Candomblé: Conformity and Resistance in Brazil. Markus Wiener Publishers, 2005.

Sterling. “Women-Space, Power, and the Sacred in Afro-Brazilian Culture.” The Global South 4, no. 1 (2010): 71.


[1] A taxi driver I rode with called Eduardo, who happened to be an Ogân, said that atabaqués are also tied in white bows, which is not for purely aesthetic reasons. It is because, as spirit-filled entities, the spirits need to be contained.