Illustration: Mayo Bous
Illustration: Mayo Bous

A drum for this women's revolution

11 minutos / Mariana Camejo

05.10.2020 / Reportages

It's always cold in Canada, or at least that's what anyone born in Cuba would say. With that temperature that forces her to be covered, Yissy, who grew up killing, selling balls and playing music, is at a jam, in a bar that a friend had invited her to. When the group that is downloading pauses, it tells them that Yissy will come up to play. She carries her story of a naughty girl, the fascination with percussion and the years of study, because those are the things that travel with people wherever they go, even if they don't have them tattooed on their faces. So Yissy García, the renowned Cuban drummer, goes up to leave everyone speechless and then the unforeseen happens. The musicians get up in full, abandon the instruments and she is left alone on stage.

The problem is not that she was born on this controversial island. It's not about her black body and afro hair. The problem is that Yissy is a woman and supposedly women do not have the strength in their hands or the resistance in their arms to be percussionists.

The only thing she could think about at that moment was the desperate desire that the earth would swallow her up.

Play like a macho

Strength, speed, dynamism, constancy, these are words that could describe percussion, but they are attributes historically associated with the masculine. The logic of binary thinking has also flooded the field of music and making a good sound on drums or tumbadoras has nothing to do with soft, sensitive or fickle, qualities related to the feminine. Precisely because of this simplistic dichotomy, if a woman dreams of becoming a percussionist, a challenging career awaits her, which includes disengaging from the stereotype of disability to which female musicians are condemned a priori.

That simplistic dichotomy was also the reason why the musicians left the stage and why Yissy, when she was 10 years old and started studying percussion as the only girl in the classroom, felt the rejection of her classmates. She was frowned upon, she confesses, and if she played a male instrument, then she must be "a tomboy."

This constant reference to a supposed antithesis of the feminine, also permeated the life of Juana Veliz Cruz, today Anacaona's drummer.

"I told my parents that I was going to study percussion when I was 15 years old," she relates. I had the support of my mom, but my dad didn't want me to study music. It was my first challenge. Not having the support of the whole family made it more complicated. The other was the age, it was too late to study the specialty in an art school. I started in private classes, so I had to try twice as hard. Until I entered a course for workers at the Paulita Concepción Conservatory, where I really had the support of the teachers. The biggest challenge was the comparison with men. "You have to study to make it sound macho to you, play hard as a man." Things I didn't understand ”.

"If you had to choose between all the sounds in your life, which sound would you love the most?" I ask her.

"There are many sounds that I like," she answers. The sea and the rain, but I think that above all is the drum. As they say, it is the sound of the heart.

And in this, she agrees with Mary Paz, who took her first steps in music within the Catholic Church La Milagrosa. There her mother, since she was 16 years old, sings and plays the piano. Mary Paz, for her part, began singing in the choirs every Sunday and playing the drums. Before she turned 15, she decided on percussion. She wanted to buy a battery but there was nowhere, so her mother bought her some tumbadoras. It was then that she fell completely in love with the drum.

—In an interview you said that one of your motivations for venturing into the world of percussion is the fact that it is a field where it is difficult for women to succeed. Why?

- Nowadays, the opinion about women in percussion has improved, but it is still a total challenge. Many people see it as a strong instrument and continue to underestimate us. I have faced some of those comments. In the beginning they shocked me a lot but today I don't even think about it. You have to be very clear about your objectives and goals so that none of this affects you and to be able to achieve an important place within Afro-Cuban percussion, as a woman.

For a time Mary Paz was playing with the group Diákara at the Jazz Café every Wednesday and Thursday. At that time she was 16 years old and she remembers people who criticized her a lot. Once a man approached her and asked: “What do you play? Are you the singer or the pianist? ”. I'm the percussionist, she said, and although he mumbled a few words of approval (“great, I've seen few female percussionists”), she perceived him skeptical. She was not wrong. "You gave hit me without hands!", That man confessed, surprised, after the concert.

Break the barriers, do percussion

Yuliet Abreu, a member of Los Papines, explains to me that when someone wants to emphasize that you sound weak, they tell you “that sound is female”. But she believes that it is played with the sound of a percussionist musician, not female or male.

These kinds of "established" claims in music jargon assume that men are stronger than women and, by constitution, nature has endowed them with ideal physical characteristics that women do not possess. However, these atavistic differentiations, which are nothing more than a sexist way of approaching music, come into conflict with other issues without which it would be impossible to do percussion. Or would someone claim that to be a percussionist you only need to be a man?

“By applying the technique you achieve the same as with force,” Yissy says. When you are going to play the tumbadora you have to strengthen your hands and that is achieved with exercises. It takes your energy out and it also depends on your resistance, but it is gained with practice, playing and studying every day and it is as strong for a man as for a woman ”.

"The secret is in the constancy," Mary Paz reveals, "there are no barriers, everything is in the mind."

Daymi Jaime Illas has her own history of effort in percussion. She loved music since she was a child, when she sang and played on tables with the desire to one day be part of a large orchestra. "Hopefully those girls who are growing up can have the opportunity to play in these orchestras and have good projects."

Today she plays tumbadoras in Anacaona, but her story began in Caribe Girls. “As percussionists we must have a certain development in each percussion instrument”, he tells me, “but we are always focused on one. The beginnings were a big test for me, because you have to have a lot of independence. But I studied, I faced it and I did it. I made it. I really passed the test. "

Juana Veliz, for her part, believes that the main thing is to be constant and listen to a lot of music, of various genres, because everyone can contribute and enrich the musician. “Don't get stuck in just one. That helps you create your own style. Your way of playing defines you as a percussionist ”.

"But what are the arguments for saying that men are better than women?"

"There is nothing to prove that men are better at percussion," Juana said. Women have shown that they can play and with a high level. It would be gratifying for me to see that someone wants to study because they listened to me. Being an inspiration to other women and encouraging them to study is like receiving an award for your work and something that we have to do; open those doors to future generations of girls.

Also, Daymi hints at what appears to be an advantage for men. She believes that, compared to women, they can spend more time rehearsing and improving, because they “always have other jobs. Some are mothers, they have to work at home, and in that sense men can dedicate themselves more ”.

Yuliet Abreu is a mother. She states that in another life he will be a bassist and laughs. I ask her how motherhood and music are combined, because not only in percussion, but in any other branch, many women pause their career after the arrival of a baby and life after a birth is very difficult to reconcile with rehearsals or music. I work late into the night. I know in advance that each woman I ask this question will have a different answer, permeated by her own experience.

"When you become a mother, logically your priorities change," Yuliet tells me, "your mind and body change a lot, and you are under the gaze of everyone." In my case, I had the unconditional support of my family to be able to rehearse and work. I did an international tour and a national tour while I was pregnant. But to be a mother and an artist, I think that if you don't have a team behind you supporting you, it's quite complicated. I was very lucky. Trust me.

Yissy has no children but it is something she has been thinking about and yearning for a long time. In her reflections on how she imagines that life, she makes me an anecdote. Remember that once she met a great American trumpeter who was with her husband (he drummer) and their two little ones. “I asked her if it wasn't difficult with the children and she told me that they were getting by. There are women who sacrifice themselves and don't stop playing music at all ”.

Following the myth that mothers are the ones who should stay at home is perhaps the motive of many women to de-prioritize their careers, Yissy supposes. “But that the child's father stays while the mother works, I don't see it bad. When I have my babies, as if I have to put them on my back to continue working.

A women's (musical) revolution

Yissy remains alone on stage. Her friend moves from table to table looking for people to play with her because please, she is a friend. Without much desire, several musicians come up and something like what do you prefer? they ask the Cuban. She says no problem, you choose. They finally start to play and Yissy follows them. An air of stupefaction fills the bar. The drummer sounds phenomenal and they, while improvising with their instruments, turn to look at her in surprise. Thank you, they tell you when they finish.

Those, the others, the ones who had left the stage, come back and ask Yissy to play with them. But now that she has proven herself, it has been enough for her.

“Before finishing school, I had started playing with jazz groups. When I was 14 I started playing at Jojazz and later I worked with others like Bobby Carcassés and Alexis Bosch. But I went through a lot of work, I always had to show that I had mastered the instrument ”, she says.

I wonder if somewhere in the world the sexist division, in a moment of evaluating qualities and aptitudes, could end the career of women in music. It has certainly happened before and it can continue to happen. It does not seem to be the reality of Cuba today, but the logics of thought remain in a sort of monotonous melody, or comfortable lethargy of the social imaginary. Always comfortable for men, of course. With that litany hammering in my temples after so much writing, I hook on headphones and hear these icon women. I close my eyes and check it out. Music has no genitals, so it lacks sex. It cannot be pigeonholed into a male-female form. I hear a drum. Intoxicated by this union of women, an idea comes to me: musical revolution.

Mariana Camejo

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