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Havana Cultura // Crispin Robinson Q&A

February 29, 2016

As our ‘Havana Club Rumba Sessions: La Clave’ film begins to roll out in cinemas across the UK, Europe and beyond, we sent over some questions to Crispin Robinson who was a vital guide through Cuba’s spiritual drumming and rumba communities.

Produced in collaboration with Havana Cultura – Cuban rum maker Havana Club’s platform to promote Cuban culture – the film is one part of the latest chapter in the longstanding relationship between Gilles Peterson and Havana Cultura. It features interviews with key figures across the island’s musical generations.

It’s an insight into rumba’s continued significance in a country where a carefully preserved past has long sat side-by-side with exciting innovation. It’s about tracing the through lines running from 19th century black communities’ spiritual drumming practises, the dancers and musicians who’ve preserved those traditions, through to the younger generation who’ve plucked out and re-contextualised the elements most exciting to them.

Watch the trailer for the film below and read on to hear about Crispin’s journey into Cuban religious and music culture, and what he felt was important to communicate about rumba culture.

When was your first trip to Cuba and what are the things that first encouraged your love for the country and its culture?

I first went to Cuba in 1998, specifically to learn more about batá drums, which I had started playing in 1991. I went to immerse myself in Afrocuban culture and that inevitably led me into the rumba scene. I loved it instantly.

What, if any, do you see as the connections between your work as a musician in the UK and your role within the Afro-Cuban drumming community?

The connections I’ve been interested in forging have been religious ones. I haven’t really considered any connections between music worlds before. With this film I am interested in bridging that gap and developing new projects. I’m talking with a couple of musicians from the film about bringing a rumba group over here for an extended period to play and do religious work.

How did you first come into contact with Santería?

Through the batá. I began learning here in the UK, and by the time of my first trip to Cuba I already knew a lot about the music and knew dozens of Orisha songs. That opened doors into the religious world. I first took ritual steps into the religion in 2004 when I initiated to Ifa and received my warriors and awofaka. It was the religion that drew me to Cuba.

What was the process, as an outsider, to being initiated into the spiritual drumming community?

Initiated drummers are called “omo Aña” (child of Aña – the orisha of sound and the drum). The process of initiation itself I can’t talk about, but what opened the doors for me was my international network of religious connections. I met a Babalawo in NYC, who introduced me to a well-known Babalawo and batá drummer in Oakland, Yagbe Awolowo Onilu, who recommended me to maestro Angel Bolaños, my drum mentor and the guy who initiated me to Aña. Also just being around on the scene I guess, making connections through friendship networks in Havana and here in London too.

Of the Cuban musicians you’ve met, could you pick one who has been the most inspiring or has had the biggest impact on your life?

I’ve met so many amazing people on this journey, it’s hard to pick one. My mentor, Angel Bolaños, is like a father to me. Chacha, inheritor of Aña Bi, arguably the oldest set of fundamento Aña in Cuba, was wonderful and inspiring to be around. I played Aña Bi with him and his great-nephew, Kole, in Matanzas. They made me a set of drums too, which I have at home. My madrina, Martha Galarraga, an incredible singer and dancer and Shango priestess, initiated me to Obatala in 2010 – that changed my life. She lives in France, otherwise she would have been in the film. I have to also talk about the late Ahmed Diaz, the padrino of Osain del Monte, the young master who we dedicated the film to. He opened many doors for me. I used to play his tambor a lot – I still do, his drum still plays all the time, maintained by his brother and religious family. He was a virtuoso drummer, an Obatala priest and a Babalawo. He was the kingpin of a huge, international family of religious musicians, he has godchildren all over the USA, in Mexico, Venezuela, Panama, the UK…everywhere. That’s why Jennyselt prayed for him at the Osain del Monte party at the end of the film, when he was in hospital, dying. He was such an important figure and is greatly missed. The week before he died he directed the ceremony when I received my own fundamento Aña drums, born from the drums of Bolaños. I pretty much learned how to be a tamborero (batá drummer) playing with him.

Could you give some details of what you’re studying in your Ethnomusicology PhD?

I am writing a PhD about batá drummers and the culture of being a tamborero. The working title is ‘Technicians of the Sacred.’ It’s nearly completed.

In working on the film, what did you feel was important to communicate about Cuban music culture?

For me the most important thing was to honour the integrity of this world and not just produce a little morsel of exotica for a voracious western hipster culture. I was wary at first when Gilles approached me, because it’s important that Black lives and stories are told by Black people. He said early on in our discussions, “Spry, if doing this is going to negatively affect your relationships in Cuba in any way we shouldn’t do it.” That’s when I felt I could trust that he wanted to do something worthwhile. The framing of the film – “White DJ introduces Black culture to the world with corporate sponsorship” – is problematic for me, but Gilles isn’t pretending to be an authority on rumba, and we’re all too obsessed with race these days anyway. It’s not about race per se, it’s about telling stories with integrity. I think we did that. I’m proud of the film.

‘Havana Club Rumba Sessions: La Clave’ is screening across the UK, Europe and beyond from now until May. For full details of screenings head here.