How music led me to Aña (the spirit in the drum)
In March of 2017, I traveled to Cuba with my teacher and long time friend Orlando Fiol. A master of many musical traditions, he trained me in Batá drumming for 8 years. We received multiple Master/Apprenticship grants from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and would spend countless hours together examining Afro-Cuban music, religion, culture and the Nigerian roots of these traditions. Orlando is also completely blind, so when we went we Cuba, I was his guide and he was my translator.
Orlando had been initiated to Pancho Quinto’s set of Batá in 1996 and was the connection to my Padrino, Francisco Marquetti. Frank is a highly respected Babalawo in Cuba and is the son of Lazaro Marquetti. The linage of his drums was explained to me as being born from ‘Aña Bi’, the first set of consecrated drums in Cuba. Our drums are “Aña Bi Olorun”
This was not a vacation. We went for 3 specific reasons.
1)To receive my warriors, meaning Elegua, Ogun, Ochosi and Inle. 2)To receive Awofaka, confirming my reading with Orunmila. 3)To be sworn to a set of consecrated Batá drums, ‘Aña Bi Olorun’ and, therefore, be named Omo Aña. The ceremonies are extensive and secretive, so I can’t get into the details, but I will say, it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and the most meaningful to my spiritual growth as a person and musician.
See, I was an outsider to these traditions, and I’ve always felt like one. Except when learning in Ghana, but that’s another story. Even though I can play, I am a white man from Philadelphia, raised by two women in a loving home of recovering Catholics. I didn’t even know what a hand drum was until I was 19. I wasn’t brought up in this tradition, I had a vision and a calling and came to this music by following the drum. Something I can say with dignity now, but back then, no matter how much I studied, learned, supplicated or prostrated, I still looked and felt like an outsider. After these physical and spiritually demanding ceremonies of commitment and sacrifice, it no longer mattered where I was born, or where I was raised, or that I had white skin and blue eyes. In the eyes of the Orishas, I was simply inside. To all other initiated drummers I would be called ‘Abure’. I was no longer an outsider, and it felt good.
We accomplished our 3 goals in 10 days. But there was one more dream I was hoping to make real. I had been working on Leana Song’s Orisha Love Songs Vol.2 - Oru Cantado for 3 years and was hoping to find a Cuban singer to sing lead, or ‘Akpon’, for many of the songs. One of the few nights we went out, we saw a great band who had a number of amazing singers. The one that stood out to me was Navis Angarica, the daughter of Papo Angarica, a very well known and respected rumbero and santero. Naivis’ voice just cut right through me and I decided to ask her to record on the new Leana Song album. Orlando made the introduction and we invited Naivis to our first-floor apartment to sing. It was unbelievable. The three of us were in a small foyer with tiled walls and a window letting in the sounds of Havana.
Naivis listened to the tracks on my computer with headphones and sang into a Shure MV88 mic which connected to my phone. Because the songs were all traditional in form, she was able to nail most of the 19 songs in one take. Yes, 19 songs we did in 2 hours. Navis was amazing and you should check her music here.
So when I got back home I edited the vocals and finished Volume 2. Right now it is only available at www.shawnhennessey.com, but I will add it to the streaming platforms soon. I truly felt that I had to make the aforementioned spiritual commitments before I could release this music for both my own feeling gratitude and respect to the Orishas and to the ancestors who carried these musical traditions through centuries of oppression.
In recent years, Leana Song has become less of a performance group and more of a teaching ensemble that brings Afro-Cuban drumming and dance to schools and Universities. Our current members are Christian Noguera, Raul Cisneros, Wesley Rast, Cachet Ivey, Jonathan Delgado We’ve led residencies at the University of Pennsylvania, the Curtis Institute of Music, and Temple University. I am also the founder and director of the World Percussion Program at Germantown Friends School which has been running for 17 years and Leana Song is an artist with Musicopia.
Thanks for taking the time to dig my story.
Much Love, Shawn