Drummer who arrived in U.S. via Mariel boatlift gets national recognition

09/22/2010 7:27 PM

07/03/2012 2:13 PM

Ezequiel Torres has made a life celebrating his ancestors.

And now the master Afro-Cuban drummer and artisan is one of nine artists to be celebrated across the United States, all recipients of the National Endowment for the Arts' National Heritage Fellowship Award. It is the nation's highest honor for folk and traditional artists.

The honorees -- who include bluegrass guitarist Del McCoury, a Ghanaian drum master, a Texas fiddler, a sweetgrass basketweaver from South Carolina and a Bharatanatyam Indian dancer -- receive $25,000 and will perform on stage together Friday at the Music Center at Strathmore in Maryland. The concert will be broadcast via a live webcast at www.arts.gov.

``This music, this drumming belongs to humanity,'' said Torres, who left Miami for Washington Tuesday. ``It's an honor for them to represent, to honor, what we receive from our ancestors.''

The awards will be bestowed Wednesday night by NEA chairman Rocco Landesman at the Library of Congress. The award -- now in its 28th year -- goes to artists who deserve recognition for ``artistic excellence and their efforts to conserve America's cultures for future generations.''

NEA panelists were struck by Torres's dual artistry, said Barry Bergey, the NEA's director of folk and traditional arts. Torres both plays and creates the batá, a set of three double-headed, hourglass-shape drums used in Orisha, the traditional religion of the Yoruba people of West Africa, which the slave trade brought to Cuba.

``Ezequiel is unique in that he is both a musician and a spiritual leader, and he's a craftsperson as well,'' said Bergey, noting that in addition to playing the drums, Torres ``makes the drums, decorates the drums and the garments that are used in the Orisha ceremonies. He's the whole package: He maintains a spiritual and musical tradition, as well as the craft work related to it.''

Torres, who arrived in Miami in 1980 as part of the Mariel boatlift, became interested in bata drumming in Cuba and apprenticed with masters there.

He's now recognized as a top drummer in the United States and has played around the world: ``It's a living experience,'' he said. ``You don't go to school. It's day to day, a natural thing. When you are born in Cuba, you feel the music, you feel the rhythm before you come into this world.''

Stephen Stuempfle, the former chief curator at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida in Miami, featured Torres in an exhibit at the museum and nominated him for the award. Stuempfle said the NEA recognition is important for a master like Torres, but also for the traditions of Orisha, which has been incorporated into Santeria.

``It's still misunderstood and misrepresented and this is important for better cultural understanding,'' said Stuempfle, now the executive director of the Society for Ethnomusicology in Indiana. ``Ezequiel has always been very concerned with increasing better public understanding into these Afro-Cuban traditions.''

Torres notes that the drums are central to Orisha because they communicate with the Orisha deities and represent ``all the elements of the natural environment.

``When we drum it's part of prayer, it's part of life,'' Torres said. ``The music is the first expression of the soul.''

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