Percussion is my passion: interview with Cuban musician Brenda Navarette

Today this young woman, winner of La Fiesta del Tambor 2010 (Drum Festival), in the batá category for best female performance, has decided to walk her solo path and soon the presentation of her album ‘Mi Mundo' (My World) will showcase her desire to mix, experiment and create in her compositions and vocal interpretations. But above all, as always, she is a percussionist first of all.

From 2007, Brenda joined the community project Alafia and at the same time as a minor percussionist and main singer of the Jazz Band, a group with which she participated in different editions of Jojazz, the Youth International Jazz Festival, among others. When she graduated from school, she joined Obbiní Batá, in 2009, and learned many tools for dancing, singing and acting. Later she joined Santa Habana and the collective Interactivo, which she has never left.

"In my life, the most important thing has been my sister Melvis Santa. She has been my guide, my support, the first hand I could always hold to walk the paths of music and to know, learn, study. "Academic study provides the fundamental bases but later it is personal effort and self-preparation that can enable you to learn percussion.

"At school you do not learn enough. You get the basics of percussion in the teaching of classical, and symphonic music, and that's fine, but students have to do a lot of research on their own, especially to develop what we call popular percussion.

"I received classes at the tumbadora, bongo, and güiro academies until, in the third year, during my student internship period, I went to an elementary school to learn how to teach. There I worked with a student who at 14 or 15 years old asked me if I knew how to play batá. I did not know how at this point.

"From then on I connected with batás. I had not defined myself by any particular instrument yet because I had not gone deeply into any. It was like a game and percussion is something very serious. I began to attend the drums in Cerro, in Marianao (Havana). Remember that batás are religious instruments that have been taken to the stage later. I learned a lot, I researched and I asked a lot. You have to do that for all percussion – with the timbales, with the congas, with all of them.

"Writing and reading scores for percussion is very complex but they offer you the basic tools. It is true that few musicians write or know how to read music for this type of instrument. Outside of Cuba it is more common because everything is more timed, more strictly organized, I do not know how to explain to you. In this musical country, talent is breathed. We say 1, 2, 3 and although the musician has never played with you, it works and sounds good. Many times it happens like this.

Not all Cuban women percussionists have had the luck of Brenda Navarrete.

"It is true and it is regrettable. There are many women percussionists in the country who deserve to be more recognized. Some are members of a band, others are in orchestras such as Canela or Anacaona, all women members, but most are not visible. Those who play batá, for example, lack exposure, are not in the media. In the neighborhoods you find girls and teenagers who, without going to music school, play this instrument very well, and who miss the opportunity to succeed in music because they do not find the right path or the right people to break through. I've been very lucky, it's true.

Sometimes we hear praise like "she plays el macho" (with hard hands) and the name of Brenda Navarrete does not escape this.

"So I play macho? (SMILES) Yes, I know the phrase. And from my hands I tell you that thanks to Tata Güines and Changuito my hands are hard on the inside and on the outside, they have no calluses. They gave me the remedy. It's a secret."Anyway, if my hands were rough or hard, I would not mind. They also told me that I could get sick in the kidneys from playing. I ignored the threat. Percussion is my passion and I defend it outside and inside Cuba."

Link to original interview by La Jiribilla, Cuba