A set of Lucumí batá consists of three hourglass-shaped drums, each of which features two apertures--the larger enú and the smaller chachá. The batá orchestra thus consists of three drummers, each of whom play with two handson six skins in all--along with a soloist (cantante/akpón) and a chorus. Polymetric rhythms are produced through a complex conversation between the largest and middle-sized drums, the Iyá and the Itótole, respectively, while the Okónkolo keeps a steady rhythm alongside.
Historically, the batá have been mounted with goatskin or deerskin heads (auó). Traditional batá have used a tension-based tuning system of cords (tirantes), of goatskin in Havana and cáñamo (hemp) in Matanzas. However, it is common today to find nylon cords used, which are easier to manipulate for tuning purposes, or steel tuning hardware (llaves), such as found on modern Conga drums. The last system is preferred by apprentices and in non-ritual, staged musical performance, as the appropriate tones can easily be achieved with the turn of a wrench. The appropriate tones of strap or cord based tuning systems are achieved with a wood mallet to drive the tirantes downward, with a corresponding tightening of the cords, exposure to the sun, and through the application of a ring of fardela, a resin-like medium, to the skins. Fardela lowers the skins tone, particularly on the large mouths of the Iyá and Itótole. During performances, drum tone combines with the icy sound of the chaworó, two belts of varied bells that can be animated during dramatic rhythmic passages. The meticulous emphasis upon tone and timbre highlights the fact that these Yoruba-derived instruments are intended to speak in ways that correspond to the phonological and semantic structure of the Youba language.
The batá drums serve to salute and invoke the egun (ancestors) and orishas, calling the latter down in ceremonies in which spirit possession occurs, wherein the orishas dance and perform healing work (ebó). Though batá drums may remain aberinkulá (unconsecrated, and used at parties that honor the members of the orisha pantheon), consecrated batá drums are indispensable for presiding over important ceremonies of initiation and ebóindeed, playing for a particular orisha often constitutes a strong ebó in its own right . Consecrated drums incorporate the spirit of the orisha called Añá, who is a form of Osain, the mystical herbalist. Añá gives the drums their spiritualized sonority and transformative power. Consecrated batá are born just as initiates and orishas are, and their new capacity is realized when they receive their voice as it is transmitted to them from an extant set of godparent drums. Consecrated batá are called añá or fundamento.
Though the thundergod Shangó owns the celestial music of the batátheir hour-glass form resembles Shangos sacred mortar and double thunder axe--each of the three drums remains in the care of a particular orisha: Iyá (Obatalá), Itótole (Shangó), and Okónkolo (Eleguá), though this pattern may vary.
Batá drums were early played among the African nations of the Yoruba-speaking groups in western Cuban cities; however, oral history collected by the late Cuban ethnologist Fernando Ortiz locates the standardizing of batá building and consecration, under babalawo supervision, in the Havana bay town of Regla during the 1830s. Two Yoruba babalawos (diviner priests), Atandá and Añabí, were responsible for this foundational event. Atandá, who had gained great reputation as an Olú-batá (Chief of the Drums) and agbéguí, a sculptor of religious images, hewed the drums himself.
Scholars consider such drums to be ritual sculpture because they must fulfill a host of formal, iconographic, and aesthetic requirements. Not least, they are also dressed for performance with lavishly beaded aprons called Lucumí batá drums , the imagery of which derives from stories in the odu of Ifá. (see illustration).