893. The First Female Percussion Instrument Maker in the Caribbean

Amateur-turned-professional percussion instrument maker Tatiana Saturnino-Felix (30), Founder of Tera Percussions, creates music with a special sound. A sound that emerges from the distant past. But Tatiana doesn’t actually play the instruments she creates. She has no musical training. She leaves the music to famous international musicians Yotam Silberstein (Dizzy Gillespie All Star Big Band), the fabulous Shirma Rouse and Giovanca Ostiana from Curaçao, now living in the Netherlands, the incomparable base player Hershel Rosario from Curaçao, and her Grammy-winning husband, Pernell Saturnino. Tatiana’s instruments make her husband — quite possibly the best percussionist in the world — sound even better. (If that’s not love, I don’t know what is)

Needless to say, Tatiana has many fans, and she’s extremely grateful to them. Grammy-winning saxophonist David Sánchez from Puerto Rico loves her barí (a traditional Curaçao drum played in Tambú and Séu, Curaçao’s harvest festival). Curaçaoan Painter André Nagtegaal has managed to add a culturally bright visual experience to her exceptional audio. And Tatiana credits Vanessa Toré’s [Curaçao Chamber of Commerce] support and sound advice in getting Tera Percussions off the ground.

Rosario D’Rivera painting on Tatiana’s Cajón.

But Tatiana is slightly star-struck when she proudly exclaims that Paquito D’Rivera is a fan… In fact, he became obsessed with the exceptional sound of Tatiana’s bongo cajón at the Blue Note Jazz Club in Manhattan when Pernell accompanied The Dizzy Gillespie All Star Big Band in May 2012. Paquito wanted to buy the cajón then and there. But Pernell held on throughout their gigs at the DC Jazz Festival. Lucky Paquito, their last gig on June 4th happened to be his birthday, so Pernell and Tatiana gifted him their cajón. Today it’s a fixture at Paquito’s jam sessions and his amazingly talented painter sister, Rosario D’Rivera, has even painted on some of Tatiana’s cajóns!

It all began in early 2011, when Tatiana approached expert percussion instrument maker, Ruben Rosalia, to help her create the perfect Valentine’s Day gift for Pernell: a handmade barí. Zero previous musical and instrument making training, but not one to shirk challenges, a short year and a half later, Tatiana has created several different percussion instruments: barí di bomba (barí grandi), cajón, bongo cajón, marímbula, tambora. Her talented husband is designated sound tester. Tatiana says it’s simply “their way of life”.

Here Pernell tests a barí grandi:

Tatiana didn’t grow up dreaming of becoming a percussion instrument maker. In fact Curaçao’s amazing percussion tradition wasn’t even part of her childhood. Her mixed race father forbade her from attending Tambú parties and Séu parades, obsessively eager to “drecha raza” (translation: improve race); a form of racial cleansing by way of procreation. Tatiana wasn’t allowed to have black friends; most of her childhood friends are light-skinned, like her Portuguese mother who emigrated from Madeira. She wasn’t allowed to attend school dance parties, known to have some krioyo sous. Her father wanted to erase krioyo from her life as much as humanly possible. Tatiana, along with her mother and brother, obeyed him to avoid conflict; sometimes even harsh physical abuse.

A self-proclaimed rebel, Tatiana had her last straw at 16 so she moved in with her Portuguese grandmother. Her mother and brother followed her example.

Tatiana focused on her education; she’s a double-major in IT and Business Administration. She became a professional web designer. But pesky identity crisis and self-doubt kept haunting her. No longer in her father’s tight grip, but not exactly free, she started to question her childhood beliefs and values, started to wander and explore… Izaline Calister’s “biggest fan”, she played her Krioyo album te gasta (to shreds), she remembers the exact date she met Pernell with ease: it was Izaline’s concert on November 5, 2004, Pernell performed in her band.

Tatiana putting finishing touches on her first Barí grandi.

Pernell introduced her to the magic of Tambú and Séu. Pernell believes in her. He encourages her to pursue her interests. And though he has tremendous pride in Curaçao’s culture and tradition, “his perspective is different [given his 20+ years of living in the US] yu’i Kórsou living in the US tend to adopt a global perspective, they’re able to look beyond Curaçao and the Netherlands.” (Tatiana speaks from experience having lived in New York from 2006 – 2009 and Holland 2009 – 2010 with Pernell)

Tatiana isn’t quite sure why she’s so gifted at nailing that “special sound”. After all, expert instrument makers tend to study sound waves for [many, many] years in order to create their unique sound. I pry a bit, she finally tells me it must be “poder di antepasado” (translation: power of ancestry) She seems to share their experience of repression and struggle.

That special sound lives in her core and emerges through beautiful partnership with Pernell. A bit like childbirth, I remark. “No way!” she freaks, not quite ready for the literal kind.

Sometimes people accuse her of being machorro (a woman with male tendencies) because she creates with her hands. She could care less. She loves what she does.


Click here to play Pernell Saturnino & Friends performing Ora Dushi (sweet hour) arranged by Miguel Zenon at Curaçao North Sea Jazz Festiva 2011.

About 1000awesomethingsaboutcuracao

I'm Carolina Gomes-Casseres, the creator of 1000 Awesome Things About Curaçao. I live in Manhattan but sometimes miss my first awesome island. Thanks for visiting!


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