The drum is the simplest of musical instruments.

We simply know, when force is brought to bear upon a resonant surface, that percussive energy is transmitted through the atmosphere to impact the tympanic membrane in the middle ear. The effect is immediate and can be utterly intoxicating.

And whilst that drumbeat might be the simplest component of musical composition, when arranged into passages, it can feel like the purest aural analogue of being. Our bodies need rhythms. Beats mirror the explosions in the deepest muscles of the heart. We relish their immutability, irreducibility, their energy. We know to anticipate the rise of an impending beat, we crave the sensation of the impact of a tone on the air, lament the collapse of sound when we are left in that very particular aural vacuum between beats as a tone gives way to an equally potent momentary silence. It is the most basic epistemological statement: there must after that beat, by logical necessity, be that space in which the beat can be; there must be silence.

And silence, in its varied creative forms, is important. In so many areas of the Arts, silence is utilized to conjure special things from our collective imagination. Ernest Hemingway often spoke about the importance of omission in his writing, of how what he chose to suggest through absence could be as affecting as what was made explicit. In much traditional African music the lacuna, the skip in a beat or momentary silence can be significant, not just as a mechanical break in the sound, but because of what it can uniquely invoke for the listener. In many of the most celebrated African drumming traditions, silence is not seen as the field upon which sound is placed – silence is an equal and active component of overall composition. What can be suggested by the quality of momentary quiet is deeply considered and highly valued. Some African drummers have taken that idea of active-silence to its extraordinary conclusion. They have learned to collude with the silence and interference between the multiple rhythms of drums, to collaborate with that alter-rhythm, to entice it from the aural shadows, finessing and focusing patterns of particular sounds. Even though no single drummer controls these rhythms, this distinct field of resonance is said to have a dynamic and responsive quality all of its own. It has been called the inside rhythm, a ghostly musical presence that seems to be manifest within musical space and silences. The mechanics and history of the inside rhythm are somewhat mysterious, but the politics of this silence sits at the nexus of significant cultural phenomena connected to race, identity and Trans-Atlantic exchange.

And silence was also deployed as part of the complex weaponry of the imperial project, as a key element of a project of suppression and infantilization of peoples of African descent. Sometimes silence was imposed, as when drumming, performance and singing were banned and instruments were confiscated or destroyed, and sometimes a very selective deafness was deployed to help salve colonial consciences. At its worst blankets were thrown over colonies to extinguish protest and dissent, to hide legitimate opposition and assuage colonial guilt. And creativity was often dampened, education often tightly controlled, drums were outlawed or confiscated and other forms of creativity and artistic expression were suppressed. It left people effectively voiceless and their histories tainted through misinformation: perhaps most painfully, the material culture that anchored narrative was often destroyed or removed. Even today, no Sub-Saharan African state has historical collections of material culture that can compare to the vast bodies of confiscated and appropriated African objects that sit in the national museums of France or Britain, no African ethnic group owns a collection of narrative textiles that can compare to those held in international private collections, and more African antiquities annually pass through Western auction houses than reside within the most celebrated indigenous collections. A race was rendered mute, actively silenced, its story shattered.

When in the eighteenth century the most respected European intellectuals sought to justify the burgeoning expansion of European interests in Africa, it was posited as a programme of shining a light into the otherwise cultural vacuum of Africa. They saw the consolidation of European engagement in Africa in part as a search for cultures that were like theirs – they wanted to find buildings, material culture, artistic conventions and intellectual achievements that were similar or comparable to the accomplishments of cultures of Europe. They sought what Immanuel Kant described as ‘architectonic’ bodies of knowledge, complex cultural superstructures with their own intellectual provenance.[1] They looked for writing traditions like those that underpinned classical European cultures – and yet, as Kant and many other intellectuals of the Enlightenment wrote, they simply could not find them.[2] Hume observed of people of African descent that ‘not a single one was ever found who presented greatness in art or science or any other praiseworthy quality’[3] ; he pointed out that ‘so fundamental is the difference between these two races of man, and it appears to be as great in regard to mental capacities as in colour’[4]. Hegel concluded that Africa ‘as far as History goes back, has remained – for all purposes of connection with the rest of the World – shut up; it is the Gold-Land compressed within itself, – the land of childhood, which lying beyond the day of self-conscious history, is enveloped in the dark mantle of Night.’[5] Like many of his contemporaries, Hegel conjectured that as Europe emerged into the light, the African continent had been left alone locked in a culture-free state resembling Europe’s dark and distant past. The pioneering Europeans looked to Africa and claimed they found nothing, but a dark void. These men who defined the Enlightenment, constructed its hierarchies and categories, these intellectuals who laid out the framework of modern law, morality and its identified metaphysics – looked upon Africa, a well-populated and varied-cultured continent, and saw nothing. It made colonialism, and the imposition of Western cultural norms, seem like a kindness.

The denigration of the Black narrative was so effective that in the late 20th century, as the British Empire was being dismantled, Nobel Prize winning poet Derek Walcott, one of the most insightful Caribbean minds, looked longingly for his African heritage, and proclaimed that he could not find it. In his great poem The Sea is History, he mournfully sought out his African past. The poem opens with an unforgettable and unnegotiable question, ‘Where is your tribal memory’?[6] He then unforgettably asks, ‘where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?’[7] All painful and difficult questions posed at Africans and people of African descent. Walcott’s response to that request to locate memory, tradition and material heritage is painfully exact: Where is my tribal memory? ‘Sirs, In that gray vault. The Sea. The Sea Has locked them up. The Sea is history’[8]. He describes the pain of absolute loss of his past, as the devastation of Transatlantic slavery wrecked cultures, traditions and memory, leaving a cultural void. And that devastation was only followed by the systematic undermining of black culture by plantation and colonial regimes. So, ‘where is your tribal memory?’ The question or ironic taunt could infer, not just that history has been lost, but like the most celebrated enlightenment era philosophers, it could suggest that Black history, Black culture could never really be.

But the truth was that African New World cultures were never silenced. Evidence suggests that African histories and Black culture were not irrevocably damaged or lost; they were always in evidence. Even whilst Hegel wrote about that Darkness, travel writers like Mungo Park were exploring the complexity of African cultures, particularly its speech surrogacy and drumming systems[9]. European Enlightenment era travellers consistently returned with evidence of Africans deeply invested in maintaining their culture and intellectual traditions, and ethnographers had long written of complex drumming languages and how these sounds were replicated in an array of ways. Mungo Park was the first of many European travellers who made their way across West Africa and recorded not just indigenous writing but also communication systems, from the Idoma yodelling languages that could project for over a mile, to the Ibo whistles, the Bambole and Lobi spherical flutes designed to mimic drum phrases. And over following generations, in subsequent expeditions, a steady flow of Europeans studied the drum, xylophone and communication systems, spending time amongst the Lobi and Sisaala of Northern Ghana and varied ethnic groups across Burkina Faso, Cote D’Ivoire, Mali and Guinea. These were the very peoples from whose populations were drawn many of the millions who made the Atlantic crossing into enslavement. The idea that these European intellectuals were not aware of some of these cultures seems barely credible, and if they were, that they chose to discount or ignore their accomplishments is unforgivable. A steady flow of research was published across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a burgeoning body of evidence that could have countered that ambient racist thinking. Half a century after Park, Trotter, the Victorian explorer, described how people on the banks of the Niger,‘could communicate … at very great distance by the war drum which is kept in every village … so that there is intimation of danger long before the enemy can attack them.’[10] And a further fifty years on, R.E. Dennet wrote, in 1881, ‘we in Landana heard of the wreck of the mail steamer, Ethiopia, sixty or seventy miles away one or two hours after its actual occurrence in Luango, by drum message … The drum language, so called, is not limited to a few sentences but, given a good operator, and a good listener, comprehends all a man can say.’[11] Across the period of most intense colonial expansion there was increasing knowledge of the sophistication of African cultures and their communication systems. Yet for most Europeans, Africa remained a blank space on the map onto which a new narrative could be imposed. Prejudices were so hardened that all evidence, however definitive, was ignored: this was a tabula rasa continent of child-like inhabitants that could benefit from a strong hand.

These drum practices were robust, durable and they were loved. In various ways they crossed the Atlantic, and in various ways they survived. Attempts to silence and suppress drum usage were rarely successful. Resisting controls and impositions placed upon music only served to make drumming political, to charge percussion with a particular romantic energy. Drumming did not just survive colonial interventions, the Atlantic crossing and the regimes of plantation colonies, it became an aural record of human endurance and a focus of resistance. As a cultural field of translation few other areas of creative practice acquired such political potency.

This drum is one of the oldest surviving African-American objects. It was collected in the early 1700s in the Colony of Virginia, now part of the United States of America. It was acquired in or about 1735 by an Irish physician, Hans Sloane, the founder of the British Museum and a slave owner. Today, it sits within the British Museum collection, perhaps the greatest cultural instantiation of the Enlightenment ever created: a collection of more than eight million objects that combine to tell a very particular story of Britain in relation to the world. This instrument was one of the very first objects identified and absorbed into the collection. And even as this drum was being collected and integrated in the British Museum, it seems to have acquired contested histories. Today, it is accepted by scholars to be an Akan drum, a West African object that was transported across the Atlantic from West Africa, and found its way to a Virginia tobacco plantation where it came into the possession of Hans Sloane, becoming one of the first objects in his collection. But there were other versions of its provenance that suggest that it was carved by an enslaved African American, that it is actually a very early replica of an Akan drum, or indeed, that it was actually made by a Native American.

What can be said indisputably about it, is that it is a beautiful object – about the size of a large adult human torso, its exterior wooden surfaces have been carved with simple decoration of textile-like stripes and chevrons. In its original Asante context, it would have been used, within a family of drums, as the central focus of formal ceremonies. An expert in drum communication would have used it to wrap an audience in sound and praises. The 1730’s identification of this drum as a Native American object was in complete sympathy with other European enlightenment thought: Africa had little or no culture – so it was labelled by as an ‘American Indian drum’. It was an identification that remained unchallenged until 1906.

1906 is important – 1906 is the year that Freud began the work that would produce Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, it was when Einstein published his first paper on relativity, and in America, Henry Ford had become convinced of the possibility of a mass-market car. But it was a number of creative visionaries, who began to map out what the cultural ramifications of these changes might be, how these new technological advances and innovative thinkers would combine to deliver a new set of existential aspirations, that really set the tone for the era. It was the year Picasso began work on Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, a painting that was not a further resolution of the aesthetic conundrum of light and hue that had been teasing European artists for centuries, it wasn’t an evolutionary step that took us closer to understanding the subtle mechanics of paint and canvas, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was the discovery of a new aesthetic aim, a paradigm shift from trying to resolve the physics of the visual, to trying to come to terms with its metaphysics; creative expression like torn pages from a diary, not perfectly metered poetry. It was not a depiction of other people – it was a self-portrait of everyone. And to find that spirit of human commonality, Picasso looked to Africa for inspiration. Picasso, like Freud, saw in African intellectual traditions a thrilling set of possibilities and perspectives from which he, we, could learn.

And during that same year that Picasso began painting his Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the African American musician Scott Joplin composed A Quarrel in Ragtime. For America at the turn of the twentieth century this was a new kind of musical deal. It didn’t ask for silence or your attention. It was physical. It grabbed you, robbed you of choice and tormented you with that fact. Perhaps that is why it became known as Ragtime: it simply ragged you until you gave in. Like so much twentieth century music (including the music of Brazil), it was part waltz and military marching band in ancestry. It liberated a racy and innovative treble clef; as Ragtime became popular, Joplin allowed the pianist’s right hand more and more freedom, playing innovative harmonies, mocking the thudding, plodding Nineteenth Century rhythms of the left hand into submission, pushing the new genre to its limit to discover Jazz lurking beneath. Like new burgeoning radical creativity across the world, it seemed to speak to something that we simply knew. Perhaps by coincidence, it leant heavily on musical techniques, well-known in Africa, of building complex stages on multiple rhythms, of building layers of cross-beats, of utilizing contrasting rhythmic patterns within the same meter. Into the gap, the void between beats, where there might have conventionally been a momentary breath, Joplin poured dissonance, disobedience, sex, love, hate – that space would be his terrain of revolt. In the void where Hegel saw nothing, he posited a new agenda for life. Joplin called it a quarrel, but it was more than that, it had a grand totality, and acoustic gestalt. It continued the tradition of celebrating the disruptive silence: dissonant silences crackled across the soundstage, bristling with all that accreted anger and meaning. It would later catalyze the earliest work of Louis Armstrong, when in recordings of Struttin’ with some Barbecue (1928) he used that silence to evoke a soulful energy. Joplin had succeeded in building a new musical dialectic of such complex cross-rhythmic texture that the main beat arrangement could barely be separated from the secondary beat pattern. It was utterly revolutionary – yet it seemed to encapsulate the moment. So when, a decade later, young men shared cigarettes on the front in the First World War, it was this music they whistled; when on leave in Paris, it was the bars that played Be Bop and Jazz they sought out. It had not only laid the seeds of popular music, it would also re-inspire a new generation of classical music development. This was the reservoir of inspiration that would drive Stravinsky’s tonal and rhythmic explorations, and his innovation in the use of silence – catalyzing invention that would trigger the practice of Messiaen.

And perhaps inspired by those ambient challenges to traditional thinking, an ethnographic curator at the British Museum decided to look again at that early ‘American Indian drum’ and later in 1906 wrote a small addendum to the original catalogue entry, questioning the drum’s recognized provenance, suggesting that this beautiful thing might indeed be African, or created by someone of African descent. It took seventy years, and huge advances in dendrology, to confirm that the main body of the drum was carved from cordia africana, a tree native to West Africa. This is, was, an African drum, and we can now build a hypothesis of how this West African drum came to be found on a Virginia plantation. It is highly probable that the drum came to the Americas aboard a slave ship. Enslaved peoples were allowed no possessions. So perhaps it was a souvenir collected by one of the European ship’s crew, or perhaps it was in the possession of a wealthy independent African who was travelling to the Caribbean or Europe. It may have been used as part of the appalling practice of ‘dancing the slaves’ – a horrendous tradition of enforced exercise that would take place on the decks of slave ships. All of this is conjecture, but we know that this drum, and other similar musical instruments, crossed the Atlantic, and perhaps more importantly, so did the techniques for making and playing them.

The maintenance of drumming and musical traditions represents a poignant form of defiance for enslaved peoples across the Americas, a conscious investment in cultural continuity in the face of brutality, enslavement and colonialism – the skills of making, the perpetuation of musical tradition, the up-keep of African stories, the conservation of history and culture, and the preservation of material links to Africa became critical – and from Santeria to Candomblé we can see the rich results of the sacrifices made to hold on to African cultural practices. They drafted the musical instruments of colonialism, they used drums, fifes and penny whistles, they adopted the marching tempo and then subverted it, broke it, twisted and reconstructed it, building a new musical landscape of exchange and hybridization. And as they had been in Africa, musical conventions were a powerful galvanizing and unifying force.

Over time, many farm and plantation owners began to grow anxious that this music, particularly drumming, might forge a potentially threatening sense of community amongst the enslaved. They worried that drums might be not a diversion from the struggles of everyday existence, but a potential trigger of dissent and opposition. They were proven correct. In 1739, in South Carolina, drums were the critical ingredient in enabling the Stono Rebellion from coming within a hair’s breath of overthrowing the plantation management. The majority of the men and women who worked on the land adjacent to the Stono River were ethnically South West African, and they shared knowledge of the similar drum languages and cultural practices. After a sustained period of appalling abuse these communities simply snapped, and on the 10th September 1739, they drummed a call to arms. When the drumming ceased and the dust had settled, forty African Americans and twenty Euro-Americans had lost their lives. This and similar rebellions prompted the colony, and many others across the Americas, to outlaw drums and drumming. Hans Sloane, founder of the British Museum and who owned substantial plantations in Jamaica, later wrote how the African men and women forced to work on his land in Jamaica ‘Formerly …. were allowed the use of Trumpets after their fashion, and Drums made of a piece of a hollow Tree, covered on one end with any green Skin… But .. it was thought too much inciting them to Rebellion, and so they were prohibited by the Customs of the Island.’[12] The drum had been declared a weapon of war, a thing to fear – its music, its messages, ammunition for dissent and rebellion – music had become an incendiary thing.

 

The impacts of banning and systematically denigrating Black music were profound. Drumming was dangerous. It was occasionally forced underground, becoming tainted and compromised. But that only served to charge it with even greater importance. Traditions that had survived the middle passage, along with new and hybrid cultural conventions felt even more vulnerable, and they understandably became all the more cherished because of it. But, whilst people were prepared to go to great lengths to protect their heritage, brutal administrations were utterly uncompromising in enforcing their drum bans and restricting cultural freedoms. One can understand how the poet Derek Walcott would have looked back and felt that his history had been systematically eradicated by these processes. But something else was also happening: music had acquired a latent political manifesto. Part of Walcott’s genius was in identifying how the archaeology of loss and omission had become a fertile reservoir of inspiration in itself. The once silent rage of these discrete cultures had found a unifying vent, a mechanism through which to consciously, creatively express and disseminate their feelings. A Pan-African, Diasporic inside-rhythm that resonated with both historic pain and future possibility was triggered. Over the course of the nineteenth century and in the build up to the American Civil War that silence, that vacuum was gradually filled by the output of new political visionaries. They sought to build new alliances and connections, to borrow from New World radicalism and reconnect American Africans with their African history. And in embracing their shared cultural exclusion, their shared place beyond the margins, charged with grief and anger, this generation identified a variety of opportunities for new creative collaborations. Their legacy was profound. By the time that Picasso and Freud grew infatuated with Africa, by the time that Stravinsky fell for the music of its Diaspora, there had already been important ambient shifts that would be focused by the 1st World War. A Pan-African dynamism had been created, and over subsequent decades it gave rise to a new burgeoning of creativity.

Listen to Fela Kuti’s ‘Nigerian’ rhythms closely and you will recognize the tempo and sound that he borrowed from Candomblé, and when Gilberto Gil met Fela in Lagos, at The Festival of Black Art and Culture, he spoke about feeling like a tree replanted, he could immediately see where classic Brazilian musical constituents originated. And more recently, listen to the work of the new Samba artists like Marcos Suzano, and you will hear in his use of the Nigerian bass-line, his utilization of the same Yoruba tradition of using the deepest sounds to communicate the most important truths. That geographic fluidity, cross-pollination, that complex borrowing and hybridity across geography and culture means that these wells of Black musical culture have never grown stale, they have become the self-replenishing font from which other musical traditions have drawn inspiration. Afro-Beat is now sewn deeply into Brazilian music across generations, today re-emerging as a major influence of the Brazilian Afro-groove scene. It is part of a dialogue of ideas that has stood in contrast to the historic trade in bodies, it has created a dynamic force that has influenced music across the world. In the eighties when Funk Carioca and then Rap percolated out beyond the favelas into the mainstream, and began building new international credibility, it found fans in Europe and America, and made impacts in Africa. And since the turn of the millennium DJs like Luciano Oliveira, inspired by loops of electronic drums from Miami bass, again looked to combine them with older musical traditions, mining the rhythms and drums from capoeira, from Maculelê and Candomblé. These are pools of Afro-beat influence that have been in turn drawn upon by Rap artists like Jay Z, but also Nigerian musicians like D’Banj and Ice Prince. They are artists separated by vast expanses of geography, but united by race, tied together by shared historical anchors and an identical portfolio of subject-matter – poverty, human dignity, racial pride, sex, violence and social inequality. And they are also united by the drum – they all celebrate that beautiful, complex, simple instrument, that has been the essential medium in the diaspora’s maintenance of that critical emotional connection to Africa.

Yet it was in the ethnic and cultural cauldron of the Americas, amongst the ferment of musical flux, hybridization and demographic changes where the struggles for cultural ascendancy raged most fiercely, that this African instrument found new force. A kind of resistance was possible in drumming that was not in other areas of life. It was in the Americas that the metre of the colonial machine’s drum and fife was challenged and eventually overcome by African beat patterns, here that military marches, layered with shouts, hollers and work songs had their stride patterns drawn out and broken to be rediscovered as Samba, that the quaint restraint of the European orchestra gave in to the rigour and strength of Candomblé. In the Americas, in advance of almost every political insurgency, a noisy revolutionary guerilla musical force rose up from marginalization to quietly, yet raucously, challenge the status quo. The archaeology of this music contains fragments of lost and suppressed narratives of many cultures that were drawn to the Americas, but at heart it was made up of histories that converge in one place: Africa. Those beats inspired nineteenth century musical traditions across the Caribbean, the US and much of South America, and then they underpinned the gestation of jazz and drove the development of some of the most innovative classical composition. And today, it is the progeny of those rhythms that continue to re-catalyze popular music. It is a musical form that has become universal and must be accepted as the closest thing that we have to an international folk music. And at its heart remains a latent unresolved trauma.

There is undoubtedly a very particular quality to the cultural transmission that occurs in periods of displacement, social destabilization and de-territorialization. That characteristic trauma is something that Derek Walcott evoked very affectingly in The Sea is History. Walcott perhaps understandably saw the Atlantic as a vacuum that had swallowed his past whole. Whilst that is an evocative image, we must also accept that enslaved and colonized peoples also fought tenaciously and unrelentingly to preserve what they could of their cultural heritage and to capture a record of their own experiences. And from the practice that remains, we know that there were at least in part successful. They fought for their drumming traditions for a wide variety of reasons, perhaps most significantly because drums afforded space for beauty and they represented a canvas upon which anger, grief and frustration could very effectively be expressed. The ongoing aural archaeology of those drum traditions continues to be a profound and affecting source of wonder – beats, rhythm and moments of stillness continue to evoke a sense of both sadness and joy.

 

 

[1] Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason, Penguin, London 2007 Chapter III

[2] Immanuel Kant, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime 1764

[3] As quoted by Immanuel Kant Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime1764, 1997a, p.55-6

[4] As quoted by Immanuel Kant Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime1764, 1997a, p.55-6

[5] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Philosophy of History, NY 1956 P. 91

[6] https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/sea-history

[7] https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/sea-history

[8] https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/sea-history

[9] Mungo Park, Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa: Performed Under the Direction and Patronage of the African Association, in the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797. London, 1799

[10] Richard Edward Dennett, At the Back of the Black Man’s Mind, London, 1968, P71

[11] Allen, William, 1793-1864; Thomson, Thomas Richard Heywood, joint author, A narrative of the expedition sent by Her Majesty’s government to the river Niger, in 1841. Under the command of Captain H. D. Trotter, R.N. By Captain William Allen, and T. R. H. Thomson. Pub. with the sanction of the Colonial office and the Admiralty. London. 1848     

[12] Hans Sloane, A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nievas, S. Christophers and Jamaica. 1707 xlviii-xlix, lii