Talking Drum

Talking Drum: Oral-Aesthetic Motif 

As the masquerade trains perceptions of forces that operate behind outward forms in the universe, so too does the musical instrument play a crucial role in adding to and reinforcing this perceptual training. From the moment of contemplating its construction to the performance on the finished product, the musical instrument plays a symbolic role as co-creator whose “body” and “voice” are an anthropomorphic extension of the African being.

In the oral life-world, the human body – as the instrument and extension of the Creator – is the prototype for the secondary models we recognize as musical instruments. Aerophones (winds), chordophones (strings), membranophones (drums), and idiophones (percussion) extend the principles that govern sound production and reception in our physiology. Therefore African musical instruments will often be carved to resemble human forms either in whole or in part in order to train a deeper understanding of what they, as sound-producing entities represent.

The instrument maker who uses the resources of a tree to construct the instrument may go through an initial ritual of offering libations in order to honor the ancestral spirits who are believed to reside therein. The resonating space within the completed instrument then amplifies those ancestral voices (nommo), and it is the musician’s performance on particular instruments that enables the ancestors to be present, often through the medium of the dancers.

As such therefore, the dancer’s body is often also considered as an instrument that can be “played” by the sounds of a skilled musician. The dancer who is conversant with the language of the music knows to make certain audible and/or physical responses to particular sounds and rhythms, thereby entering into the dialogue in a linguistically congruent and visually appropriate way. In so doing nommo becomes amplified and extended through audio-visual patterns of socially-constructed movement.

The tuning of these instruments is subject to the language patterns of the musician’s mother-tongue, as are the rhythms that are generated in performance. The musician thus teaches the instrument the traditional language it will speak in its role as a speech-surrogate and co-creator. As a communications technique the talking-drum principle is a quest for truth in which musical instruments as speech surrogates thus become co-conveyors of nommo.

Abstractions of the aesthetic arena make it difficult to understand the quantum field of forces in which Ubuntu must engage through its human agents in order for illumination and revelation to happen as art-for-life’s-sake. The perspective of dance as iconographic and aesthetically distinct from the music that gives it life is problematic in the African context because such a view disregards the interchangeable and/or simultaneous roles of dancer as musician, rhythmic collaborator, and musical instrument. Writing “music” down in its audible aspects only… creating distinctions between vocal and instrumental music… music and dance… musician and dancer… and even performer and audience create further intellectual abstractions of the aesthetic arena which, as a Eurocentric art-for-art’s-sake approach, does not provide organic connection and insight on a human/bantu level.

The talking drum motif illustrates this discrepancy in a number of ways, maintaining and nurturing its art-for-life’s-sake oral-aesthetic consciousness in the informal day-to-day contexts of human life. The Liberian marketplace, as one of many examples, is where one can find Jabo musicians offering a running on-scene commentary on their talking xylophones – a journalistic function one can link to rap as an oral-aesthetic expression. This is a variation on the role of the griot, the more widely-used French term for the person who among other functions keeps and recites his people’s histories, known indigenously as kwadumfwo in Ghana, imbongi amongst the Zulu, umusizi in Rwanda, and so on.

The most associated role of the talking drum, both as an actual membranophone instrument and as an oral-aesthetic motif, has been in its use to convey messages, often over long distances, to those familiar with the language. The ability to remain true to linguistic patterns is especially crucial in the many African languages where tones serve phonemically to distinguish the meanings of words. One word may have a number of different meanings depending on which syllable is intoned higher or given more stress. This linguistic imperative of oral communication is a critical operational principle that enables the talking-drum motif to render the thoughts, language, and emotions of the community as faithfully as possible.

Slave masters knew about this role and therefore removed drums so as to better exert control over enslaved Africans by disrupting their indigenous channels of communication. However, the fact that drums and other African instruments were removed and banned from use during slavery, does not preclude the application of the talking-drum motif in this context. It simply masquerades in other culturally-congruent forms. There are many examples of how vital this Africa-centered conceptual tradition remains in folk and popular expressions of nommo. For instance:

  1. One hears the linguistic imperatives in the African-American blues scale which flatten the 3rd, 7th, and sometimes 5th of the western diatonic major scale, and also in the musical rhythms which, having lost their original ethnic specificity nevertheless inform and are informed by African-American speech patterns in the Diaspora.
  2. King of the Blues, instrumentalist and singer B.B. King and his guitar “Lucille” provides an example of the anthropomorphic and co-creative role assigned to musical instruments by African instrument makers and performers.
  3. Other examples of speech-surrogacy between musician and instrument include the scatting-style of the First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald, the acapella performances of a Bobby McFerrin, or the groups  Take-6 and Naturally-7, and the beat-boxing of a Michael Jackson. As surrogate-instruments, these musicians use their bodies to imitate various mechanical and instrument-related sounds, consciously and organically connecting us to the oral conceptual life-world that originated such traditions in Africa.
  4. Turntablism/scratching, an innovation by DJs (disc jockeys) following Kool Herc’s lead in the mid-1970s that transformed turntables from a medium for playing back recorded sound on vinyl discs into a musical instrument on which the lexicon of hip-hop beats and grooves were created. DJ Grand-Mixer DXT brought scratching into the popular music mainstream through his 1983 collaboration and Grammy performance with Herbie Hancock on “Rockit.”

“Don’t just sit there gaping at me like an impotent observer because life is a serious matter, suffering is real, and the man writhing in pain is not dancing for amusement” (The Impotent Observer by Naiwu Osahon)

The Master Drummer

…has to be called to the drum, often from an early age. This highly respected status that is conferred by other master drummers is not easily earned. Technical agility represents only a stage through which the would-be initiate passes. In the Minianka society of Mali for example, entry into this specialized class of musicianship takes extreme dedication to master and play each rhythm, dancer, group, and ceremony with a fluency and dexterity to suit the often moment-by-moment requirements of each situation.

In keeping with the belief that each person has a rhythm to which she alone dances, the drummer must understand the nuances of body language and other conversational cues in order to dispatch his role with unquestionable finesse. As if his performance were itself the sacred heartbeat that bonds the invisible and visible realms, a true master drummer must be able to touch what is deepest in the music and mediate what is essential to the culture and social situation.

Masters of the music profession in the west are recognized through various institutions, including the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences through its annual  Grammy awards ceremony. Although this industrial model doesn’t compare as a social institution to the one in Africa, master drummers have nonetheless crossed the Grammy stage, or stepped up at other venues because – true to their calling – they must. The bantu/human stakes, towards which the master drummer is primarily responsible, are infinitely profound and too momentous for them to do otherwise.

Perhaps a closer social parallel to the African institutional practice of induction into the master drummer ranks would be in the hip-hop culture example of Grand Mixer DXT conferring the title of “Grand Mixer” to DJ Qbert in recognition of the latter’s exceptional level and mastery of performance. When describing his experience while turntable-ing, Qbert says “It’s called the zone… or Nirvana. It’s like you’re not playing the instrument. It’s like you’re the instrument and the universe is playing you.” Qbert’s philosophical outlook is also very much in keeping with ubuntu, recognizing the human stakes towards which he feels destined in his calling to the drum tradition: “I believe everyone is one… connected… everyone affects everyone… everyone is part of you.” (from Scratch)

The Griot…

…is an oral historian and musician who recites significant events he has committed to memory of his people’s past and unfolding history. Serving at the chief’s side during trials, discussions, and deliberations, the griot also becomes a witness, genealogist, advisor, spokesperson, commentator, diplomat, mediator, interpreter, teacher, exhorter, poet and praise-singer as needed. Although “griot” is the commonly used French term, he may be referred to by such indigenous titles across Africa as kwadwumfo (Ghana), imbongi (Zulu), and umusizi (Rwanda). Accompanying his recitation through performance on a musical instrument, the griot provides illumination of the present through applicable recall and effective word-smithing. He is the community’s talking drum.

The lyrical style of hip-hop MCs and rap artists – developed through black youth portraying the personal emotions and socio-economic challenges of inner-city life in America – is the recitation of the urban griot. Keeping things real with street-talk as he represents the community voice/drum, the seasoned rapper critiques, battles, exhorts, speaks truth to power, etc. through provocative words, rhymes and rhythms… generating heat, light, and other energies in the communal process. The circular arrangement of the cypher into which the griots’ nommo (words/seed) are often cast is the sacred symbol of the feminine, out of which new life emerges in this hip-hop re-enactment of creation. In the beginning was the Word…

(Posted on February 16th, 2012 – Malaika Mutere)

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