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Drumming, the Backbone


African & Reggae


Jason Kahn


Introduction to Rhythmic Procedures and Rudimental Drumming

In history, drumming and the use of percussive instruments have had a significant role in people’s lives. Not only do the people who play these instruments enjoy them, but it is said that "there is as much pleasure participating in, as listening to and admiring an expert drummer’s improvisations". The use of drums has been recognized as being able to put people into spiritual trances throughout history. The drum is a musical instrument with great power and presence that gives the "pulse" or backbone to the music it is incorporated with.

There are three rudimental rhythmic procedures that have been known in drumming for the use of communication, entertainment and both communication and entertainment together. These are; (1) the use of a drum as a speech surrogate or a "talking drum". These methods of playing were used for communicative purposes and often codes were used to be played over long distances for the sending and receiving of messages. (2) The use of both iconic and symbolic dimensions of communication within music and dance. Throughout many festivals in Africa, depending on the event being celebrated, drumbeats are used to dictate the type of dance to be done by the listeners. For example, at the time of a birth of twins there is a different dance done than at a birth of a single child and the beat of the drum instructs the listeners to do the appropriate dance. (3) This rhythmic procedure is most commonly used today and is the pure musical play of rhythms in dance. There are no communicative obligations within this type of music, which allows for free-form dance and unlimited use of improvisational strategies by the musician.

The third rhythmic procedure will be most emphasized throughout this report for a few reasons. One reason is that it is not possible to make generalizations about drumming as a whole, used as communication devices because every society in early Africa had it’s unique fingerprints on sounds of the rhythmic beats they have played. Another reason for the emphasis on this rhythmic procedure and not the first two is the accessibility of rhythmical facts pertaining to each. Unfortunately, much of the known facts about rudimental African rhythmic procedures is stored within the minds of the tribal musicians themselves. One phrase I learned from researching this topic is that "the life and energy of the drummer lives half within the drummer’s soul, and half within the drum he plays". When he dies, so does his style of drumming. No one can relive the soul of the original drummer. This is the problem that tribal communities have within Africa when approached with the idea of spreading their views and knowledge of music and rhythm worldwide. Africans openly trash American artist, Paul Simon when discussing his use of their drumming sounds and techniques. One person went as far as to say the African’s

Who performed in Simon’s music video were traitors and should never be allowed back to the African communities in which they are from.

There is a lot of knowledge about music that has died throughout the years. Fortunately, there is still a tremendous amount of knowledge that is still attainable through books and articles.

This is why I have chosen to deal with Drumming as the backbone to Reggae and its roots to African music, and the reasons why it has such an incredible affect to not only the artists but the listeners as well.

The Role of Drumming in Africa

The drum in African culture goes beyond Revolutionary and Religious functions. It symbolizes origins, and, as Maureen Warner-Lewis suggests, it "comes to symbolize Africa itself." The following is another quote from Maureen Warner-Lewis:

"The drum is closely linked in learned African philosophy with the word, in the sense in which St. John the Apostle used it at the start of his gospel — The original utterance which created life of nothingness and chaos, and then established order in that creation. The drum is therefore a divine tool of the Supreme Being, a womb or beginning of created life."

Known as the oldest instrument in the world, the drum has its place in societies worldwide, but the sacred love and use of the instrument in Africa is unprecedented. The variations of drums within Africa are innumerable as well, giving the country the scores of rhythmic sounds it is known for.

Although drumming in Africa is male dominated, women have their role with the instrument as well. They are known to play in women only drum circles in a ritual-like atmosphere. Their drums are usually less complex and made from skin aprons stretched over pots or ox hide stretched over poles.

There are countless types of drums within the country of Africa, these range from tall drums that have high pitch, to wider drums that add the bass. The most widely used drum throughout Africa is known as the membranophone. This is a hollow body drum with one or two parchment heads at either end. These drums are the standard drum throughout much of the world today.

Special occasions call for special drums in the African heritage. These drums have more decorations than the average drum and are treated as sacred pieces of art. Most drums in Africa are carved from solid logs of wood or made with several strips of wood bound together by Iron hoops. In some southern regions, drums are made from clay or types of metal for their ritual music, but these are usually the exception and have become more popular over the years.

Another material used to make the drum is the use of a large gourd or calabash. These are most often seen in the Savannah Belt of West Africa. Now as technology is improving worldwide, many hollow vessels have substituted the original vessels used. These new materials include tins, light oil drums and discarded trash that can be used as a means to make a simple drum. Drums that are made for children are made from hard fruit shells or discarded tins.

Many children in African villages view drumming as a way to complete the inner self. By the age of 10, children usually realize whether they are capable of the skill of drumming. Becoming a respected drummer is a sign of maturity in many African cultures, and the few who do become selected to represent their villages are treated as royalty.

Drums can appear in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Some of these shapes include conical, cylindrical, or semi-cylindrical. Drums may have a bulge in the middle or a bowl shaped top. Other variations are cup-shaped, bottle shaped or shaped in the form of a goblet, vase or even an hourglass. These variations are unlimited and even considered uncountable. Tribes in Western Africa have also been known to make drums in the figure of humans, giving them the appearance of a small totem pole. All drums have frames as well, which also can vary in their shape and size. Frames can either be round or square, fitting over the drum to keep the head in proper place. Often designs are made in the frame that coincides with the design of the rest of the drum to enhance its appearance for different purposes and occasions. This all depends on the artist who constructs it.

Some of the taller drums can be up to 5 or 6 feet and usually no more than 24 inches across. These drums are known for their high pitch and with the widening of the head comes about a deeper sound. The largest drums, known for their explosive bass usually are no more than 4 feet tall and 30 inches in diameter. Again, many variations occur while making the drum, which gives it the unique sound it plays. This is why no 2 drums can be or sound the same.

The drumhead can be placed on by a couple of different techniques. Glue can be used, but the most favored and common today is nailing it directly to the drum itself. This is done by the use of thorns or large nails that are suspended by pegs in order to adjust the tension, which in turn adjusts the tone.

The most important aspect of drum making is the creation of the perfect tone quality and pitch. All of the size and shape determinations are based on the desired sound. It is said that anyone can carve wood and design it to be aesthetically pleasing, but only a true artist can create a beautiful drum, with both sight and sound.

Although most drums are played by percussive means, there are a few types played by the use of friction. An example of this occurs among the Akan in Ghana. The Etwie, or friction drum is played by rubbing the drumhead with a stick over a fine layer of powder to create more resonance.

Drums can be played by one person, in pairs, or in larger groups known as ensembles. Drums that are played together usually differ in their tone and pitch, so each can be heard distinctly throughout the performance. There are some instances where one person plays multiple drums, but the most intriguing ensemble to me is the use of 15 drums. These are called the Entenga drums and are heard in Uganda. These drums are all tuned to different and distinct pitches and are used for playing tunes that sound incredibly similar to those played by the instrument, xylophone. Twelve of these drums form the melody section and are played by four drummers. Each of these drummers is in reaching distance of playing five drums. Two people play the three drums of the rhythm section. One person plays only one drum while the other occupies the remaining two, a big and small drum. I have never heard this form of ensemble which is usually played for Kings, but the sounds and energy from these drums is heard for miles in times of playing.

Each society within Africa has its own unique drumming ceremonies which all have different styles of rhythms and variations of drums themselves. Likewise, African societies differ in kinds of activities for which they provide music. Some societies, for example, celebrate marriage with a great deal of music, while others do not. Similarly, some use music in the rites performed for newborns, while others do not make this a time for music making.

Throughout Africa, one common ground is the time in which drumming is played. Drumming is considered a nighttime activity and may be heard in times of daylight only on days of rest, or periods of mourning which may last up to three months. In one village named Ga, drumming is banned for three weeks prior to their harvest festival.

The role that drumming plays within Africa is obvious. It is not easy to overlook the sounds and energies created by the drum itself. Wilson Harris has a famous line that sums up drumming through the view of a common African. It states, "The drum encloses a womb of space in which silence and identity will emerge out of the darkness and the void.

A Brief History of African Music pertaining to the use of the Drum

"The history of nearly all musical instruments of Medieval Europe came from Asia, either from the South East through Byzantium, or from the Islamic Empire through North Africa, or from the northeast along the Baltic Coast. The direct correlation to Rome seems to be rather insignificant and the lyre is the only instrument that might possibly be European in origin."

Curt Sachs

It is said that much of African music stems back to the European settlers. This of course is a rather large generalization considering the pride and innate musical abilities of Africans themselves. Being there are over 700 known languages within Africa, little can be said to generalize the entire music scene. On thing is for sure when speaking of Africa, music is the "ethnic bond" of the entire country.

There are many different "languages" of African music as well. Different styles of music come from the variations of environmental conditions within Africa. For example, cultures from the Savannah and Grassland tend to use different types of instruments than that of the cultures that occupy the country’s Tropical Forest region.

Throughout history, mass population movements due to wars, famine and other crises forced villages to intermingle and combine their musical beliefs, methods and sounds. For example, in East Africa the people of the Luo culture are found in both Kenya and Tanzania, while members of the cattle culture are known throughout Uganda, Kenya, Sudan and Somalia. Given the variations of people throughout the country also implies the similar to same types of music are known by different names in Africa and likewise the instruments as well. An example of this is the Dahomean musical genres Kete, Ketehoun, Katanto and Akofin are extremely similar to those in the Akan region of Ghana. This is not to say that their styles of music are the same, but it offers credibility when speaking of the similar bloodlines within all African music.

African music, before European settlement had strong relations with the Islamic style of music due to the close proximity of the two groups of people. Nomadic people such as Islamic pheasants and travelling merchants are known to have visited African villages in peace. Part of the welcoming ceremony would be the visitor’s role of playing the drums of the natives in an action of proving self worth. Often this was the only common language between the two groups of people. After the initial drumming, both the visitors and the selected drummers of these villages would play together in harmony in a festival-like setting to show commonality and cooperation.

Although the Islamic style of music influenced its African neighbors, much of the underlying melodic and rhythmic modes never changed. This would have completely changed the sound and affect of the music to its listeners. The most influenced aspect of African music from the Islamic people was the role of the human voice and the use of melodic singing.

Later in African history, after the settlement of the Europeans, existed a time where African music intertwined with European styles and sounds. This was brought about by the need for musicians to entertain colonial officials and traders. Unfortunately for the African communities, the best drummers were recruited and taken from the towns in which they lived for governmental use. They were trained by colonial band conductors to learn the "new style" of drumming for these entertainment purposes. These drummers were considered the sole pride of the towns they were native to, and often times these towns were left in shambles without their presence. Through their playing, these men were viewed as interpreters of God’s words. An ancient African prophet said, "God is dumb, until the drum speaks." This alone tells of the great pride Africa has for the Drum and the drummer. There are many communities that still exist where their musical ties are still and always will be bound to the legacy of Europe in Africa.

The melodic and rhythmic modes in Africa are the essential part of their music. Much of the knowledge pertaining to much of the old customs of rhythm was lost with the deaths of the people that created them. They were considered the heartbeat to the society they belonged to and stayed a secret throughout all of their existence. What is known, is the essential importance of the drum to each of the societies within Africa and role it played for its inhabitants. The following is a quote from a person returning to Africa after years of exile:

I have traveled to a distant town

I could not find my mother

I could not find my father

I could not hear the drum

Whose ancestor am I?

The previous lines show a great portrayal of the rhetorical question to the crisis for self-identity and ancestry. Having been separated from a homeland for so long does not take the homeland out of their soul. The culture of Africa is firmly rooted in their conscientiousness, therefore, a large void is felt within the souls of many African descendants who have no knowledge of their ancestral background. This paints a sad picture for many people who live in Jamaica and surrounding areas today. In their eyes, this can only be dealt with in one way, which is to know your past and get on with your future.

Music provides a great way to vent frustrations and opinions of political and social disorder. This is seen throughout all types of music, worldwide and is often emphasized as such. But there is no music that uses the power of voice and words against political wrongdoing in such great extant as the Jamaican music, Reggae.

The Role of Drumming in Jamaica

"Jamaica, land of wood and water

Motor vehicle and man slaughter."

Dillinger, "No Chuck It"

Jamaica, home of many transplanted Africans has similar natural resources to that of Mother Africa. In its simplest form, the drum can be made from trees or discarded tin meant for trash. Having the same sacred musical beliefs as Africans, Jamaicans hold the drum in the highest regard as stated in the following poem by Bongo Asher in 1984;


There is music in the midst of desolation

A glory that shines upon our tears

Solemn the drums are beating

Sounding joy into immortal sphere,

Drums speaking words of wisdom

Telling tales of our ancestors

Of their glories and kingdoms

And our struggle against Babylon devildoms

Jah presence I feel so near

His love I see so clear

That’s why I know he is here

Even as I know he is there,

Drums are out symbol of pride

Chanting messages far and wide

An inspiration to struggle

A rock and comfort in times of trouble.

The most important instrument used in Rasta music is the drum. Ironically, there are over 25 types of drums in Jamaica but Jamaicans usually only use three types within their style of music. The largest of these is the bass drum. This drum is similar to the large drums found in Africa. The bass drum is made from wooden stakes, held together with metal bands and pegs. The heads of the Jamaican drums are made from either Goat or Cow skins and held on by similar methods as African drums by either nails or glue. The bass drum is held on the player’s lap and played by the use of a heavy padded stick. This drum is usually no wider than 60 centimeters across and no more than four feet tall. Variations do occur with all drums as seen in the African history section, so generalize all types of drums and their size is not truly possible.

The next largest drum in Jamaican music is about 30 centimeters across and ranges in height from less than a foot to between two and three feet. This drum is called the Fundeh. Similar to the bass drum, the Fundeh is made from wood in the same way standard membranophones are designed. The difference in design lies in the one-sided head feature. One end is left open for a higher resonance than the bass. The head is made from the same skins as the bass, but the tension is greater for less reverberation (repercussions). This drum is played by the use of finger or hand tapping and is held between the player’s legs.

The smallest Rasta drum is called the Repeater. This drum is usually much skinnier and smaller in stature than the others because of the sound it is designed to create. The high pitch that emanates from this drum creates the unique sound of Reggae Music, covering the high notes at a quicker, more complex rate.

Each drum has its own job in Reggae music. The Fundeh sets the speed of the music and keeps things together. Its role is to play the "Lifeline" of the music. The Bass Drum plays more catchy rhythms than the Fundeh, usually repeated over and over to keep the groove of the tune. The repeater plays the most difficult beats and rhythms. Often notes are played at double the speed of the Bass and the Fundeh to give the music a bounce.

Although, there are many other drum variations used in Jamaica. The three spoken of are most common and usually the other drums are variations of the original three. The drum set has also become popular in the latest Jamaican musical forms, but even these drums are members of the membranophone family, just made with a little help of technology. Metal stands connect the drums to keep them in close proximity of the player, which allows for multiple Drum and Cymbal sounds.

Similar to that of Mother Africa, Jamaica is home of frequent drum ensembles called grounations. Within these grounations are drum circles known today as Niyabinghi circles. These drum circles commonly put people into spiritual trances that Jamaicans refer to as soul cleansers and purifiers. These festivals are the heartbeat of their culture and are treated as sacred as a day in church. Niyabinghi circles have come a long way in Jamaican history. Before the term Niyabinghi, the most common drum circles and methods were referred to as Burra Drumming. The Burra drums are religious survivals from Africa and Burra is probably the oldest Jamaican musical form known. Burra Drumming was originally played for released prisoners coming back to their original communities as a welcoming ceremony.

Around 40 years ago when dreadlocks became a fashion for easier access into the ghetto was the same time Burra drumming had to be stopped. During this time, a Rasta named Woppy King, a known rapist gangster was hung for his crimes. Concurrently, two more incidents occurred where Rastas were caught throwing infants into fires as sacrifices. Burra dances became reinforcement for criminal activity. So in an attempt to stop the violence, a new doctrine was formed for the dances which was, "Death to all White and Black Oppressors." These dances were renamed to Niyabinghi dances and have remained since. There is currently an Orthodox Niyabinghi Drumming school in Jamaica. Mortimer Planner, a dear friend of Robert Nesta Marley is a member of this school and stated, "This is the branch that keeps the sovereignty of ancient, sacred African rhythms through hand drumming. Tis was the blend of devotion and rebellious fervor that formed the basis of Robert Nesta’s understanding of rhythm."

Many Burra drumming brotherhoods came from the ghetto and a few have become famous performing bands within Jamaica. The most famous of these is Count Ossie & and the Mystical Revelation of Rastafari. Unfortunately, Ossie died in 1976, but in his lifetime he was selected to represent Jamaica at the Carifesta, an annual Pan-Caribbean music and arts Festival. Another popular band that uses Burra fundamentals is Ras Michael & Sons of Negus. They still use old Burra rhythms as their foundation, but overlay it with a combination of electric instruments, fusing the old with the new.

Jamaican music is known for its diverse range of sound and its unique rhythmic overture. Needless to say, the drum is an essential part of this music and has the respect of most anyone who hears it. The music and people would be devastated without it.

A Brief History of Reggae Music pertaining to the Use of the Drum

When discussing the history of Jamaican music as a whole, the most important event to be thought about is the role of slavery towards the African descendants that were placed on the island of Jamaica. At first, these Africans under the rule of Spanish imperialists felt homeless and hopeless without the presence of their homeland. As Sang by Bob Marley, "How can we sing our songs in a strange land?" This obvious message explains the feelings throughout all unfortunate Africans who were held hostage on many unknown islands.

Having been descendants of Africa, a strong musical tradition followed them to their "new" home, and the back bone to their music till lied in the power of the drum. The following poem is written by Kamau Braithwaite,

"The drums beat from the blood, the people danced and

Spoke their un-English English until our artists, seeking at

Last to paint themselves, to speak themselves, to sing themselves,

Returned… To the roots, To the soil, to the sources"

Folk culture of Slaves in Jamaica (1971)

These slaves had to learn how to incorporate their traditions of music with the European style of which slave owners forced them to play as entertainment for the upper echelon of Jamaican society. Not only did they use their innate abilities to play music, but they played this music and sung in their inherent language making jokes and poking fun at the slave owners who watched. The Jamaican singing voice and the kinds of scales found in Jamaican Folk music were and still are very similar to their roots of West African rhythms, singing and scales.

Today, much of the Jamaican Reggae music speaks from the same voice as the early slaves years ago. Music, on the whole is type of rebellion, and a vocal rebellion is the true voice of Reggae music today. Reggae, which dates back to 1969, is filled with sounds and ideas from the evolved Rasta music. The words of Reggae songs are based on Rasta ideas and its drumming and use of rhythms are taken from the original Rasta Folk music.

Reggae music is the voice of Jamaicans today, and the drumming within this music provides the pulse or heartbeat of these people. One Rastafarian explains, "Everyone in Jamaica, from the Prime Minister in his gardens to the Rastafarian elders in Trench Town, listens to the latest Reggae songs for an immediate line on the political and Spiritual pulse of the island."

Rastafarianism, only having its roots of close to 50 years is one of the youngest up and coming religions of the world. The music from within this religion, Reggae, is the true sign that these people are capable of being successful and do have something worthwhile to say. The rise and spread of this music worldwide gives the black man a feeling of substance and wholeness. The struggle for identity in a world so alien to blacks is not easy when looking at the history of these people. Marina Maxwell stated, "The crystallization of the interior dialogue of the black person today is the emergence of a confidence of existence and of potential wholeness."

The terrifying experience of slavery severely inhibited these people towards creating a "modern day civilized society", and Reggae music is the voice and proof that Jamaicans are capable of doing so. Within Reggae music lies the hope for a profoundly compassionate society committed to freedom within a creative scale, which in turn are the founding guidelines for most of the dominant countries in power today.

Jamaican people whose ancestors originate from Africa are a very religious and spiritual people. Their music and instruments within play a significant role in their daily lives. Without it, some would say they have nothing. With the importance of music comes the importance of the drum. Its presence and sound are as sacred as the Rastafarian God Haile Selassie himself. Drums are known to transmit messages between Gods and their people and also are essential instruments in the ritual of healing.




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