As a published historian I have a great interest in the history of drums and drumming. In the past, I’ve written extensively on drummer boys from both the Revolution and Civil War. I have also posted about the reference of drums in the Bible and transposed an 1812 snare drum order. One aspect of historical drumming that is overlooked is the musical experiences of slaves in America. African-Americans used drums to entertain, celebrate and communicate. As in their homeland, drums were constructed in a variety of ways incorporating pottery and logs draped in animal skins. Many of the techniques used to create and play drums were brought over to America from their native lands.
Unfortunately when slave masters realized that drums could be used to communicate over long distances they outright banned them from their plantations. According to a South Carolina slave code: “It is absolutely necessary to the safety of this Province, that all due care be taken to restrain Negroes from using or keeping of drums, which may call together or give sign or notice to one another of their wicked designs and purposes.” — Slave Code of South Carolina, Article 36 (1740).
In some places drums continued to be used without interference. Slaves on these plantations played drums of all shapes and sizes in the tradition of both eastern and western Africans. The drumbeat not only accompanied chants and dances, but was also used to send messages. By striking and holding the drum in certain ways, drummers could replicate tones of speech almost exactly.
Regardless of their intent the rhythms of Africa could not be suppressed in their entirety. Often in place of traditional drums, slaves resorted to clapping and stomping in polyrhythmic cadences to reproduce the complex rhythms of their ancestors. These were used to mimic traditional drumming found in Africa. There are three different types of African drumming. Firstly, a rhythm can represent an idea (or signal). Secondly it can repeat the accentual profile of a spoken utterance or thirdly it can simply be subject to musical laws. According to a narrative published by DJ Zhao for This is Africa, “…because the drums were taken away, the forms of West African music which were either purely vocal or featured the voice prominently, traditionally played without drums, using simple instruments…this took root in a big way and gained wide popularity in the deep South.”
One of the most popular drums to survive the sufferings of slavery was the Akan Drum which was made in West Africa and later found in the Colony of Virginia. It is believed that an artifact of this drum, on display in the British Museum, is the oldest instrument of its kind. The drum was created in Ghana between 1700 and 1745 and it is presumed to have traveled to America aboard a slave ship. As slaves were typically left with no possessions historians assume that the drum was brought by a member of the ship’s crew or possibly the son of an African chief who had sold his native people for transportation. To exercise their captives, the slave traders would “dance the slaves” above decks. It is supposed that this is the purpose of why the drum was brought along.
Another popular drum that is used extensively today is the Djembe drum. It dates back to 500 A.D. and was used as a sacred drum for religious and healing ceremonies. According to an article for Africa Imports titled “The Importance of Drums in African Traditions” the rhythm of the Djembe is performed in the evening for most celebrations, especially during full moon, spring, summer and winter harvesting time, weddings, baptisms, honoring of mothers, and immediately after Ramadan. Other noteworthy African drums include the Udu, Conga, Bougarabou and the Sabar.
A post titled “Hand Drums and the African Experience” on the Drum Doctor website sums up the importance of African and slave drumming. “Drums have been such a large part of Africans’ daily experience for so long that drumming pulses throughout their unconscious. It’s in their genes. Drums are inseparable from the African culture – they help define it. So much so, that when the slave trade scattered Africans throughout the world, the love of drumming they took with them irrevocably altered the world of music.”
From their native tribes, to the bounds of slavery, African-Americans rose above their circumstances to preserve their musical culture. Today, African-Americans keep the traditions of their ancestors alive by authentically constructing drums and exhibiting their rhythms. Their proud efforts are a testament to keeping their history alive for future generations. (For a tribal breakdown and overview on how to play these drums visit: http://www.african-drumming.com/african_drums.htm.)