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The Drum Is a Voice

The music referred to as jazz (a term which arguably has its origins in the amalgamated African cultures of Georgia and South Carolina, a.k.a. Gullah) is not dead. It continues to live and grow, and thus cannot be dealt with as a fixed relic. The root culture that gave jazz its forms arose from the earliest African character to touch the contiguous United States.

The transcendent explosion of shout (a sacred movement accompanied by singing, handclaps, and syncopated rhythms pounded on the floor) rippled through the sensibilities of early Euro-Americans and some African-Americans. Startling displays of exhilarating syncopation directly challenged commonly accepted notions of time, movement, and musicality. Gullah practitioners of the shout presented an outright rebuttal to Western hegemony that would be imposed through aesthetics, worship, and politics, a rebuttal that lived in the rhythms of the music itself: “No, we ain’ dancin’…we shoutin’!” It was a bold assertion of Africaness in a setting (the Christian church) that some found shocking. Terms such as “wild,” “untamed,” “savage,” and “vulgar” were used to describe it. The early days of ragtime music saw some of the same reactions regarding its lewd syncopated rhythms. The same can be said for early be-bop, which shocked some with its use of jagged, shifting rhythms. In each case, the rhythms tended to be the defining factor. The rancor tended to be intensely focused on the beat.

The first Africans arrived in the South Carolina region in 1526. Their musical legacy can be distilled into these elements: pitch variation, polyrhythm, syncopation, improvisation, call-and-response. The key progenitor of those elements is the drum—an instrument that vastly outbounds its characterization as time- or form-keeper in modern music. The drum is and always has been a voice, a voice that speaks in prayer, celebration, and battle. The relevance of the drum as a separate voice immediately short-circuits the abuse of the instrument in many modern contexts. The formalism in some strains of jazz, along with the cultural and corporate hegemony of its advocates, have relegated the drum to a proto-slave condition whose primary function is to establish the formalistic demands of melody and harmony players.

Western music has supplied an underlying context that supports the fixed status of melody, harmony, and rhythm (in that order) as the one and only measure of musical aesthetics. The tonal character of drums (which incorporates a spectrum of microtonality) is only respected when it imitates the quality of horns (which in turn imitate the voice). Drums, however, are already tonal semantic tools—they are the voice. The ban on drums following the Stono Rebellion of 1739 prompted the South to prohibit drums legally and to classify them as weapons: Africans used the drums as a call to arms, to freedom. Since that time the subtext for drums in America has been danger.

This position is certainly evident in the attempted cultural taming of the instrument: It is all but stripped of its voice, and is now forced to serve the needs of the higher aesthetic, i.e. harmony and melody. There have been numerous discussions that characterize the drum as a powerhouse instrument that gets in the way of the music. All drummers should refute this position, given that drums are not separate from the music; they do not have to undergird the ensemble 100% of the time. In addition, the voice of the drum is overstated by default anytime it assumes its rightful place as a voice. The so-called “tasty drum” argument (self-consciously non-threatening playing that follows a set melody, harmony, or rhythm totem) is only tenable when the melody, harmony, or rhythm totem is taken as a stone fact.

The drum is a tonal instrument that involves both microtonal and micro-rhythmic qualities: It is these very qualities that make a drum a drum and not a horn. The drum does not need to be qualified or validated by horns. Very few horn players play to the drum, yet they expect the drum to accommodate them. A famous trumpeter giving his philosophy of the drum, commented that drummers were the de facto slaves of the band—that the drums, in fact, had their place. This language sounds similar to that of genteel southerners who insisted that the “niggras’” condition was not so bad as long as there were “good masters.” The formalistic constraints placed on drums have been “Yessir, boss.”

A number of drummer/leaders have challenged this notion with limited degrees of success, because of the narrow scope in which the instrument is forced to operate. As is the case in most popular music, the idea is to make the listener feel good. Jazz has fought this battle for a long time given its solemn, moody melodies and deep, dissonant harmonies. Horn players get in the cracks of sonority and pitch to produce sounds that are visceral, intelligent, and transcendent. Now imagine an instrument with the same potential range being held in a stigmatized role that inhibits its true essence. Expressive instrumentalists face this pressure in pop music as percussionists do in jazz, a music realm where creativity and exploration are supposedly welcome.

Many African cultures used drums as a pipeline to heaven, a direct connection to the sacred and ancestral. Today any effort on the part of drums to speak in a voice that requires a frontline dynamic is met with classic disapproval by those who wish to see the drum only as an embellishment, flavor, or timepiece. The rhythmic clumsiness of many melodic players would never be tolerated from a drummer, yet his skills are quickly usurped to keep the group in line: The spiritual depth of the instrument is rarely heralded. Melody players would much rather have drummers be traffic cops than on the frontline in equal force. A shift to percussion as lead would precipitate a total change in the tonal and pitch character of the music. Drums currently live in response to horns; it is a self-conscious, servile place that relies heavily on the approval of horn prayers’ tastes. Drums in their purest form deal with the dynamics and gravity of movement. In this way, drummers fall into places that melodicists rarely venture. The kind of energy in that place probably is not what horn players would consider “tasty.” For drummers who connect to dance, it is at the standard; yet for horn players, it crosses the fine of the western melody, harmony, rhythm hierarchy. It is very African and very Black.

Perhaps the history of early recording deficits, along with the “not too black” tendencies of early jazz pioneers, accounts for some of these conditions. It is no secret that many of the early pioneers withdrew from overtly African or Geechee tendencies in their music. Composers such as Scott Joplin were clear not to allow too much unbridled Africanism in the music. Others held even more extreme positions concerning color and class. The drum certainly is emblematic of the unbridled, untamed, naked African. The fact that limitations were imposed is academic. Early recording also made it equally difficult to pair drums with “music.” Unsophisticated equipment was barely able to clearly capture voices and horns, so of course percussion was recessed in the mix. That, along with popular taste, predisposed expectations, and prejudices did not help the cause.

For nearly a hundred years popular takes on Africans had been seen through minstrel shows—black-faced Jim Crow pretenders who took the ways that Africans propelled the drum after the ban (tambourine, bones, tubs, claps, banjo, etc.) and lampooned them. The percussion-driven forms that came out of the ban on drums were all but excised from the music: Rhythm-driven music was considered backward and retrograde. The stigma still remains. The errant racism of that time has been coupled with forms of music that in and of themselves are innocent to be sure. Drums play a major role in the ensemble and still maintain an African flavor through syncopation, pitch variation, polyrhythm, etc; yet the complexity, depth, breadth, and range of the instrument is far from being fully realized.

As a child living on Sapelo Island, Darien, McIntosh County, and in Savannah, Georgia, I saw massive gatherings of drummers in dusty fields. Their super syncopated beats called RHAPS! were played on marching drums. People stood and danced around in a great cloud of dust. I also remember the drum and trombone bands at the Daddy Grace Church pounding out shout beat choruses to listeners dizzy with spiritual ecstasy. Across the street from our trailer in Darien, the praise house shook and swayed with the rhythm of the people inside: music that flowed directly to the drum and to Africa. The rhythmic tendency that they displayed was not self-conscious: It flowed with the energy, spirit, and voice of the drum.

The drums did much more than frame space for melodic soloists—the drums spoke, in a voice of power, spirit, vitality, and danger. The earliest Gullah/Geechee people used it to move them to freedom, thus setting off a ripple that resonates to this day. THEY TOOK THE DRUMS AWAY—BUT THEY COULD NOT STOP THE BEAT! Now a splendid opportunity exists to reconnect to that voice without shame, self-consciousness, or doubt. Today is the day to reclaim the drum. The popular phenomenon of rap has reintroduced the drum-to-voice, voice-to-drum dynamic. Possibilities are now open for the talking-drum sensibility to reemerge coupled with an African-American aesthetic history that is free of vagueness, one that makes clear connections from juba to master juba to the Charleston; shoud to shout to spirituals; pattin’ to hand jive to steppin’; maroon to Seminole to stomp dancing; African to Gullah to Geechee to Black English/Ebonics to jazz. The potential for growth is beyond the artificial scope of name brand corporate history. It embraces the true face of American culture, along with the social, political, and economic conditions in which that history occurred.

Today there are those who wish to fortify Western aesthetic notions of melody, harmony, and rhythm. They stand to prevent the ghettoization of the music by limiting the voice of drums. Whenever drums are stated as loud as or louder than horns, problems abound. The most basic complaint is that drums get in the way. Drums are in the way when a Western-only orientation applies, one in which melody and harmony must always categorically override and supplant percussion. If, as some surmise, jazz is a balance of African and European aesthetics, then shouldn’t the drum at least lead sometimes? Shouldn’t horns find some occasion to follow the tendencies of drums and/or rhythm? The opposition to drums as a solo voice is similar to that of critics of early African/African-American forms. If their reactions to loud, overpowering, primal, intense, solo percussion greatly parallels (in hindsight) the racist evaluations of those early critics, then is it not equally fair to challenge parallel views in this age?

Today’s arbiters react to “talking drums” no differently than those of the past. The difference is that today those overseers assume that their judgments are untainted, even though their views closely mirror past intolerance. Any attempt to consistently explore the range of the drum through mood, movement, or spirituality beyond the typical or expected scope is met with harsh resistance. The opposition spoken of here is not one of qualitative issues, of good drumming vs. bad drumming. The African proverb states it best: “He who says the drum is bad cannot dance.” The issue here is form.

Bad, good, and great horn players abound within the present ensemble structure, a structure that feeds their development and freedom; structure that does very little to offer drummers freedom, beyond the restrictions of form itself.

Many a horn player has squawked and shrieked his way through solos in the name of self-expression: The use of microtonality and rhythm are often inspiring. The world in which they dabble is the world in which the drum lives. The nuance, freedom, dynamism, and power of that world often draw a sharp rebuke from symmetrical players; but microtonality, syncopation, and asymmetry of that world is what makes the drum the drum and not a horn. Drums fall outside of the expected symmetry of western harmony in much the same way that growls, bent notes, honks, and onomatopoeia fall outside of Western harmony and melody. If pressure from detractors who do not understand or were driven by crypto-racist tendencies were allowed to define all things, then perhaps BeBop, blues, ragtime, and shout would not exist.

Most telling is that the modern palate for drums is essentially driven by a boogie-down dynamic. That is, drums can only play in the acceptable range of the sensual. Other moods, notions, and sensibilities are off-limits. Rubato, cadenza, or legato forms are well-established realms for melodic soloists. Drums, however, face a de facto ban on such resources. Tonal semantic elaborations such as those played on talking drums or idiophones allow for rhythmic shadings different from those used in straight-on rhythmic playing, the vocabulary, mood, and content of which are not limited to such a narrow scope.

Pitch variation, polyrhythm, syncopation, improvisation, and call-and-response (which are the domain of drums) offer an open palate for expression. Within that dynamic lie options for the percussionist to speak in as many languages, moods, and dialects as are available. Horn players should remember that the very honks, squeaks, and bent tones that they now enjoy in the name of improvisational range were once considered unmusical vulgarities. Drums deserve no less of an opportunity to explore the full scope of sonic possibility; and through that exploration discover a breadth of spiritual modalities that free it from the constraints of expectation.


David Pleasant

David Pleasant (now Griot®), an award-winning artist whose work appears in dance, theater, television, and film, has extensive background in the Gullah/Geechee culture of his native low country, Georgia/South Carolina.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 03-JAN 04

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