Saturday, November 7, 2015

Talking drums

I don't know just when or how I first heard of talking drums. It was likely in my childhood and quite possibly in some African adventure TV show or movie where you could hear drumming in the background, perhaps ominous drumming, and then some sage white person would make some remark about the "talking" drums. I certainly would have taken the remark as metaphorical and more likely than not it was.

But the idea that drums can talk is not metaphor. Well, of course, the drums don't talk. People talk by drumming. And not in the metaphorical way that music 'speaks' to us. No, this is real semantically differentiated and syntactically articulated language.

By imitating the tones and rhythms of Twi, the Akan can “speak” with their musical instruments—their horns and trumpets, their drums and bells—almost as clearly as they do with their mouths. The atumpan, which produce two distinct pitches, are particularly well suited to this task; but the bommaa can do it, too. That was why the crowd at the palace had been so quiet: They were listening to what the drums had to say. The phenomenon, widespread in both West and Central Africa, is known as surrogate speech. It can add a layer of semantic depth to even the simplest music.

Every time that the chief, Nana Djan Kwasi, got up and walked around the courtyard, for instance, the two Kwames and I engaged in a little call-and-response.

Kwame Obeng: bom bom

Kwame Antwi and me: BRRM BRRM!

The rhythmic phrase bom bom BRRM BRRM, bom bom BRRM BRRM had a nice beat to it, and could just have been pleasant filler, something to play while the chief moved from place to place. And on one level, it was. On another, though, it was an earnest plea from the principal talking drums in the ensemble: Nana, bre bre! Nana, bre bre! “Chief, slowly! Chief, carefully!” If a chief stumbles in public, it’s a sign of bad luck. So we were asking him to watch his step.

The drums didn’t just speak to the living, but also to the dead: the revered ancestors who have left this earthly plane, yet continue to influence the affairs of their kin. The Akan believe that their ancestors are forever watching over them, and must forever be placated with prayers, offerings, and other remembrances. They also believe that their ancestors are particularly sensitive to the sound of the drums. That’s one of the reasons why Akan drummers normally take great care to avoid mistakes. You wouldn’t want to anger your ancestors by saying the wrong thing. In the old days, a sloppy royal drummer was likely to have an ear cut off. So when I butchered my part alongside Antwi that day at the palace, I wasn’t just making the group sound bad—I was sticking a wrench in the gears of a rich cultural system where speech, art, and religion are all intertwined. Little wonder my heart was pounding in my ears as I walked away from the drums, the echoes of my mistakes still ringing through the courtyard.
And Western notation biased the rhythms of Western music in the direction of rhythms that could be notated:
Western music has evolved in concert with its own notation system, so that Western musicians tend to hear what they can read, and read what they can hear. It did not evolve to reflect the rhythmic subtleties of fontomfrom. There were, we discovered, brief snippets of those bommaa rhythms that we could not notate accurately; as far as our musical system was concerned, they did not exist. Perhaps as a consequence, we couldn’t quite hear them, either: They sounded blurry, like figures in an Impressionist landscape. The problem was almost certainly not with our ears, but with our brains.

Bill Thompson, a psychologist at Macquarie University in Australia who specializes in music perception and cognition (and whom I once served as a graduate assistant at York University in Toronto), suggests that we may have lacked a mental template, or schema, for categorizing these rhythms, and were therefore unable to perceive them clearly. “Rhythm is an interesting case,” Bill told me, “because my sense is that the capacity to ‘hear’ a particular rhythmic pattern is first and foremost equivalent to the ability to ‘predict’ what will come next at varying time spans.” In the absence of such a schema, Bill adds, “we cannot predict what will come next, and have the experience of ‘not being able to hear the rhythm.’ Of course we ‘hear’ the rhythm in a literal sense, but we just can’t predict the unfolding pattern.” The ethnomusicologist David Locke, a specialist in West African drumming at Tufts University, experienced something similar when studying a form of fontomfrom played by an ethnic group known as the Ga. Echoing Thompson, he believes that a “lack of organizing features of mind” can make it “hard to even perceive what the ears are receiving.”

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