Drums are for players, not profit

Player Politics

Several years ago, when I first began playing and building drums, I visited a Belizean village called Gales Point, population 500. There, I met a man named Emmet Young, bandleader of the Talla Walla Vibrations and the only teacher and instrument maker to be found in the area. I spent a sand-fly infested week with him, building a mahogany bass drum called a ‘kinkenee’ with a wooden club and rusted chisel next to lagoon. It was hard work, but it gave us plenty of time to talk. “There are two types of drumming, mon,” said Young in a thick Creole, “hippie drumming and learn-da-riddim. The first makes magic, maybe one in five times, but if you learn da riddims, there is no limit to how far it can take you.” His dream was to fly to Guinea, where he could learn about his history.

Gales Point has one major musical event, the annual Crab Festival held in September. I was invited to play for my gruel made from the ubiquitous crustaceans scuttling in every corner. A tipsy dancer in a loincloth sipped Old Master 150 proof rum while spinning. Later, Young told me that Gales Point has only four rhythms left, called ‘Sambai’, from Nigeria. The members of Talla Walla Vibrations failed for the most part, could not be bothered to show up, and that is what gave me the opportunity to sit in. His band didn’t even own their own instruments. “They just want to hustle and gangbang,” explained Young.

These final rhythms and the dance are receding remnants of the cultural history of these displaced descendants of slaves, the Gales Point Garifuna people. That history is being lost and replaced by mental Gangsta Rap and Reggae – a poor substitute for the ancient songs that informed all aspects of African life.  Take for example the Kpanlogo rhythm of Ghana. Although complex, as a fisherman’s or ‘lolo’ song, the dance style is reminiscent of the weaving of the nets and the motion of the tides, while the tempo suggests the speed by which one should haul the nets. Everything evolves, but from Emmet’s perspective, the loss of interest in this culture equates with the loss of heritage. It's the reason why so many members of the village are in jail or addicted to the crack flowing from Belize City, a major port on the Colombian cocaine routes.

http://lh5.ggpht.com/_zV9PJoRvhgM/S10SnsPB_SI/AAAAAAAABKQ/GGD9Rgsx1eQ/7e78db8828d9a12944b4c3ac32ce673f.jpgNow swivel the telescope to Vancouver, and narrow the lens on a Wreck Beach drum circle at sundown. While these anarchist circles have some brilliant creative moments, the pulse of Hippy Thunder is often a raucous of mistaken cues and competition, constantly resolving into a 2/4 rock beat structure, missing many of the rhythmic possibilities. Most players are oblivious to the roots of the instruments they are playing, nor do they know the rich history of these rhythms and the complex traditions they transmit, let alone the politics of appropriating these drums made so often at slave wages in Indonesia or Africa.

Pepe Danza, a master drummer, teacher, and collaborator, who has shared the stage with the likes of Ani DiFranco and the Dalai Lama, and who recently won the 2009 Jessie award for Outstanding Sound Design or Original Composition, thinks there are some problems with the level of awareness about drumming politics.

“Personally, I don’t play [a] style of music unless I have gone there, studied it and understood it ... eat the food, speak the language, in a way, earned the right and the privilege to play that music and be a channel through which that music travels, otherwise it can be very superficial.”

Danza, a native of Uruguay, has spent many years traveling and studying what some may call ‘primitive’ instruments, he points to some of the local, African teachers who carry a true transmission of the music, like the master drummer/dancer Fana Soro from the Ivory Coast. Soro is a hereditary heir to the balafon, which is much like a marimba or xylophone, who recently underwent intense surgery to remove three vertebrae from his spine. He was not expected to walk again. “He’s a jewel, a treasure, he’s incredible. He’s a true carrier of the pure tradition and the healing power of what he does is incredible to the point where he has healed himself. He has just had a tremendous injury to the point where the doctors told him he couldn’t play, but now [that he is,] that’s the true power of the healing power of music.”

Instrument Politics

North American drum makers and players face a particular challenge: They can be accused of cultural appropriation. By borrowing the design and style, anyone can produce modern versions of traditional instruments for sale, usually at a fraction of the cost of imported drums from West Africa. Effectively, the heritage of the music is being severed from its source, as the knowledge of the rhythms that accompany the instruments fade with the traditional instruments themselves. Still, the demand for traditional Djembe drums (shaped like an hourglasses with a goat-skin head) is high. They are widely considered the most popular hand-drums on the continent.

One company, which has worked hard to eliminate that demand, is Remo Belli’s “Remo” drum company. Started in 1957, it arose out of an influx of African influenced Jazz music and World War II technology. Belli realized that Mylar, “a polyester film made by DuPont (TM)” which was used as a heat shield for airplanes, was very resonant. He invented the Weatherking drumheads from this, thereby replacing animal skins that could not be exposed to rain. Remo has just passed their 50th anniversary, celebrating a generation of success, as “The World’s Most Recorded Drumhead.” They constructed synthetic drums to fit the heads, and began marketing copies of every traditional percussion instrument imaginable. This helped to answer the consumerist demand for African drums, due to their efficient and inexpensive production. They are also made in California.

Michael Babatunde Olatunji, the legendary African drummer, helped ensure the market economy with his complimentary musical efforts in America. He was born in a small fishing village called Ajido, Nigeria, but attended Atlanta’s Morehouse College to study political science. There, he and other displaced Africans formed a drum group to offset the loneliness. In “All About Jazz,” Michael Perciaccante explained that, “By 1957, Olatunji and his cohorts were performing at Radio City Music Hall backed by a 66-piece orchestra.” In 1959, they recorded Drums of Passion, which was the first studio recording of African drumming in the US. Their music influenced many Jazz legends of the time, such as Count Basie and Duke Ellington. It was Olatunji’s band that first introduced the Ashiko, a conical drum originating in ancient Yoruba, to New York, in the hands of Taiwo Duval, a band member. 

The particular problem with this cultural contact comes down to exploitation, however, and Duval exemplifies this. Although Drums of Passion was produced and distributed by Colombia Records and sold more than 5 million copies worldwide, Duval claims that he and Olatunji only received a few hundred dollars for the initial recording. “I could have been a millionaire," Taiwo told the University of Texas newspaper The Texan. "Anyway, what the hell." He didn’t know it had achieved such a great commercial success, and only learned of it through the Texan’s reporter. Instead, the Colombia Corporation reaped the benefit. The album was re-released in 2003. 

It is a classic example of the type of cultural appropriation that has been ongoing since the ‘primitive accumulation’ of colonial societies began. It is one more example of the effects of a system applying negative reciprocity, and it is also one more exploitive African story.

Duval explains the cultural knowledge of the Ashiko drum: "The drum is a family, and the head of the drum family is always mama, that's the African structure," Taiwo said. "When she says jump, papa and the children all jump.” This detail reflects an important aspect of gender equality, as least traditionally, as it points to a matrilineal period in Nigeria’s past.  In When Men and Women Mattered: A History of Gender Relations Among the Owan of Nigeria, Onaiwu W. Ogbomo provides evidence that the Owan people once lived in chiefless and matrilocal communities, where related female kin made up the settlements and followed matrilineal descent patterns. The drum family clearly reinforces this past history, ensuring an aspect of gender status. Once more, the traditional drum ensembles were means of ensuring community, as they never played alone. They further upheld established hierarchies. When considering the situation of Emmet Young in Gales Point, it is easy to see how the traditions have been lost without any kind of useful replacement. 

The Yoruban people, from whom the Ashiko originated, also used the drum ritualistically. They participate in a traditional religion centered on Orisha worship – the ancient deities of nature. Consecrated drums are used ritualistically to appease the Orishas and commune with ‘otherworld’ forces. They are also used in complex rites of passage.

Once more, these drums reflect the language of the Yoruban people and could be used for communications and to reinforce social norms and cultural values or taboos. In Bata Drums, from the Latin American Folk Institute, Mark Corrales explains, “The Yoruba language, the mother tongue of over 10 million people, is a tonal language ... speakers’ use three basic tones, or pitches ... as an essential part of how words are pronounced.” The modulation of the drum sounds can be adapted to mimic the speech tones, thereby reinforcing their oral system, as it allows for criticisms, praises, and innuendos to be transmitted through music, as a kind of leveling mechanism.

One other Ashiko player, Arthur Hill, stands out in contrast to his drummer peers. He is a lifelong drummer and ethnomusicologist, and he once recorded with Babatunde Olatunji in his earlier years. He is known as the father of the modern drum circle community movement. He offers community workshops, drum circle facilitation instruction, and his own line of strictly Remo drums. He tours endlessly, working in corporate settings designed to foster team building within hierarchies. Apple Computer, Silicon Graphics, and the World Bank are but a few of the major clients he has secured by taking a traditional community activity into a corporate environment. His efforts are designed to help foster better co-operation within patriarchal capitalist corporations so that greater efficiency and profitability can result. He even calls his group “The Arthurian Drumming Community,” bringing to mind another patriarchal, colonial model.

He has come under fire for his company. Dr. Lilian Friedberg, who holds a PhD from the University of Illinois/Chicago and is Artistic Director of the Chicago Djembe Project, says:  “What is objectionable is the manner in which we venture into this "new" territory: we do so without recognizing that it is not uncharted territory. It has been occupied by indigenous peoples since time immemorial. We must recognize that the past five hundred years of US history—Red, White, Brown, Yellow and Black History—have brought us to a position of slight imbalance in the world.” In her article, Drumming for Dollars, Friedberg attacks the marginalization of traditional elders in the teaching of their own cultural history. She scoffs at concepts about playing for the sake of playing or about cultural diversity; for her, it is thinly disguised appropriation. She points to Arthur Hull as a great example of North America’s deep-seated ethnocentrism and racism, as he has been elevated to master status without the appropriate rituals or rites that accompany it, while the appropriate masters of the tradition are hardly acknowledged. Finally, she states that the modern drum circle and drum enterprise is simply a commercial enterprise disguised as a spiritual experience. “Its real motivation is sales, not salvation. But, in the indigenous context, drums are for people, not profit. So, reinventing the ‘African Drum’ at a considerable profit to the American multi and at a considerable loss to the African native is "against the rules" established by the ethical tradition of the ethnic Drum.”

Learning from authentic teachers and paying fair-trade prices for instruments is a solution to this problem, a way to support the transition of tradition from one continent to the next. Leo Brooks, a drum maker from Aylmer, Quebec, with whom I built my first Ashiko, has traveled to Guinea recently in order to obtain instruction and to assist in the distribution of traditionally made drums while promoting indigenous issues in Canada. He also arranges for African teachers to teach abroad. I chose to build this drum, rather than buy one like it, in order to address personal issues with our own culture of consumption. I felt that the act of creation was necessary to qualify my own consumerist urges towards the musical ‘other’. I built it to fully participate in the culture of drumming, rather than to be a tourist of it. I consider it a necessary respect to build and play according to traditional teachings and instruction, so as to be able to appreciate rather than appropriate the cultural values that are dynamically engaged. I study from traditional teachers when I can, though when forced to choose between playing and playing authentically, I play. Inspired by the upcoming Black History month in February, the purpose of this article is to encourage people interested in traditional drumming to learn, and to support the traditions that created such a unique and fascinating cultural heritage.

Editor’s Note: We have just learned the Fana Soro has recently let his position at the Roundhouse and moved to Ottawa. He will be missed. For more info on Ghanaian Kpanlogo rhythms, check out A Small World on Commercial Drive on Sunday, Jan.31 from 11am-1pm. 2120 Commercial Drive - Cost: $20.
Ashiko - made over four weekends in Aylmer, Quebec, constructed at the Treefrog Percussion Workshop, under the guidance of owner and instructor Leo Brooks, an accomplished hand-drum expert and instrument maker. Standing three feet high, weighing ten pounds, it is made from fourteen slats of wood, Alaskan Aromatic Cedar and Quebec Pine. The slats were cut, assembled, and then glued together, after which the shell was mounted on a lathe for shaping. The drumhead is a Nubian goatskin from an Ottawa farm. It was cured, shaved, and stretched over the shell then pulled taut over two tension rings, which are secured with nylon rope to another corresponding tension ring near the base. The top and bottom rings are laced together in a simple ascending/descending pattern. Tuning of the drumhead is accomplished by an over/under knot, which folds these vertical ropes over one another, thereby creating tension. This process is called ‘pulling diamonds.’ Its only decorative features are the alternating colors of the slats and the thin ribbons, which are coiled around the steel rings.  In this case, the bottom ring is maroon and the top is maroon and light blue. 

Leo Brooks uses treated lumber bought from a hardware store. His reasons are ecological sustainability, and he makes use of almost every scrap of wood in an industrialized workshop, complete with state of the art tools. By contrast, traditional Ashikos are waist high and made from one trunk of wood. They are often made with chainsaws or chisels. The distinctions between the industrialized shop and the village origins are obvious.
//Kevin Murray

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© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: editor@capilanocourier.com