Percussion and Noise

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PERCUSSION AND NOISE . The role of percussion and noise in the evolution of the human species remains the subject of ongoing debate and speculation. That manufactured sound commands inexhaustible fascination and enjoins relentless exploration seems patent from the historical record. Homo sapiens is also homo "per-soni-fication"a creature summoned by and summoning "what sounds through." There is a dense intersection between percussion and ritual repetition that goes by the name of religion in the ceaseless quest of humanity to express, comprehend, control, free, fecundate, and otherwise elaborate its experience of meaning by way of rhythm. Examples of various uses of noise and sound ground speculative musing on the ritual fusing of myth, music, and dancethe body in contemplation and in motionand the ascribed effects such sonic textures arouse in consciousness and community alike.

Percussive sound is here understood as a rhythmic patterning of noise, a precise structure and ordering of both pitch and timing, produced primarily by instruments of the idiophone and membranophone families, or indeed by the human body itself (in forms of clapping, stomping, or aspirating). Noise refers to sound that is unspecifiable in pitch and duration, from virtually any source, that nonetheless gains employment in ritual soundings of the cosmos. Firecrackers, vocal cries, grunts and growls and howls imitating nature, or even certain aspects of material culture, are examples. The line between noise and percussion depends, perhaps now more than ever, on cultural context and political purpose: any sound shortened enough in duration is noise; any noise given enough time and space for repetition can be comprehended as rhythm. In the last half of the twentieth century, the introduction of electronic media quickly revolutionized the human probe of the soundscape as aural symbol: hip-hop scratching of records, machinelike inflections of the human voice by means of synthesizer, and digitalized fracturing and suturing of sound into a surround of trancelike droning invaded world musics both secular and sacred. Postmodern literature and music together ask if spirit can be found inside the machine as well as in the mosque (or in mammal and mineral, in older belief), in the chip as well as in the chirp or church. Industrial noise may itself emerge in hindsight as a new kind of "god" (or "demon") and Adam Smith's "invisible hand" (guiding market choice), the animism of the modern hour.


Percussion appears across the worldscape as a primary modality of both experiencing and expressing ritual solemnity and religious intensity. Gong strikes, drumrolls, bell rings, palm beats, cymbal crashes, stick clicks, and stone clacks have served the religious interrogation of things invisible around the planet. Paleolithic culture divulges mammoth-jaw scrapers, reindeer-antler beaters, and bone and seashell wrist-rattles. Skin-covered drums and musical bows were common in cultures as ancient and divergent as Neolithic Bulgaria, Bronze Age China, Babylonia-on-the-rise, and Buddha's India. Bull-roarers (a bull-roarer is a piece of bone or wood attached to a long string) swung around the head to create "vortices of sonic monstrosity" effected initiation in Australia, Nigeria, Navajo Arizona, and Inuit Canada. Goat-hoof rattle-belts called manjur are combined with tin can rattles (ashukhshaykhah ) in the Zar cults of Egypt, and springbok ears filled with pebbles and tied around the ankles serve the same the need to rattle in South Africa. There is perhaps no object found or manufactured that is not sooner or later annexed to the drive to syncopate, vibrate, resonate, or orchestrate matter into an aural augury of ultimate mystery. The land itself is drafted into the divination in some places: slit drums of the Lokele people of Zaire take advantage of the acoustical properties of natural formations to make river basins and valley passages speak an African tongue like a modern telegraph. Here the drum-as-spirit-mouth of a local place was the subject of ritual care, sheltered in a hut, offered sacred milk daily, warmed continuously by fire, replenished in power by cattle sacrifice and beer. Indeed, this effort at aural enchantment may even predate humanity, insofar as gorilla chest-pounds or beaver-tailed water-slaps of warning sought to use sharp sound to alter awareness. That human consciousness could be sonically shocked or "rocked" into perception of an "otherworld" is one of the primordial intuitions of religious practice in the memory of the species.

But there is little agreement about the exact nature of percussive triggers (e.g., drum rhythms) for this altered consciousness. Certainly the nearly universal congruence of ritual percussion and rites of transition (like those for birth, puberty, marriage, and death) is well established. But ethnomusicology has raised issue with any easy neurobiological explanation of trance behavior as drum-driven. The lab experiments conducted by neurobiologists too radically alter the performance context, too uncritically limit alpha brain-wave effects to the trance music in question (nontrance music can also cause the same effect), and too abstractly ignore the cultural specificity of the psychological conditioning in evidence. At most, we can say religious experience of an "otherworld" sometimes seems to involve ritually mediated, drum-triggered "possession-states" that are communally embraced and culturally interpreted in quite particular ways.

What such an "otherworld" might consist of is a core riff of human cultures. Science today makes us aware of the primacy of the Big Bang, the first beat, the explosion of time and space in din and chaos that sets matter in motion as vibration. Hindus call the seed sound Nada Brahma ; the Tibetan Book of the Dead speaks of the essence of reality as a "reverberating like a thousand distant thunders." Percussive explorationwhether as a mode of taming the terror of volcano and thunder, titillation accompanying the rhythmic "cracking" of stone tool-making, or merely observation of the undulations of natural phenomena (spiders drumming their webs, termites clicking the ground in march, waves on beaches)finds careful and playful elaboration in the myths of origins of percussion instruments. The Buria people of Siberia trace the single-headed shaman's drum to a retaliatory lightning strike that split the two-headed drum ridden by their chief shaman, Morgon-Kara, after successfully raiding heaven to retrieve a soul stolen by the High God. The Dan people of Africa track the advent of the wooden drum to a dancing-versus-drumming battle to the death won by an orphan village boy avenging the death of his brother at the hands of the termite-mound genie who originally owned the drum. Among the Sioux, the powwow drum is thought to have been the contrivance of the Great Spirit, revealed to Tailfeather Woman, as an instrument to tease whites out of their wanton violence towards natives by entrancing them with the secret of the powwow dance. Whatever the explanation, power, both terrible and tantalizing, was obviously, early on in human history, found in sound. Mastery of the mystery of producing rhythmic patterns may be one of the defining capacities of human evolution.

But the history of the drum, in particular, also reveals the ambiguity of the religious valuing of sound. Based on artifactual evidence and artistic imagery dating back to at least 2200 bce, the drum appears to have been widely embraced around the planet as a means of ritual concourse with the spirit-dimensionand its use, as often as not, a realm of women's work. In the cultural genealogy of the West, however, sacred drum use was increasingly replaced by new melodic instruments such as the trumpet, harp, lyre, and shawm beginning with the emergence of Sumerian civilizations in the third century bce, and hitting a nadir with the early Roman Christian evaluation of percussion as "the devil's music." Whether this was an effect of an ideological shift accompanying the suppression of agricultural-based goddess religions by male-controlled transcendental orientations, or some deep psychosocial antipathy to lower frequency, the larger kettle and cylinder drums were gradually displaced from temple to battlefield, from magical power to martial. (In the breach, however, clappers, ratchets, castanets, whirring discs, and xylophones were all used percussively to chase away evil spirits and attract goods ones, and eventually bells were hung in church towers to gather believers or toll warnings.) Only in encounters with Muslim invaders in the Middle Ages, and later with indigenous cultures in the course of colonization, did the deep bass "boom" of big drum sounds slowly reinvest European sensibilities of the sacred. In the New World, beginning in the nineteenth century, West African modalities of spirit possession articulated by rhythmic aggression percolated up from freed-slave communities into the heart of American societies as a kind of return of the repressedjazz, blues and gospel, samba, bomba, and mambo exercising white fascination despite (and indeed because of) widespread fear that rhythm leads to insurrection, or percussive beat to sexual heat. The thirst for trance evident in this rhythmic revelry in contemporary Western societies may well belie their self-naming as secular.

Elsewhere, percussion has been articulated in concert with quite varied cultural cues as to what constitutes acceptable clues of the sacred. Among the Mapuche of Chile and Argentina, the kultrún drum used by the machi medicine man or woman anchors a kind of cosmogram of the universe, with drawings on its sides that map good (east, south) and evil (west, north). It harbors within its resonant belly the earth products (coins, seeds of medicinal plants, animal hair, wheat, and corn) that augur fertility, and in its bay wood body it partakes of the sacred "world-tree" substance believed to project its shaman-player to the heavens (Grebe, 1973). Drumming instruments in many South American Indian cultures are medicine as well as tocsin and prayer: together with the singing voice of the shaman, they fight evil actively, aid in diagnosis, serve as prophylaxis, and reinforce cure. Spirits are thought to echo through the throbbing skins, and mythologies ascribe to the instruments an origin as pristine as creation itself (Béhague, 1993). Pre-Columbian high Indian cultures throughout Meso- and South America bear similar witness. Carvings on and codices about Aztec teponaztles (slit drums) and huehuetls (upright, cylindrical drums) reveal instruments that were "instrumental" in giving cosmic structure to the universe from its mythic genesis to its apocalyptic end in ancient Mexico. Maya murals at the eighth-century ce Bonampak temple in Chiapas evince the ritual import of drums and rattles. Incan tinya small double-headed drums carrying ritually activated magical powersare honored up to the present in successor Indian communities in Peru in Carnival parades and ceremonies of cattle branding. The magical sound properties of the tinya are produced by cloves of garlic and red peppers inserted in the drum body, activated by the zoomorphic mallet with which it is struck, and (in Puno at least) reinforced by accoutrements worn by drummers that are associated with the mythical condor (Béhague, 1993).

In India, the folk drum dholak (double-headed, barrel-shaped) underwrites birth and marriage ceremonies, stimulates devotion, and announces news of good omen from village to village. In the south of the country, the mrdanga drum (similar to the dholak ) aids in ordinary religious instruction; North Indian kīrtan chanting (in praise of Ka), popularized by the Vaisnava Caitanya (14861533), is made accessible to everyone through use of the clay khola drum and the brass karatala cymbals that are affordable even by the poor. Aspiring Punjabi tabla players are encouraged to make three vision-quest-like chilla retreats of forty days each, sequestered in huts, fed little, drumming fifteen or more hours per day, until trance-images come and the drum "talks." In Chinese cultures, where preference for more subdued rhythms reflects a valuing of calmness and serenity, myth tells of a maid who sought to spare her father's life by fulfilling an augury that the bell he was struggling to cast for the Son of Heaven would only turn out right if mingled with the blood of a maid. She cast herself into the molten metal at the last minute, and the bell so produced ever after tolled a sad "Ko-ngai" sounding of her name. Fritz Kuttner, a scholar of Chinese music and explorer of secret metallophone production techniques, tells of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's testing of an ancient Chinese tam-tam gong, which when tapped only once issued a soft hum for ten seconds, followed by a gradual crescendo for thirty-five seconds, until a colossal triple fortissimo peak was reached after a full minute, terrifying all the museum bystanders who heard it.

In Korea, two-headed drums used in shamanist practice may sport the eight primary trigrams of the Yi jing, and in Sri Lanka geiji bells are strung onto leather knee pads to knock out rhythmic accompaniment in ritual dance. Huge taiko drums in Japan punctuate Zen meditation and Shintō reverence with a reverberance that reinforces the perception of silence. Tibetan damaru (double-headed drums, made from halved human skulls) are power instruments said to be capable of rousing the dead, and gang-san gongs with human jawbone handles are used among the Bontoc Igorot people of the Philippines as part of their grief rituals. Tabl drums in Qatar are not only sounded, but also touched in certain dances to solicit healing, and Dubai performances of Mawlid (the celebration of the birth and death of the prophet Muammad) commemorations invoke memory of a saint's death day by means of frame drums. ūfī trance-seeking through dervish-dancing may involve entrainment with dar (frame) drumming and flute playing.

Africa holds a special place in the percussive praise song, as homeland of the species and motherland of the polyrhythmic paradigm writ large. African peoples across the globe invoke ancestral memory and communal vitality in the key of contrastive sound. San peoples of South Africa clap and stomp out an intricate rhythm to collectively "face the gods" and effect cure. The Minianka of Mali hoe their fields in time to accompanying drumbeats. Venda adults of South Africa syncopate every child's least banging of some object with a counterrhythm designed to inculcate sensitivity to the polyrhythmic proclivities of their communal cult. The talking drum called dundun by the Ewe of Togo and Ghana is used to tell proverbs as well as to crack jokes by emulating tonal qualities in the language through varying the pitch of the drumhead by squeezing its webbing as it is played. In Yorubaland, every major orisha (ancestral spirit-persona) has its own rhythm to which it responds when drummed and into which it plunges its human "horse" in possession-dance. Vodou, Santería, and Candombléin syncretic cooperation with Catholic ritual elementsreiterate and amplify the possession vocabularies of these spirit-dances in Haiti, Cuba, and Brazil, respectively.

Creative adaptation under the duress of slavery led to divergence in details of practice and belief. For instance, the batá (double-headed, horizontally played) drums of the Yoruba Shango cult in Nigeria morphed in Cuba into a trio (from largest to smallest, iya, itótele, and okónkolo ) that must be harvested together from the same tree trunk and played together as the sound organs of the god Aña. In the Lucumi (Cuban) context, the threesome is animated by an afóuobó -secret, known to the priests of Ana alone, physically signified by sacred seeds, cowrie shells, and other objects placed in a small bag inside the largest drum body, and inspirited by éggüe -plants (and other objects determined by divination) deposited in the drum cavity during construction that crumble into a powder over time and consecrate the sound. Sacrificial foods and blood further reinforce the potency in an annual offering. Shared ideas of "drum baptism" among West African and Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian traditions mandate animal sacrifice and sacred food offerings while baptizing the instruments into potency to call gods and provoke possession. But the actual associations in each tradition are quite culture specific. In the Americas in particular, historically, they shifted in reference under different plantation regimes and racist polities that force distinct African tribal groups to intermingle bodies, beliefs, and practices in order to survive.

West African idiophone use and understanding likewise bridge the Atlantic. For example, the Yoruban double bell adjá, shaken before any speech by the priests of Ogún, the god of war and iron, is thought to personify aspects of this god and indeed to "ventriloquize" his voice; in Bahia, Brazil, the same instrument, here called xerê, is shaken over initiates' heads to summon all the orixá (ancestral spirit-persona) and to facilitate response, through possession, to the varied voices of the gods, articulated in each one's particular drum rhythm. In Yoruba-Fon inspired Candomblé funeral rites in Brazil known as axêxê (in the Nagô cult) or azeri (in the Gege cult), stick-struck calabash drums or fan-struck pottery jars, respectively, drive the spirit of Iku (Death) away and ensure transformation of the dead initiate into the realm of ancestors. All artifacts of the ceremony are eventually broken to signify severance of all ties between cult center and dead member and become part of the carrego (load of death).


By comparison, noise in ritual is often used to mark moments that call for special attention or abrupt transition. Firecrackers, for instance, are employed in Chinese Confucian commemorations of ancestral dead to exorcise evil influence around the gravesite. In Mexican performances of the pre-Columbian danza de los voladores (dance of the flyers), these same noisemakers signal the crossover from ascent of "shaman-flyers" up the sacred post (or "tree of life") to flight downwards as symbolic birds, bringing divine messages and fertility to earth (Béhague, 1993). Similarly, during the public ceremony of Xirê in Bahia, Brazil, the entry of the gods (in the form of possessed initiates) into the main dance hall of the cult center is announced with a mixture of happiness and awe by a sudden burst of firecrackers.

Somewhere between percussion and noise is the old practice of "tattooing" a wooden board or metal plate (called a semantron or simandron in Greek, or klepalo in Slavic contexts) with sharp pulsing sounds by means of a stick or mallet. The urgency and solemnity of the clatter assumes an aspect of holy summons to prayer or, sometimes, fearful alarm at the approach of some untoward event (e.g., fire, invasion). Common to both Eastern and Western Christian traditions before the seventh-century advent of the church bell in the West, today the practice remains enshrined in Orthodox and Eastern church practices, especially in monasteries such as those on Mount Athos or the island of Patmos.

Vocalized shouts and ritualized groans also can oscillate between noise and rhythmpunctuating the precise moment of possession in both Brazil and Yorubaland with the cry of the arriving god, or laying down something more like a pattern of hyperventilation in "trumping" circles associated with the Afro-Christian Pukkumina cults of Jamaica or the noisy inhaling and exhaling of (non-Christian) Afro-Cuban Ronconeo worship. In each of these latter two instances, the rhythmic breathing accompanied by trunk and arm motions establishes an alternating high (inspiration) and low (expiration) pitch level, functioning like a form of "opaque, bitonal drumming" (Béhague, 1984; Ortiz, 19521954). A somewhat similar use of breathing signals the "code-switch," according to Morton Marks (1974), when African American "gospel" preaching suddenly shifts from a European monotone beginning to a higher velocity, African possession-cadence known as "whooping." Indeed, the percussive breathing and body language is recognizable across religious communionsfor example, a Pentecostal preacher gesturing (unconsciously) for a visiting Candomblé or Santería devotee a message of Shàngó or Oshun (spirits common to the two West African-derived religions) as well as articulating a word of Jesus.

Indian Kualinī meditation traditions recognize a form of discipline called shubda yoga that works with percussive sound to open the knots of energy called cakra that run up the spinal column. Hard consonants in particular are vocalized to release "male" energies associated especially with the second "sexual" cakra a practice that one Indian teacher recently likened to certain forms of rap rhyming that work the harder sounds explosively to achieve a particular kind of "manhood."

Handclapping is another action that works the edge between abrupt punctuation and patterned rhythm. In addition to reinforcing or embroidering upon musical instrumentation, handclaps in many cultures serve as a symbolic expression of collective emotion. In Central Africa, some peoples interpret rhythmic clapping as an exalted (and exalting) modality of direct contact between the gods and the human spirit. In Ifa divination practices common to West Africa and Brazil, readings of positive signs by the babalawo (diviner) provokes affirmation and rejoicing in the form of exuberant clapping.

Finally, in African American contexts, even the percussion agent par excellence, the drum itself, is sometimes shifted out of its role of time-keeping and rhythm-patterning to "drop bombs" (as jazz legend Max Roach used to say) of exclamation and fury.


Béhague, Gerard. "Patterns of Candomblé Music Performance: An Afro-Brazilian Religious Setting." In Performance Practice: Ethnomusicological Perspectives, edited by Gerard Béhague, pp. 222254. Westport, Conn., 1984. Illustrates the functions of drums and other percussion in an African-related religion, providing detailed information on drums' sacralization and drummers' social status within the group.

Béhague, Gerard. "Percussion and Noise." In Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Mircea Eliade, vol. 11. New York, 1987. A suggestive and succinct survey of uses of percussion and noise across the globe.

Deva, F. Chaitanya. Musical Instruments of India: Their History and Development. Calcutta, 1978. A very comprehensive study on Indian organology relating the history of musical instruments to many other relevant sources.

Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, translated by Willard R. Trask. Princeton, N.J., 1964. The classic text on shamanism; encyclopedic in its discussion and examples.

Grebe, Maria Ester. "El Kultrún mapuche: Un microcosmo simbólico." Revista musical chilena 27 (JulyDecember 1973): 342. This study presents an excellent model of integration of analysis of belief systems and symbolism as encapsulated in a ritual object.

Marks, Morton. "Uncovering Ritual Structures in Afro-American Music." In Religious Movements in Contemporary America, edited by Irving I. Zaretsky and Mark P. Leone, pp. 60134. Princeton, N.J., 1974. A probing phenomenological and philosophical exploration of "code-switching" in Afro-disaporic rituals, including gospel preaching and samba and carnival dancing.

Needham, Rodney. "Percussion and Transition." Man (1967): 606614. A classic example of an attempt to relate drum sounds (i.e., percussion itself) to trance phenomena in Haitian vodou in strictly physiological terms.

Ortiz, Fernando. Los instrumentos de la música afrocubana, vols. 1 and 4. Havana, Cuba, 19521954. The most comprehensive study on Afro-Cuban organology.

Pinn, Anthony, ed. Noise and Spirit: The Religious and Spiritual Sensibilities of Rap Music. New York and London, 2003. An anthology of articles probing lyrical developments, ritual uses, and percussive effects of hip-hop from a broad range of disciplines.

Rouget, Gilbert. Music and Trance: A Theory of the Relations between Music and Possession. Chicago, 1985. A thorough study, drawing on cross-cultural illustrations in the attempted formulation of a theory.

Walker, Sheila. Ceremonial Spirit Possession in Africa and Afro-America: Forms, Meanings, and Functional Significance for Individuals and Social Groups. Leiden, 1972. A social anthropological examination of possession phenomena combining insights from ethnography, biopsychological theory, and sociological and cultural perspectives, and referencing materials from Balinese and Zar cult possession as well as West Africa and the African diaspora in the Americas.

James W. Perkinson (2005)

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