Percussive instruments are divided into two classes: idiophones, which produce vibrations as sounds (examples include bells, cymbals, castanets, and so on), and membranaphones, which produce sound through the vibration of a stretched membrane over a hollow interior (examples include snare drums, bass drums, and timpani). These descriptive definitions may be adequate for the meaning of the percussive instruments within the structure of formal musical ensembles such as orchestras or bands. These definitions, however, fall short of those sounds and meanings, which are designated as drums and drumming in the cultures of the world.
Drumming refers to the specific beating or striking of anything that is able to produce a rhythmic sound. The drum, in this sense, comes into being with the drummer and the drumming, and could be anything that is struck or beat in the production of this rhythmic sound. All sounds produced from striking or beating are not necessarily synonymous with drumming; drumming presupposes a cultural code within which the rhythmic beat and sound are understood and given specific meaning.
From this perspective, drums and drumming constitute a widespread phenomenon in the cultures of the world. Though some form of percussion is present in all cultures, it achieves prominence as a means of communicating in the traditional cultures and societies of Asia, Africa, and South America, and in the Native American cultures of Mesoamerica and North America.
The widespread pervasiveness of the percussive has led to various theories regarding the nature and meaning of percussive sound as a human universal. This point of view is clearly articulated in an article by Rodney Needham published in the journal Man in 1967. In this article, Needham stated, "All over the world . . . percussion . . . permits or accompanies communication with the other world." If this is true, what is the relationship between the percussive mode and the religious or spiritual reality? Needham's statements remind one of the meaning of the shaman's drum in shamanistic healing and of the inducement of trance states in the religions of West Africa and African-American religions in the western hemisphere. Needham's article raises the problem of the explicit relationship between percussive sound and ritual acts and actions. While percussiveness has a distinctive meaning in the ceremonial and religious life of several cultures, its meaning is not limited to this realm. Drums and drumming also define and fit into the structure of mundane and ordinary existence in many cultures.
Drums and drumming took on a new and different meaning in the lives of Africans enslaved in the Americas. In some cases—for example, in the Caribbean and in South America—Africans were able to bring over and retain significant aspects of their respective African cultures, drumming was reintroduced within the structures of an enslaved society. On the other hand, in North America, Africans rediscovered the meaning and nature of drums and drumming as a mode of creatively understanding and coping with their survival under slavery.
Drumming within the African diaspora was thus related simultaneously to what Needham referred to as "communication with the other world," and at the same time to survival in this world; as a matter of fact, the two meanings were the same. Slaves must perforce live within at least two worlds: the world of the slave owners and the world of the slave community. Often communication within the slave world had to be subversive and secret. Slaves thus resorted to encoding meanings by using drumming and song to convey these messages. In so doing they were recalling older traditions of communication through drums that were prominent in West Africa. In some instances, slave owners, surmising that drumming was a language, prohibited drumming among the Africans. Africans then had recourse to other means of percussive expression through the slapping of their bodies during dancing or the rhythmic tapping of their feet. The mundane otherness of the percussive may also be seen in the slave owners' identification of the percussive with savagery, licentiousness, uncivilized behavior, and the like. This meant that the meaning of a certain important aspect of the slave's life was understood negatively by the legitimizing structures of the prevailing "slavocracy."
Drums and drumming, or more precisely the percussive mode of musical expression, has entered American culture in general and African-American culture in particular as a specific and concrete source of meaning, value, knowledge, and thinking. In African-American culture in the United States, drumming—the beat—is synonymous with the notion of an other, alternative source of meaning, value, and sustenance. From this perspective, percussiveness has entered into the stylistics of speech, music, drama, and storytelling among African Americans. It points to other, alternate ways of healing and understanding the problematic dilemmas of American society and can be noted in all aspects and movements of African-American life. Likewise, just as sports and sporting events have brought new alliances and orientations among different ethnic groups, drumming has joined members of various oppressed groups—as, for example, Native Americans—into a common mode of expression. It has also moved beyond the oppressed to become a badge or sign of a new late-twentiethcentury spirituality, expressed, for instance, in the New Age Movement.
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Charles H. Long