By Simon Guy
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 350

Akan Drum

This article is over 11 years, 11 months old
British Museum, until 10 October
Issue 350

Aside from being unimpressed at first, I did enjoy this.

Through writings, visuals and music the Akan drum exhibition connects an old, torn, worn-out drum with well known music, while telling the story of the drum and the slaves who travelled with it. The story goes far beyond the development of drumming – it is the development of rhythm.

The drum, found in Virginia, is one of the oldest surviving objects of the transatlantic slave trade. At first it was probably played on plantations to maintain culture in a new environment of slavery. Different slaves came from different ethnic groups and had different languages and traditions. According to the exhibition, drumming incited rebellion on a plantation in the colony of Georgia in 1739 and was subsequently outlawed. It was replaced by hand clapping, body clapping (patting juba), rhythmic dancing and other instruments, like the fiddle.

Slaves on the plantations were not able to speak their own languages. As they could also not practise their own religious traditions, Christianity replaced them but African traditions were incorporated and gospel music developed.

Out of the coming together of African and European styles, along with the banning of drumming on the plantations, developed buck and wing – which involved striking your toe or heel on the floor. This went on to make up one of the components of tap dancing.

The exhibition shows how protest music had links to gospel and spiritual music. The Civil Rights Movement was proclaimed “the greatest singing movement” in the US, and Martin Luther King and Fannie Lou Hamer were supported by freedom songs.

It doesn’t have much to say about jazz and R&B, but describes rock ‘n’ roll as a marriage of other forms – blues, gospel and country with added instruments and electric amplification – that was brought to a wider white audience by white artists doing covers. This parallels the life of the drum itself, which was re-skinned in North America at some point.

All of this makes quite an exciting and interesting story which is written around the edge of the room. It is sad that the exhibition is small, dark, tucked away and, compared to the hundreds of people trying to squeeze in through the door of the museum, not getting much attention.

Projections and music are playing a loop of African drumming, African singing (while showing women street vendors), banjo guitar, jazz piano, Little Richard, Martin Luther King, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown and Beyoncé. This brings the story to life. I’d never before been to a museum where people break into song and dance as they go round.

If you are around central London then you should definitely pop in, but otherwise it would be worth going when there is a talk on. Upcoming sessions, starting at 1.15pm, include “And the beat goes on: time, travel and song” on 11 September and “Interaction between Africans and Native Americans at the time of slavery” on 30 September.

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance