I know I’m dating myself, but anyone remember the drum solo from Wipe-Out, that 1963 hit by the Surfaris? When I heard that, I thought it was just about the coolest thing possible. Next on my “Wow! That’s amazing!” list some 5 years later was the extended drum solo on the Iron Butterfly’s Inna God da Da Vida. Then I got a bit more sophisticated in my young adulthood, listening with awe to Gene Krupa’s opening solo on Benny Goodman’s Sing Sing Sing.
All of this was the great great great grandchild of drumming from Mother Africa, but watered down by some ten parts to one. Tonight more people arrived in Accra for our Orff-Afrique adventure and as a surprise party for his wife Rosemary, our fearless leader Kofi hired a group to drum and dance. As always when I hear a Ghanaian drum ensemble, I feel like I’m witnessing something profoundly complex, nuanced and energetic. This time I listened more with my language-conversation than my mathematical-patterns ears and it made more sense, but was not one ounce less astonishing. The dialogues between the two master drummers were constantly changing and shifting and always in complete accord with each other and surfing on top of the wave of set patterns played by the supporting drums, without, as that old song says, “wiping out.”
Following the language metaphor, the Surfari’s Wipe-Out solo was akin to a toddler speaking his or her first sentences and the Ghanaian drum choir was Shakespeare all the way. But so few folks know a single thing about this highly-evolved art form, including the nuanced and changing dance moves according to the master drummer’s signals, and are content to just randomly shake their booties to a Americanized two-or-three part non-changing groove.
And then there’s the Drum Circle phenomena. Mostly middle-aged middle-class white folks so thrilled to play a few simple patterns that fit together who think they’ve tapped into some ancient vital power of the drums. Well, I don’t want to insult it too deeply as I know and respect some of the teachers and hey, anything that brings music and togetherness and community to people is a good thing, yes? But somehow it feels important for them to know that they’re playing something akin to Hamlet’s Cliff Notes for Preschoolers and at least get a taste of just how intricate and dynamic and complex and worthy of a few lifetimes of study just about any African drum tradition is, particularly in this case, the repertoire of the Ewes.
We remain so woefully ignorant of the intelligence and accomplishment and highly-developed cultures of the African continent, having a hard time shaking out those Tarzan movies images of laughable primitives. But if you really tried to play successfully—and sing and dance— a single piece in the Ewe repertoire, at the right tempo and for the hour or two of non-stop playing-dancing, it would be impossible to come away with anything but the highest respect for a culture that could reach this level of complexity, virtuosity, listening, responding. It simply boggles the mind. Some remarkable jazz drummers can weave stories at high levels of technique in their drum solos akin to these conversational masterpieces, but I truly believe that they would be just one of the crowd here, just as Michael Jackson would be had he jumped into the dancing circle. And I find that extraordinary.
So this my little attempt here to “wipe-out” the ignorance surrounding this continent and inspire your curiosity. Not that you could now listen to one of these drum choirs and understand what’s going on. Like anything unfamiliar, it probably would just sound like a lot of random beating to you. You would need to be guided as to what to listen for and of course, how to play, sing and dance so that it begins to make sense. And that’s why you need to start saving money now for “Orff-Afrique 2020!”